Brian Eno: The Master of Ambient Music

Brian Eno

He is one of the most influential and innovative figures in popular music. He is a musician, composer, producer, visual artist, and activist who has contributed to various genres such as ambient, rock, pop, and electronica. He is also known for his collaborations with other artists such as David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay, and many more.

brian eno 1974
AVRO, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

Early Life and Education

Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno was born on 15 May 1948 in the village of Melton, Suffolk, England. He was the son of William Arnold Eno, a postal worker, and clock and watch repairer, and Maria Alphonsine Eno, a Belgian national. He had two brothers, Roger and David.

Eno was interested in music from an early age. He learned to play the piano at the age of four and later taught himself to play the guitar, bass guitar, and synthesizer. He also experimented with tape recorders and sound manipulation.

Eno studied painting and experimental music at the Ipswich Civic College art school in the mid-1960s, and then at Winchester School of Art. He was influenced by artists such as John Cage, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Cornelius Cardew. He also joined various musical groups such as The Black Aces, The Merchant Taylors, and Maxwell Demon.

Roxy Music and Solo Career

Roxy Music -TopPop 1973
AVRO, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1971, Eno joined the glam rock group Roxy Music as its synthesizer player. He added electronic textures and effects to the band’s sound, as well as backing vocals and occasional lead vocals. He recorded two albums with the group: Roxy Music (1972) and For Your Pleasure (1973). He left the band in 1973 due to creative differences with singer Bryan Ferry.

Eno then embarked on a solo career, releasing a series of albums that explored various styles of pop, rock, and electronic music. His first solo album was Here Come the Warm Jets (1974), which featured guest musicians such as Robert Fripp, John Cale, and Phil Manzanera.

The album was a critical success and included songs such as “Needles in the Camel’s Eye”, “Baby’s on Fire” and “Some of Them Are Old”. His second album was Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), which was inspired by a Chinese opera and featured songs such as “The Fat Lady of Limbourg”, “Third Uncle” and “China My China”. His third album was Another Green World (1975), which marked a transition from pop songs to more instrumental and ambient pieces. The album included songs such as “St. Elmo’s Fire”, “Golden Hours” and “Spirits Drifting”.

His fourth album was Before and After Science (1977), which combined pop songs with ambient interludes. The album included songs such as “No One Receiving”, “Backwater” and “By This River”.

Ambient Music and Oblique Strategies

In the mid-1970s, Eno coined the term “ambient music” to describe a type of music that creates an atmosphere or mood rather than a foreground melody or rhythm. He said that ambient music should be “as ignorable as it is interesting”.

Eno’s first ambient album was Discreet Music (1975), which consisted of one long piece generated by a synthesizer and a tape delay system. It was followed by Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978), which featured four pieces composed for specific locations in an airport terminal. It was one of the first albums to be labeled as ambient music.

Eno continued to produce ambient albums throughout his career, such as Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (1980) with Harold Budd, Ambient 3: Day of Radiance (1980) with Laraaji, Ambient 4: On Land (1982), Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (1983) with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno, The Pearl (1984) with Harold Budd again, Thursday Afternoon (1985), Neroli (1993), The Shutov Assembly (1992), The Drop (1997), Lux (2012), Reflection (2017) and Mixing Colours (2020) with Roger Eno again.

In addition to ambient music, Eno also created a set of cards called Oblique Strategies in collaboration with artist Peter Schmidt in 1975. Oblique Strategies are a deck of cards featuring aphorisms or suggestions intended to spur creative thinking. They can be used by anyone who is stuck in a creative problem or wants to try something new. Some examples of Oblique Strategies are:

– Use an old idea.
– State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
– What would your closest friend do?
– Do nothing for as long as possible.
– Work at a different speed.

Production Work and Collaborations

Brian Eno is one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the past half-century, and he’s also a prolific producer and collaborator.

Eno started his career as a member of Roxy Music, a glam rock band that blended art rock, pop, and electronic elements. He played keyboards and synthesizers and also contributed to the band’s distinctive sound with his tape loops and treatments. He left the band in 1973 after two albums, citing creative differences and a desire to pursue his own projects.

He then embarked on a solo career that explored various genres and styles, from experimental rock to ambient music. He also collaborated with other musicians, such as Robert Fripp, David Bowie, John Cale, and Harold Budd. He developed a method of producing music called “oblique strategies”, which involved using cards with random instructions to spark creativity and overcome blocks. He also coined the term “ambient music” to describe his atmospheric compositions that create a mood or environment rather than a foreground melody.

One of his most famous production work is the Berlin Trilogy, a series of albums by David Bowie that were recorded in West Berlin in the late 1970s. The albums are Low, Heroes, and Lodger, and they feature a blend of rock, electronic, and world music influences. Eno helped Bowie create a new sound that was experimental and innovative, using synthesizers, drum machines, and guitar effects. He also contributed to the songwriting and played various instruments on the albums.

Another notable collaboration is with U2, a rock band that Eno has worked with since 1984. He produced or co-produced some of their most successful albums, such as The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, Zooropa, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and The Unforgettable Fire. He helped the band expand their musical horizons and experiment with different sounds and genres. He also played keyboards and sang backing vocals on some of their songs.

Eno has also worked with other artists from different backgrounds and genres, such as Talking Heads, Coldplay, Depeche Mode, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, Grace Jones, James Blake, Damon Albarn, and many more. He has also composed music for films, TV shows, video games, art installations, and environmental projects. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential and versatile musicians of all time.

