Musings on Brian Eno & Ambient Music

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Since I’ve been a fan of Brian Eno for a while, mostly for his work as a producer on a series of subsequent albums by Talking Heads from 1978-1980 (More Songs about Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light- all which are essential listening), I found the portion about his role in the development of musical styles interesting.

“In comparing generative music to classical music, Eno says that classical music ‘specifies an entity in advance and then builds it,’ unlike generative music that ‘specifies a set of rules and then lets them make the thing.’ (113)

This description of generative music resembles the fifteenth century concept of canon, as described in Seaton’s Ideas and Styles text

“In this case the term does not mean a round-like composition, as it generally does today, but goes back to its original denotation and simply means a rule or instruction for realizing several parts out of only one that is notated… For example, the canon could tell the performer to sing a given line backward at the same time it was sung forward… The only limit on the possibilities was the ingenuity of the composer.” (113)

Thus it may be accurate to describe ambient music as less a rhetorical discipline, and more a scientific one in somewhat the tradition of pre-rationalism western musical style.

Duckworth continues, “Generative music [is] unpredictable, whereas classical music is predictable; unrepeatable, as opposed to repeatable; and implicitly unfinished, as opposed to the ‘Finished’ classical score” (24). I find the resemblance of these concepts to thematic elements of Attali’s Noise (repetition/order/disorder) to be interesting. Could Eno’s approach to the production of music be related to what Attali described for the future of musicking?

A last thought on ambient music, comes from a composer whose work appears on the cover of Seaton’s text (but is mentioned nowhere inside), Gyorgy Ligeti. The composer’s experiments in ‘Micropolyphony’ are most famously demonstrated in his large-scale orchestral work, Atmospheres (1960), which opens with a massive tone cluster containing all pitches chromatically across a span of several octaves. A description of Atmospheres by Harald Kaufmann’s illuminates how the work anticipated the practice of ambient and generative music through use of a traditional sound medium.

“"The idea behind the work for orchestra 'Atmosphères' is as follows: a texture of sound is to be developed that will demonstrate the phenomenon of acoustically standing still. The old kind of thematically developing music as well as the structural music that everyone has been talking about since the 1950s are both defined by the interchange of acoustic events and pauses. In 'Atmosphères' this alternation is virtually cancelled. Event and pause occur conceptually at the dame time, while, as in the atmosphere, a constant, uninterrupted vibration occurs, but remains merely as background, in front of which nothing happens - as little, in fact, as in actual pauses. This idea is fixed acoustically right at the beginning of the work: with a blurred complex of sound, a cluster, that appears to be stationary. And yet within it there is movement, as of breathing; the volume diminishes like a breath streaming out and tending to die away. Moreover, it reveals a kind of web-pattern: in the middle it is fairly dense, while the intensity of sound tapers off in the low and high registers. The spatial concept of sound which at the beginning is rather vague is therefore specified with the greatest accuracy in a very detailed score and static sound is actually composed with great precision.” - (

Fun stuff.

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