Brian Eno has been a busy guy as of late. He recently unveiled his most recent (note: not his only) iPad app called Scape, created a building-sized light and sound show in Rio De Jeneiro called “77 Million Paintings” and within the same year he managed to produce a 75-minute, 12-part, four-movement ambient composition called Lux. Oh and Lux actually began its life as a sound art installation for the Great Gallery of the Palace of Venaria in Turin, Italy. All this and in spite of how thin he might appear to be spread, this pillar of the ambient music community is at the top of his game.
The original press release and the promo material are sparse on the details of the original art installation which inspired the work, but it did turn out to be very relevant. According to the exhibit information, “The sound installation created by Brian Eno explores the possible aesthetics offered by new technology in relation to the ambient, with a series of musical movements which stratify into each other.” I believe that you may need a degree from a prestigious art school to parse (or tolerate) the structure of the first part of that sentence. The last part, however, if taken by itself, turns out to be very indicative of the sound structure of Lux.
Like any good sound engineer, Eno worked with the physical building and speaker placement to create a composition that was unique to and optimum for the Great Gallery itself. When you walk through a gallery you take your time exploring, immersing yourself and hopefully, appreciating. The sound involved takes on form and a presence around you if only loaned by the structure of the walls and the way it reverberates. This record needs to be approached the same way — there are no songs. Like any good artist pushing the boundaries of his medium, Eno does away with the easily digestible progression through brief poems of sounds and opts instead for four movements, barely distinguishable to the impatient ear, but demanding to be taken seriously. You have to experience it as though you were lying down watching clouds pass overhead. Though the slow movement understates it, they promise to rain down, fracture the light or block out the sun as they mix and roll over each other so slow as to be almost imperceptible. LUX progresses in exactly the same manner. Even the word progresses seems inappropriate. It would be more accurate to say it hangs there, shifting and morphing in on itself without repetition but all the while managing to stay familiar. Brian Eno is an experienced and mature producer at this stage of his career and that is evident in every note of this record. Though the instruments are few, the placement of their sounds seems very deliberate.
“LUX 1”, begins with sparse piano notes barely teasing at a melody which never arises. The distance between notes seems placed just far enough for them to reach out to one another but dissolve over light strings and pads without quite making contact. “Lux” is the Latin word for “light” and the first movement is just that — an easy entry point which serves to place you mentally where you need to be for the next three pieces. Grab a cup of something warm and comforting and relax.
There’s a brief silence between “LUX 1” and “LUX 2”, but given the pacing of the record you could quite easily overlook it and pass through without noticing. What does become apparent quite quickly, however, is the gradual change in mood. Where the first movement was a generally hopeful and light-hearted sound, the second one introduces more plucked or finger-picked strings. There’s a certain friction applied to some of the same instruments here that wasn’t present in the first movement and it casts the ambiance in a slightly dimmer light.
“LUX 3” does something which really had an impact on me. Speaking of the record as a single listening experience of 75 minutes, at the 45:30 mark the track begins to soar to a crescendo and then fade out just like a traditional single “song” might. It seems for a moment to fall into the sort of pattern we’re used to which is surprising given that you’re only midway through the third movement. When things slowly begin to fade to silence and just as it appears to be over sounds already at full volume overlap and come in again as though it were all beginning again. The same thing happens again at around 50:30 close to the end of the movement and the attention to detail on the mix in both parts can’t be understated. This “should I stay or should I go” sound mechanism made for some of the most interesting and memorable bits of the movement.
“LUX 4” surprises us with a return to the same easy feeling that introduced the record but with the subtle difference that the notes are interlaced, following a discernible path before finally, and with an even slower grace then before the entire record fades with an unusually but comfortably long ramp down to silence.
This is not dinner music, mood music or even music for a rainy day. You could argue that ambient music as a genre is best left to art exhibits and public spaces to be appreciated in moments of presence. In fact, I share the distinction of having previewed it early with a very limited audience — the patrons and staff of Japan’s Haneda airport — some of whom may have missed their flights while listening to it. The record is featured there at the entrance to the airport, the bar and several listening stations throughout. This may seem an odd venue for the debut of a new ambient record but consider the metaphor the airport offers. You’re passing through a structure and in spite of that structure being almost perfectly still, it succeeds in really moving you.