A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary
(Faber & Faber, 2021)
In his own introduction to Faber & Faber’s new, beautiful 25th anniversary edition of A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary (the hardbound book has two sewn-in bookmarks and the “Appendices” section is printed on paper that has a delicate salmon color), Brian Eno wrote out a list of words that are new in the vernacular since the initial 1996 publication. With one word per line, the list spans nearly 13 pages, and includes: 9/11, alt-right, Amazon, barista, binge-watch, Black Lives Matter, cisgender, dark money, doomscrolling, emoticon, flash mob, ghost (verb), helicopter parenting, iPod, MSM, paywall, podcast, ransomware, SARS, sexting, snowflake (not the substance), truthiness, two-factor authentication, Uber, vaping, WikiLeaks, Wikipedia, and Zooming. La plus ça change.
And the more things stay the same. Specifically, ambient music, the first word that comes to mind in association with Eno’s career and public presence. Ambient itself connotes stasis, music that is as much sound as an abstract formal design and artifice, music that eschews a defined beginning and end, that doesn’t count the seconds as they tick away on the clock, marking the gradual aging of each of us and the universe as a whole. One useful definition is that music is a combination of repetition and change through time, while ambient music is about a non-changing space that sits outside of time.
Eno became an essential figure in the arts (his contributions to visual arts and technology are just as salient as the music he has made or been part of, and his writings include the important essay, “The Studio as Composition Tool,” originally a lecture he delivered at the 1979 New Music America Festival), around the same time that he made Ambient 1: Music For Airports, itself the subject of a 2019 monograph by John T. Lysaker in the Oxford University Press’s “Keynotes” series. The album introduced the concept and possible sound of ambient music to the general public, and opened up a space where experimental compositional techniques and a non-Western aesthetic and view of time could meet with pop music fans and musicians.
Beyond any critical evaluation of the album—which, after its immense and irreversible impact, can now be no more than a discussion of taste—it is the pop culture context that is essential. Ambient music itself had been around for decades, as Eno would readily point out, whether it was the avant la lettre works of Erik Satie and John Cage, or experiments like Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In a Room (1969), Dennis Johnson's November (1959), or Harley Gaber’s The Winds Rise in the North (1976), which were too obscure or specialized to have had any noticeable influence. Eno, via his membership in Roxy Music and solo albums like Here Come the Warm Jets (1974) and Another Green World (1975), was already something of a pop star, he had a public audience and was connected via musical association to a larger one. He took ambient music out of the electronic and experimental studios and put it into living rooms, dorm rooms, car stereos.
The liner notes essay Eno wrote for Music for Airports is included here as part of the “Ambient Music” chapter in the Appendices. From the album, Eno refers to Muzak and the concept of music specifically meant to be part of the background environment. But the most interesting part of his definition has less to do with the quality of the music than that of the process, and his identification of technology associated with music production as one of the characteristics of the genre. “With Ambient Music,” he explains, “I wanted to suggest that” the engineering and production side of studio recording work “was actually one of the distinguishing characteristics of new music.”
This is an important, defining point. This was not music made from the electronic music studios of the universities or Bell Labs, but from the commercial recording process, which included not just pop albums but music designed for Muzak. That connection with Music for Airports is important, as an airport is just the kind of capitalist, bourgeois space for which Muzak was manufactured, and Eno embraced this in a way that was both subtle and complete.
And this is where A Year With Swollen Appendices is most insightful. The Appendices are informative, short essays through which Eno presents his thinking and values. The diary part of the book, for the most part, is informative in a different way. For most of it, it is indeed a diary, a record of Eno’s daily activities and thoughts about the same, with little insight into any kind of creative process or philosophy, other than a few jottings of brainstorms about book ideas and such. Instead, it’s a portrait of the man as he is; he loves his daughters and his wife, gladly collaborates with his peers, enjoys travel, wine, cooking, gardening, worries about exercise and aging.
The music making he describes is almost entirely production jobs, working a bit with David Bowie, the band JAMES, and U2. He works with software, develops an art installation, but these are all parts of his life, a natural balance between the bourgeois pleasures of life and the bohemian, creative imperative. As evolutionary as his work is, it’s not revolutionary, radical, avant-garde. There’s no reason it must be so, its quality speaks for itself, and extending something like music into the fabric of everyday life in a non-consumerist way is a considerable good.