Visual Art and Installations

Eno has also been active in the field of visual art since his student days. He has created various works that use light, color, sound, and movement to create immersive environments or installations. Some of his notable works include:

77 Million Paintings (2006): This is a generative software program that creates endless variations of abstract images that are projected onto screens or walls. The images are accompanied by ambient soundscapes that are also generated by the program.

Luminous (2009): This is an installation that covers the sails of the Sydney Opera House with colorful patterns that change over time. The installation is synchronized with a soundtrack composed by Eno.

– Reflections (2016): This is an installation that illuminates the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory with light and sound. The installation is inspired by the history of radio astronomy and the exploration of space.

.

Equipment

Brian Eno is one of the most influential and innovative music producers of all time, but what kind of equipment and instruments does he use to create his unique soundscapes?

One of the most iconic pieces of equipment that Brian Eno used in his early solo albums was the EMS VCS3, a portable analog synthesizer that had three oscillators, a noise generator, a ring modulator, a filter, and an envelope shaper.

The VCS3 was capable of producing a wide range of sounds, from drones to bleeps to sweeps. Brian Eno used it to create atmospheric textures and melodies on albums such as Here Come the Warm Jets (1974), Another Green World (1975), and Before and After Science (1977).

EMS_Synthi_(VCS_3)
EMS_Synthi_(VCS_3)

Another instrument that Brian Eno is known for using is the electric piano, especially the Yamaha CP-70. This was an acoustic grand piano that had pickups and an amplifier built-in, making it suitable for live performance and recording.

Brian Eno used it to create warm and lush chords and arpeggios on albums such as Music for Airports (1978), Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), and The Pearl (1984). 

While this keyboard is now unavailable Yamaha does a lot of other very good keyboards

Yamaha CP-70

Yamaha DX7: This is a digital FM synthesizer that was very popular in the 1980s. It has 16 voices, 32 algorithms, and 6 operators per voice. It can produce a wide range of sounds, from electric pianos and bells to basses and pads.

Eno has used it for creating melodic and harmonic elements, as well as for experimenting with FM synthesis. He used it on albums such as Thursday Afternoon, Nerve Net, The Shutov Assembly, and Spinner.

 

Yamaha DX7

– Korg M1: This is a digital workstation synthesizer that was also very popular in the 1980s and 1990s.

It has 16 voices, 8-part multitimbrality, 4 MB of PCM samples, and a built-in sequencer. It can produce realistic acoustic sounds, such as pianos, strings, guitars, drums, etc., as well as synthetic sounds, such as pads, leads, basses, etc.

Eno has used it for creating rhythmic and melodic patterns, as well as for sampling and manipulating sounds. He used it on albums such as Wrong Way Up (with John Cale), Neroli (Thinking Music Part IV)

 

Korg M1

Brian Eno is also famous for his use of tape loops, which are segments of magnetic tape that are spliced together to form a continuous loop.

By varying the speed, direction, and length of the loops, Brian Eno could create complex and evolving soundscapes that changed over time. He used tape loops to create ambient music that was designed to blend with the environment and enhance the mood.

Some examples of his tape loop albums are Discreet Music (1975), Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978), and Ambient 4: On Land (1982).

today it is much easier to get into looping with one of the many Loop Pedals now available

revox tape machine
revox tape machine

One of the most recent instruments that Brian Eno has used is the iPad, which he considers to be a powerful tool for creating generative music.

Generative music is music that is created by a system that follows a set of rules or algorithms, rather than by direct human intervention. Brian Eno has used apps such as Bloom, Trope, and Scape to create ambient music that is constantly changing and never repeats itself.

He has released several albums using these apps, such as Reflection (2017), Mixing Colours (2020), and Luminous (2021).

Ipad in the studio
Ipad in the studio

Where to find Some music:

FAQ for Brian Eno

Q: When and where was he born?
A: He was born on 15 May 1948 in Melton, Suffolk, England. His full name is Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno.

Q: How did he start his musical career?
A: He studied painting and experimental music at art school in the 1960s and joined the glam rock band Roxy Music as a synthesizer player in 1971. He left the band in 1973 and began his solo career with albums such as Here Come the Warm Jets (1974) and Another Green World (1975).

Q: What is ambient music and how did he create it?
A: Ambient music is a genre of music that creates an atmosphere or mood rather than a melody or rhythm. Eno coined the term “ambient music” and pioneered the genre with albums such as Discreet Music (1975) and Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978). He also developed the concept of “generative music”, which uses algorithms or systems to create endless variations of sound.

Q: What are some of his most famous collaborations?
A: Eno has worked with many artists as a producer, co-writer, or performer. Some of his most notable collaborations include:

– The Berlin Trilogy with David Bowie (Low, Heroes and Lodger, 1977-1979)
– The Talking Heads albums More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979) and Remain in Light (1980)
– The U2 albums The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991), and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)
– The albums No Pussyfooting (1973) and Evening Star (1975) with Robert Fripp
– The albums My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) and Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008) with David Byrne
– The albums Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983) and For All Mankind (2019) with Daniel Lanois

Q: What are some of his other projects and interests?
A: Eno is also involved in various other fields such as sound installations, film, writing, activism, and education. Some of his other projects and interests include:

– Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards with creative prompts that he co-created with Peter Schmidt in 1975
– The Long Now Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes long-term thinking and projects such as the 10,000-Year Clock
– 77 Million Paintings, a generative art installation that creates endless combinations of images and sounds
– Reflection, an app that generates ambient music based on the time of day and location of the user