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 tangy metaphors and 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 musical strategies, his collaborative nous and lateral thinking, and we can talk about the then new CD format for which it was conceived and mixed, and the video project for which it was the soundtrack. {For the technical details I’d suggest looking up the album’s Wikipedia entry. But the ReverbMachine has a great expository essay that unpacks the album’s composition brilliantly.}

I’d start by saying that Thursday Afternoon is the peak expression of Eno’s ambient aesthetic and methodology. Where a calm subjective soundscape is  naturally evoked by what are essentially loops of different duration and a drone or two which all unfold/emerge organically. Or to put it another way, it’s an expression of Eno’s generative music method: where basic compositional seed-loops grow into cerebrally engaging and complex, organic sound-music.

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’ as per Eno’s liner notes. It is, according to his dictum, eminently ignorable, and yet curiously detailed down to the subsonic level.

There’s a sprinkle of piano notes that’ve been slowed down, treated and repeated at staggered intervals; there’s calm synth washes that shimmer and roll like curtains of light. There’s a warm modal sense to the music that never clamours for attention. There’s no musical movement or harmonic development, there’s no counterpoint or crescendo or strong melodies. No rhythm or changes.

It’s as minimal as music can be and still be musical; yet it’s as purely textured and subtly variable as music can be. Hence the descriptive conundrum.

As a work of art it has a subtle, low-key, delicate painterly beauty. As ‘music’ it is dangerously close to the fluffy end of New Age dreck. 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. Thursday Afternoon is of a calibre, a subjectivity so far above much ambient music.

Even if you made your own assemblage of looped piano notes over a textured drone, even if you followed the generative formula, I still don’t think you’d capture the residual vibe of the track, the subjective immersion and evocation, the gestalt. Naturally, because it takes an Eno sensibility to inform and imbue it.

Which, again, is odd: if there’s so little composed music in it (ie, from an obvious ‘composer’), yet then how can it retain the imprint of Brian’s artistic subjectivity…

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 ― possibly 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 frequencies seem utterly congruent with the act of thought, with a modality of mind and the space for cerebration. 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. 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.

It works best when played at low volume (ie it’s mixed for quietness, and, when you add in the Lanois factor, it’s mixed very organically) ― at a volume where it becomes part of the room. It sits at the periphery of attention and yet you’re aware of it, thinking similarly, slowly permutating and sensing change. And so, like meditation in a way.

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 it’s strangely engaging and welcoming. It works as a finished piece of art, framed and exhibited and constant.

And the last six minutes to the fade-out present an uncanny analogue of the sun setting. The sense of fading light, of imminent rest…

This article first appeared in Song Logic.

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor. Writer. Secret bass player.

One thought on “Brian Eno — Thursday Afternoon”

  1. This is a gorgeous appreciation of a gorgeous piece. I listen to this in the middle of the night and I sort of have a Thursday ritual with trying to make time for it. I think you are right about the brain waves with which it syncs… or does it summon them? Ambient music so often conjures landscape for me. Maybe that is a form of synesthesia. And I think I do hear birds in here. They are probably hallucinated. But this music or these sounds tip to hallucination. I also think we are hearing water dripping throughout this, again part of a landscape that is rather quiet. The whole piece feels ecological (and echological) to me.


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