So here I am in 2013 writing a blog that’s maybe 50% about ambient music, give or take, acting like some big authority on the subject or whatever. But go back to 2003 and my knowledge of this genre was sketchy at best. I knew I liked long, pretty, textured pieces of music, and some of my favourites included Robert Fripp’s soundscapes, among various similar offshoots from other genres of music. However, ambient as a genre had not really entered my consciousness for some reason. My musical diet was primarily progressive rock, early music and folk music of various kinds.
We don’t always remember what got us into something that eventually became of great importance to us, but for me there are a few touchstones — albums like Robert Rich’s Calling Down the Sky, Steve Roach’s Structures From Silence, and a few others. And of course once I discovered the existence of netlabels, most of which focus on electronic music, my mind was opened wider and wider.
But the one that really did it for me was the album whereof I speak right now, The Pearl. I think it’s fair to say that Eno’s music is an entry point for many people into the expansive genre of ambient, with all of its myriad subgenres. That of course is because he’s often credited with “inventing” the genre and is genuinely famous, having produced U2, been in Roxy Music, and made a couple of pre-ambient experimental albums with Robert Fripp that were quite influential. Hell, in 1989 I used to make trips downtown to buy used vinyl, and I had the entire Roxy Music collection (worth a post on its own someday). So I was aware of Eno, and I knew he had made something called “ambient” music that was comprised of long and repetitive pieces. But it took a while for me to investigate. Another album I bought around 1990 was The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which I owned for about 10 years before even listening to it! And now it’s probably my favourite rock album.
I don’t quite remember what made me decide to start trying out Music for Airports etc., but I guess I did decide to pick up a few albums and see what was what. In that first batch, The Pearl was the one that grabbed me by all the lobes of my brain, and I still play it about once a month to this day. It’s the second such collaboration they did, the first being The Plateaux of Mirrors (1980).
Eno should of course be no stranger to any of you, and Budd is a big name in his own right. His music is primarily based around simple piano compositions accented with subtle electronics. Over a long career, he’s recorded on his own and with myriad collaborators such as Eno, Robin Guthrie and John Foxx. Each of these recordings features his hallmark, a gift for simple but remarkably evocative piano pieces based around repetitive figures that somehow leave you wanting more instead of feeling bored. And each collaborator has brought his own ambient gifts to the party, resulting in subtle differences.
This album’s been so influential on my thinking that I’m currently recording an album with a pianist to try my own take on this kind of stuff. We’ll see how it turns out.
When you listen to The Pearl, you are amazed, as I’ve said, that pieces so simple could be so absorbing and so lovely. There’s a distinctly autumnal feel to this album, so the opener, “Late October” (which it is now as I type this!), with its background of echoing sounds, like ambiance carried on a cool, leafy breeze, is a perfect intro. Eno’s distinctive electronics match and echo the piano, accompanied by some cricket-like sounds on “A Stream With Bright Fish“.
The pieces are not all identical in instrumentation; “Against the Sky” features a keyboard that’s more like Rhodes than a piano. Some pieces are very sparse (“An Echo of Night“), while others have a slightly romantic feel (“Foreshadowed“). The closer, “Still Return“, is the most melancholy, darkest piece, as though night has descended on a fall day and a layer of frost is growing on the grass.
I’ve discussed with other reviewers how difficult it is to describe ambient music in an interesting way, or to capture how it makes you feel, without sounding a bit twee. So be it, I guess. For me, I remember very well how this album really brought it home that music could be satisfying by aiming for simple beauty, allowing the listener to appreciate it by either meditatively focusing on it or by playing it in his environment and allowing the mood to sink into his subconcious. Years later, and now actively promoting ambient, I have Eno and Budd to thank for starting me on this journey.
Since there’s a comments section below, if you come across what I’ve written here, I’d love to hear about the artist or artists or albums that were your gateway to a lifetime of benefiting from the wonder of ambient music!
The Future Sound of London – Lifeforms
This was the first album of ambient music I owned and my gateway into the genre. This happened around 1997 or 1998. I guess it’s an odd starting point considering that the album has an incredibly dynamic presence throughout. Many tracks might be considered strictly electronica by today’s standard definition of ambient. Even this album was quite the jump for me at the time, as I was listening to techno, beat driven electronica and rock music. Don’t think I would have picked up this gem at the time if FSOL’s “Dead Cities” hadn’t been such a revelation for my ears. So glad to have had the pleasure of meeting the soundscape. Thanks FSOL.
I love that album! In fact, I can cite it in much the same way. Dead Cities is awesome too. As is their later Amorphous Androgynous stuff, if you like hippie things, which I do.
This album was one of the works that got me into ambient music many moons ago. I was living in a house with some Buddhist fellers and they played this a lot.
Ha, yes, I can attest to its practical Buddhist applications.
The Pearl is my favorite Eno related album. Although I didn’t discover it until the later 90’s. My entry into ambient was through loving the background tracks in movies – the lingering ones… and David Sylvian’s solo projects. I still didn’t know it was called “ambient” yet – but I loved it. I also loved the industrial albums where they’d go instrumental on a track and stretch things out a bit. And I loved a lot of 60’s jazz. Add all those together (and 500 other influences) and I eventually got heavily into “ambient”. 🙂
Interesting, John! Yes, soundtracks would do the same thing. I like Sylvian too. In fact, the last track on Sylvian/Fripp’s collaborative album was a favourite, and I had no idea it was “ambient”! And it’s true, the Miles album I was most attracted to as a kid was In a Silent Way, which is damn near ambient.
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i own this album on vinyl and it is in my pantheon of all time cherished pieces of art. i really haven’t heard another album ever that approaches it…maybe the nuno canavarro plux quba album but that’s stretching it far.