Brian Eno, Music For Films

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 05.18.11 in Reviews

If Brian Eno's processes were designed, in large part, to remove the composer's ego, his utilitarian, ambient output sought to downplay the ego of the music itself. In Music for Airports, this took the form of rendering the music transparent, ephemeral, "as ignorable as it is interesting." On the same year's Music for Films, he shifted the conceit slightly, positing the album as a set of "possible" soundtracks to "imaginary films." It's a conceit that's been copied far too many times since then, but Eno's implementation carried a subtle twist: in the context of his ambient project, it implied a subtle downgrading of the music's intrinsic value, as though it were incomplete by design, fully realized only in relation to a visual image; he might have called it Music for Second Fiddle.

Soundtracks to movies that do not exist

In fact, it wasn't the first time Eno worked this way; Discreet Music began as a set of backing tracks for Robert Fripp, and he often explored cinematic or incidental terrain in his albums' shorter, more sketch-like pieces. In contrast to Music for Airports' long, static expanses, the tracks on Music for Films are far shorter and more traditionally melodic. There are 18 of them, mostly just a minute or two long — just enough time to suggest the outline of a melodic theme or to plot, briefly, a constellation of electronic timbres.

Music For Films

Brian Eno

Although the concept of "standout" songs runs counter to the very idea of the project, there are a few clear highlights: "There Is Nobody" is a delicately percolating cup of Krautrock; the synthetic harmonies of "Quartz" are as densely luminous as its title; "A Measured Room" is a clean distillation of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, all clear, jellied funk.

In retrospect, Eno's project might not have been as radical as many have claimed; he and his crew of longtime collaborators (John Cale, Phil Collins, Robert Fripp, Fred Frith et al) were not so different in their aims than the groups of session musicians employed by outfits like the DeWolfe Music Library, a company that has provided readymade soundtracks to the moving-picture industry since the 1920s. But it's only since the '90s and its culture of hip-hop digging that library music has become valued in its own right; Music for Films, as much as it cast musical autonomy in doubt, was prescient in presenting castoffs from the cutting floor, as it were, as worthy objects on their own terms.