“If you think of music as a moving changing form and painting as a still form what I’m trying to do is make very still music and paintings that move. I’m trying to find in both of those forms the space in between the traditional concept of music and the traditional concept of painting.” — Brian Eno
The prospect of exploring a nine LP set of beautiful ambient works by music legend Brian Eno is a daunting task, but a challenge I’m up to. I finally got my hands on a copy of Eno’s Music For Installations, an appropriately beautiful, museum-quality, first-time vinyl collection (issued in 2018) which not only does justice to the sounds within but brings into historical and contextual perspective Mr. Eno’s ambient installation works which many of us have not known much about. Half of this music has never been released and half of it has only had very limited direct-to-consumer releases on CD.
This multi-disc 12-inch by 12-inch super deluxe boxed set is something you might want to consider getting if you are a fan of the man’s music. Spread across nine vinyl LPs — or six CDs or 5 1/2 hours of Internet streaming — the album presents a fascinating insight into musics which — arguably — most of us have never heard by the composer, music which was designed for the visual spaces he was presenting in, whether it was a round antiquated train turn-about “round house” building or a meditative space where old men fly kites high in the sky or even the famous Sydney Opera House.
Almost all of this music on Music For Installations comes from physical installation events Eno has created around the world. Some of it is music for installations that are yet to exist, so the collection is in that sense both backward and forward looking.
Included with the vinyl box there is a wonderful full color, glossy, LP-sized, soft-bound book which gives you incredible photographs of Eno’s installations with insightful details into what they were about. This is important information to give you a better understanding of how this music was crafted and its underlying intent.
I am not going to be a spoiler / revealer of all those secrets in this review — you, Dear Readers, need to get the boxed set to fully appreciate this, folks.
But I will give you some hints…
For example, in the book Eno discusses his early process and desire to create “generative music” that would not repeat itself, essentially. Initially using a series of auto-reverse cassette players — he includes photos of the boom boxes in the installations — and presented in three dimensional spaces in a room, he was able to deliver ever changing surround sound experiences (essentially) which would complement the visuals of the particular moment. The music would never really sound the same at any given point in time and would vary dependent upon where you might physically be in the installation space at a given point in time.
Eno was doing this years before, for example, The Flaming Lips’ famous parking lot experiments in the 1990s, where fans and their car stereos as well as boom boxes created a group surround sound experience. This tied in ultimately to their multi-disc D.I.Y. surround sound album, Zaireeka. (Side Note: come to think of it, why hasn’t Eno worked with The Flaming Lips? That might be amazing… but I digress…)
Of course one of the beautiful things about Brian Eno’s music is that it stands on its own as well as in these installations, and thus we can listen to this box set in many different ways. One thing I like about the physical boxed set versions of Music For Installations is that each program retains its own individual identity. Even when flipping an album side, you get enough immersion into the individual work to explore the nuance of each. More on that concept in a bit…
I have been listening to the nine-disc vinyl LP version of Music For Installations which has been a wonderful experience. All of the album pressings are excellent, pressed on thick, dark and quiet, well-centered 180-gram vinyl
The “quiet” point I make here is especially important for this music since any sonic anomalies might disrupt the aural environment that Mr. Eno has sculpted here. Concurrently, the“well-centered” factor on these pressings is also important as any serious off-center disc could make long extended notes waver. And of course, surface noise could interfere with the mood set by the music. So all those considerations are especially significant with this sort of release, even more than say a much louder modern pop or rock release which might mask certain anomalies within the discs. This is more like a classical release in that sense…
The albums in Music For Installations sound remarkably rich and resonant on vinyl, without the sort of hollow feeling that can emerge in the 16-bit realm of the compact disc. The fidelity is generally excellent, with no real sense of harsh digital edges apparent in my initial listens, though I suspect some of these recordings were made in the digital realm.
The music sounds warm, inviting and at times enveloping — I do wish there was an actual surround sound complement to this set, especially since so much of it was created with three dimensional space in mind. Maybe someday Mr. Eno will issue this whole set on a Blu-ray Disc with the visuals in 5.1 surround and Dolby Atmos.
While I didn’t have access to the CD version of Music For Installations, I imagine that the experience is similar although the fidelity will be a bit different, likely a little more compressed sounding all things considered. Of course, if you play this over a boombox or computer speakers it won’t matter really so your choice depends on what sort of listening experience you wish to have, ultimately.
I did listen to the streams of Music For Installations on TIDAL and Qobuz it sounded quite good at CD-quality as well (if you have subscriptions you can click on the service names here and it will take you to the appropriate streams).
The difference in the listening experience — physical media vs. streaming — however was kind of night and day for me because the album on the latter is effectively presented as one long playlist. And while you can go in and specify individual tracks you want to play, there is inevitably the opportunity to forget about what you were listening to. The music can just plays on and on and on for five hours and then some.
And there-in lies both the benefit and the rub of that version of the album. If you just want to hear Music For Installations as an extended long batch of ambient musics you can do that and the pieces start to kind of blend together. I suspect that in some ways, Brian Eno might actually like this notion.
But, if you want to have an individualized experience, you’ll have to pay closer to attention to what you’re actually playing and how long it’s going to last before another installation music series kicks in.
Which is my preferred version version?
At the end of the day I do like the LP version best because of the warmer sound and the fact that it forces you to focus on the individual recording at hand. I’m sure there will be times when I just want to put on the streaming version, to let it play in the background. That is fine.
But for those times when I want to have my brain focused on what Brian Eno was doing — which is most of the time — I think that the LP or the CD set is probably a better medium.
The artist also is likely to make more on it financially. Plus, you’ll also get access to the wonderful 64-page book which has all those photos and information about the installations — I can’t stress enough how essential this is for better appreciating this music.
Music For Installations is widely available so you should be able to find it at your favorite music store or online (click on the title anywhere in this review to jump to Amazon). This is a great collection for the Eno completist and fans of ambient music in general. I hope someday I’ll get a chance to experience one of Eno’s installations in person. That would bring my enjoyment of this set full circle for me.