Music for Airports does suggest radical possibilities, revolution, but that’s not been Eno’s path. He opened a door from a pop music space to a different world, and did step through it, but then found himself in the right place just on the other side, leaving others to follow myriad branching paths into and through this unknown territory. The diary makes clear that his taste drives his creative judgment, and at the end of the day, he’s a pop musician. He appears an artist who makes what he wants, and if it means less to a listener than that listener might want, well, that’s not Eno’s concern or responsibility. Nor should it be. Eno’s music seeks a kind of comfort that can be thought of as bourgeois, but also a stillness and long-duration focus that are very much against the grain of contemporary media and materialism.
His deepest enduring influence seems to be on other music makers, those who followed him through that door he opened and kept going, trail-blazing the paths of the aleatoric possibilities of analog media and technology and generative processes. These other musicians, including Chihei Hatakeyama, Kara-Lis Coverdale, and Tim Hecker, have been building a galaxy of music that uses sounds, timbres, and textures, and eschews formal structures and tools like song form, beats and rhythms, even identifiable, equally tempered pitches. It is those elements from which Eno came and to which he has been returning, again and again, through the decades. If any one album is an example of his work, it’s not Music for Airports but Another Green World; pre-Airports pop nestled into that Eno sound.
More than concept, form, or structure, that sound is the aesthetic that guides him, whether on Another Green World, the “Berlin Trilogy” albums (1977–79) from Bowie, the five albums he produced with U2, and Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974). The Eno sound is a penumbra, a warm chiaroscuro, an emulsification of the individual channels on a mixing board into an integrated whole—the studio as compositional element and the producing engineer as composer. In musical terms, he’s best seen in the classical, and acoustic, sense of being an orchestrator, someone who is sensitive to the expressive and technical capabilities and specifications of different sounds, and who has an internal compass to guide them in putting them together in a way that can produce a specific effect in the listener. As much as the popular imagination links him with Cage, Eno’s practice is the opposite of Cage’s philosophy, as is the very idea of pop music. Cage wanted to eliminate the performer expressing themself through music, while Eno is all about expression, he cares about songs and how they work.
Eno is also, as he has pointed, not really a musician. Instead, he’s a technologist, fascinated by what technology (not just digital, but analog) can do in terms of taking the materials of reality and altering them with artistic purpose. This comes through clearly in the diary; he’s not writing out conceptual explorations of the meaning of this or that medium, instead he’s writing down that he spent all day working with Photoshop, trying to turn one thing into another thing. He loves tools and he loves their off-brand possibilities, and he loves using tools to turn one thing into another thing. Perhaps the most lucrative work of his career is the “Microsoft Sound,” the six seconds of electronic sound he created for Windows 95.
Time and the types of cultural changes (especially in listening habits) that his list of new words describes have set Eno’s career into firm standing and clear relief. Ambient music and the pop milieu—Roxy Music, U2, Bowie—and others, are not parallel paths but parts of a substantial whole, seamless and woven together through analog waves, not digital bits. In the strictest sense, Eno is not an ambient musician, his music making has too much specific musical purpose in terms of melody, harmony, and even rhythm (in this he’s more in the mold of the style of ambient music that came out of Japan from the 1980s on). He’s ambient in the way that Steely Dan is jazz, which is that he’s not, but he captures a great deal of the same pleasures and speaks to much of the same audience.
The ambiguous part of his legacy is just that; Windows 95 loading on a computer in a living room where Music for Airports is playing in the background. His audiences, for the most part, never found their way into the electronic and experimental spaces. As the minimalist composers, the Kronos Quartet, Bang On a Can (who recorded a lovely acoustic arrangement/recreation of Airports, something that might have been a drawing-together of two experimental traditions, but instead turned into a well-landscaped dead end), and the indie-classical movement have all shown, individual figures can draw pop music listeners into contemporary art music, but rarely do those listeners take further steps into the contexts and traditions those composers and musicians work within—you can lead a horse to Philip Glass, but you can't make her drink from the cups of Mozart or Bruckner.