In 1985, Brian Eno released a CD called Thursday Afternoon. The hourlong work was the soundtrack to a video piece, a project notable for two uses of technology. One, the video was meant to be viewed on a television placed on its side (there’s a YouTube rip out there that requires you to rotate your laptop). And with its 61-minute runtime, Thursday Afternoon was promoted as the first piece to be created specifically for compact disc. Before the arrival of the CD a couple of years before, works of such duration had to be spread across sides. And since Thursday Afternoon was an immersive ambient piece in the classic Eno mold, the idea that you could absorb it uninterrupted in one hour-long session was important.
Thursday Afternoon seemed to drift in place; it was music that seemed not so much “played” as “allowed to exist.” Its structure brought to mind wind chimes, as a handful of individually pleasing elements– a few notes of piano, some light synth treatments– knocked around the space arbitrarily but seemed to benefit from the lack of order. Eno’s first true ambient work, Discreet Music, from 1975, was his first example of the form; there, he generated a handful of electronic synth tones and allowed them to cycle through chance patterns (the title track from that album also pushed the limits of technology, with over 30 minutes of audio on a single LP side). And now, Eno’s new solo album, first created for an art installation, is another. Lux consists of four tracks spread across 75 minutes, but you don’t really know where one ends and another begins and it doesn’t matter. Like those earlier works, a small number of sounds that complement each other are set loose in a space and allowed to move around in different configurations, with subtle patterns sometimes emerging from the randomness. The most prominent of these sounds is single piano notes played quietly, which further connects the work to Thursday Afternoon in the Eno lineage. But where the 1985 album felt submerged and ghostly, Lux is clear and bright, with the crisp higher harmonics allowed to come through.
The other Eno work that comes to mind with Lux isn’t a CD, but yet another boundary-pushing use of technology, and that’s his iPhone app Bloom. The basic elements of light, thin drone mixed with piano notes that strike, decay, and play against other notes is also the central idea of Bloom. The danger with a program like Bloom, where Eno creates a generative system that allows the listener to make his or her own ambient pieces, is that it raises the question: What purpose does the artist himself serve at that point? He’s possibly invented himself out of existence. But if Lux does nothing else, it suggests that there’s a reason Eno’s name has become synonymous with “ambient” and why his thoughts on the music remain the gold standard.
Thursday Afternoon was assembled to accompany a “visual painting” and Eno studied art, and it’s best to think of his music using the language of design– the colors used, their proportions, how they are laid out and balanced in the space. Eno is brilliant at getting things just so. So Lux has a mix of space and sound that feels right; no one element dominates or becomes grating over the course of 75 minutes, even though all repeat over and over. Piano notes linger, there are light plucks on what could be a harp, and everything is bathed in Deep Listening-levels of reverb. While it accomplishes Eno’s long-stated goal of changing the mood and feel of a room, “tinting” the atmosphere, it refuses to enforce any feeling in particular.
It’s easy to forget that Eno’s ambient work doesn’t always fit his strict definition. Music for Films sounds like it– it’s very suggestive of particular feeling– and the brilliant Ambient 4: On Land conjures an entire landscape, one filled with swamps and strange creatures. But Lux is squarely in the tradition of music that can be ignored but holds up (sometimes just barely) to closer scrutiny. It turns any living room into an art installation where interesting things may or may not happen, and its lack of direction and specificity is in its own way brave. Sometimes it’s hard to not say anything; Brian Eno is doing just that, once again, and beautifully.