Brian Eno — Thursday Afternoon

Ambient masterpiece. For sure.

An ‘ambient masterpiece’ ― but what does that mean exactly? Can something with so little regular music be thought of as essential, masterful music? Of course it can ― trust in Brian.  

Writing about ambient music presents a mild conundrum: there’s actually very little to write about. Might as well wax lyrical about Lou’s Metal Machine Music for all the twangy metaphors or onomatopoeic riffs one can draw from it. But in the case of Thursday Afternoon one can actually formulate relevant things to say; one can talk about Eno and His Strategies in collaboration with Lanois, and the new CD format for which it was mixed, and the video project for which it was the soundtrack. {For the technical review details I’d suggest looking up the album’s Wikipedia entry.}

I’d start by saying that Thursday Afternoon is the peak expression of Eno’s ambient aesthetic and methodology. It’s his best ambient album: a sonic idea of detailed, layered background music given the full stretch of CD canvas. It runs just over 60 minutes. It’s calm, sonically uneventful, and ‘an even-textured, spacious and contemplative piece in which several musical events appear and recur more or less regularly’ according to Eno’s liner notes. It is, according to his dictum, eminently ignorable and yet curiously detailed down to the subsonic level.

There’s a piano riff that’s been slowed down and repeated at staggered intervals; there’s a calm sea of synth washes that shimmer and roll like curtains of light. There’s a warm modal sense to the music that never clamours for attention; and it is certainly calm and gentle in a non-pretentious way.

Technically, that’s all there is to be said. As a work of art it has a subtle, low-key and delicate and almost painterly beauty. As music it is dangerously close to the fairy end of New Age dreck. As conceptual gambit it begs to be ridiculed (after all, one man’s formal experimentation is another’s pure surface). But it is still his best ambient disc, and one of the great pinnacles of the genre. Actually, strike that ― there are no peaks or pinnacles in ambient music, only wide open spaces and valleys. Ambient doesn’t get purer or clearer than this, and it’s of a calibre, a subjectivity far above so much other ambient music. It succeeds in execution.

And, it is an album I want everyone to have. It does something to me. It might have something in common with the abovementioned dreck because it seems to replicate the brain’s alpha-wave frequencies ― surely by design. But in a broader sense it is music on a frequency that I can tune into very easily. It has something of Miles’ In a Silent Way in that these musical frequencies seem utterly congruent with the act of thinking, with the modality of thought. It gives a cerebral buzz that’s entirely in keeping with the texture-driven focus of the music, in the sense that you can listen and give Thursday Afternoon as much or as little attention as you want and the music never becomes boring, an endlessly repeated blah of space and sound. It has enough detail and randomised change to keep it interesting and still be eminently ignorable. It is a comfortable place for the mind to inhabit, and absorb, and think about the act of consciousness. And it’s about as far away from regular song structure values as you could hope to get while still feeling like music. Cue the meditation master with his ponytail.

It works best when played at low volume ― it becomes a part of the room. It sits at the periphery of attention and yet you’re aware of it, thinking similarly, slowly permutating. And so it is like meditation in a way. This master is (famously) bald.

You can treat it like a joke or an arty wank, but I think it’s one of the great explorations of what’s conceptually possible in music ― and where music crosses into pure subjectivity. It is pure texture and spatial analogy, and yet strangely engaging. Anything with such a positive affect can’t be all crap and pretentiousness. It works as a finished piece of art, framed and exhibited.

And the last seven minutes to fade-out present the most uncanny analogue of a setting sun ever committed to tape. The sense of fading light, of imminent rest…

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor.

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