Brian Eno — Reflection ANALYSIS & REVIEW
It should come as no surprise that Reflection has practically no impression of conventional melodic activity. In an effort to create “background” music, also known as the more appropriate term “ambient” music, Eno doesn’t waste his time trying to write a few good catchy lines, as he shouldn’t since it would’ve surely detracted from the goal and the effect of the music. What does this mean; is it still intriguing? Naysayers who don’t believe that my review method is inclusive or helpful may think that a work like this would render the method ineffective. No recognizable melodies for 54 minutes may seem like checkmate for me, but not so fast. It just so happens that this piece, along with the rest of the ambient music genre, does in fact have melody, and very important melodic roles at that.
Reflection makes great use of linear motion, textural dominance, and pitch collection to fit exceptionally well within the music. The latter of those was the best melodic aspect of the album. It’s remarkable how only three simply notes can be so captivating and supportive with the way they are used. Throughout the work, I noticed a recurring motive made up of perfect 4th intervals that lightly danced on top of the texture. It was simplistic and seemingly uneventful, but it kept coming back and formed an identifiable feature to the music. 45 minutes in, I noticed that there was a struggle for centricity happening between two notes — G and C. A perfect 4th apart. These two notes dominated the texture. It was most likely happening throughout the whole album, but only just then did I realize it. Only five minutes after that, when the album was almost over, did I realize that a third note, D, also had a strong presence. It wasn’t as flashy as how G and C were used, but it was still there providing a musical line. D is a perfect 4th below G. It only occurred to me then that these were the three notes that made up the recurring motive. Three notes, one interval — that’s all that it took. It should have been easily recognizable, but it stays hidden in the music the entire time. The fact that it hides rather than being obvious to listeners compliments the music perfectly.
Other musical elements are always being toyed with in any given piece of music by taking them out for a period of time. While melody may be the least likely element to do that on average, Eno uses this technique extensively with melody here, and this unexpectedness is what gives listeners a raw and beautiful flavor of music. He uses the coming and going of dominant linear passages to give much needed shape to this massive work. Overall, I thought it worked very well, but there are certainly some dangers to it that even the master of ambient music can’t escape. There are several “breaking points” within the work where linear motion is stopped and only a single tone is present for what seems like eternity. These points seem to either fully sell the listener to allow deep envelopment in the sound, or potentially stop the listener’s engagement in a way that the multiple layers are not being perceived. It was as if the music was saying, “We’ve come this far. Are you in or out?”. To me personally, these sections worked like a charm.
However, as an unbiased music observer, I will say that this was the only identifiable detriment to the album as a whole, because if you’re not fully bought into the ambiance, there is nothing the melody really does to help you out. Melody was the weakest aspect of the album, only in that it would be the factor that causes the music to seem too uninteresting or bereft of character. It was subtle, but it was actually full of character and quite thematic. This is something that only a genius could achieve while working in this environment.
For a solid stream of music with this much weight and magnitude, it was important for the underlying musical structure to keep stable and familiar. On top of that, it needed to be fluid and change with the form in order to not become monotonous. For the entire 54 minute work, Eno does just that, finding a wonderful balance of movement and comfort. He does this by employing conventional tones and chords in unconventional structures. As stated earlier, Eno used three pitches — G, C, and D — for the entire album to revolve around. Whether in the foreground as melodic shapes or in the background as foundations, they naturally sound consonant and congenial, which fits in beautifully to Reflection.
However, it hardly seems to be enough just to fit in. Any musician can look at those three notes and notice the obvious I, IV, V harmonic structure that it suggests. It’s simply how those three notes relate to each other in Western musical harmony. However, Eno doesn’t go down that well-trodden path, and for good reason since this album isn’t supposed to sound like you’ve heard it before. Instead, he organizes these pitches in such a way that they take turns being the primary foundation, without any sense that they are harmonically connected to the previous passage. This, along with the small added tones from time to time that are seemingly void of any connection to a root, rids the music of pitch hierarchy and a sense of tonic. This may seem very unstable, but due to the extremely drawn-out and static passages that change ever so slowly, it actually creates a sense of beauty and wonder, akin to a transporter that takes you deeper into the sound so as to become more reflective. Unlike the melody, the solid one-note foundations never take any time off, which gives the listener an impression that the wheels are always churning and something is always being created. This was Eno’s way of creating something massive and pleasing at the same time. The end result was remarkable.
Need I say anything regarding the absolutely magnificent timbre? Perhaps not, but I will anyways because it’s fun to talk about music. First, the intelligent use of different layers and levels in the music seemed almost spacial and gave Reflection a 3-Dimensional quality. There were absolutely seamless transitions from one musical event to the next, with one sound always lingering on and blending into the next, which makes the listener question if that layer was actually present for the entire time. It isn’t until a familiar sound comes back that you realize you’ve been listening to completely new musical ideas for the last few minutes. Eno is like a magician, and his slight of hand techniques work brilliantly in the timbre of Reflection.
What sounds so obvious and simple is actually extremely sophisticated, which is a delight for anyone listening passively but wanting strong musical substance. For more active ears, it’s almost frustrating that the form seems to evade you and pass through right under your nose without detection, but is goes to show the true purpose of the album, which is to simply let go and become one with the atmosphere it creates. In this album, supposedly small musical moments seems so large and momentous, while what would normally be a big musical point, such as a change in texture or foundation, seem so tiny and effortless. It’s all part of achieving the unordinary feel that good listeners always seek out in music. Also, even though this sound is supposed to be rather mysterious and rare, nothing in this album sounds unknown or volatile — everything has a friendly, warming presence. Reflection is a great example of Eno’s complete command of synthetic textures, and it truly draws the subject into its domain, as long as the subject is willing to give an effort.
The world of ambient music is a delightful one, but also one with very little traction. To frequent ambient listeners, this is a work of sophistication and magnitude that perhaps even Eno, the grandfather of the genre itself, has never reached. To others that don’t generally find themselves in this world, Reflection doesn’t offer much to hold onto and could easily be brushed off. While comparing it to other works by Eno is not reflected in my score, I will say that his albums Apollo and Music for Airports are still tops and provide a little more accessibility to the average listener through stronger melody. I recommend Reflection to anyone willing to buy into the purpose of ambient music, because this is a real treat for the ears and the mind. If you aren’t sure you can buy into that but are still interested, I’d suggest going through some of Eno’s earlier solo albums before getting to this one. If you do listen to this, just be careful of the environment in which you are listening in, because it will affect your experience to a great degree, and the music in turn will also affect wherever you are. I hope this gets a lot of listens, but it’s difficult for me to imagine this breaking through to the masses. As far as ambient music goes, this is really as popular as it gets.