It’s 39 years ago today that Brian Eno’s Ambient 4 On Land (1982) was released. There have been countless appraisals of this seminal album over the years, but I wanted to offer my personal response to it, and especially how it led me to where I am today, in a most surprising way. Indeed, a way which Eno himself could never even have imagined. Brian Eno’s On Land really did change my world.
A shy 17 year old boy discovers a new world
I was 17 years old, attending Sir Walter St John’s Grammar School for Boys, and still discovering the world of art and music. Life, as it might be, was still beyond the horizon of knowing or comprehension. I had plans, ideas, and ambitions, and knew in myself where I wanted to ultimately be, but how to actually get there was the real challenge.
To work at the intersection of art, music, literature and performance didn’t appear in most job descriptions. In fact, it was almost unimaginable. My mother was supportive and encouraged me to simply be happy, but I was a teenager, packaged with everything that entailed, anxiety, bewilderment, mild insecurity, and most certainly a deep shyness.
I was already busy making music myself, and had been doing so for some years. I have the tapes (‘evidence’ some might call it) of these sometimes-pitiful experiments, a wild mixture of ‘songs,’ as well as recordings of our fridge freezer, home dinners and the ambient sound of the street outside my bedroom window. Then one day along came Ambient 4 On Land. I was familiar with Eno’s work at this point, and had a couple of his LPs in my modest record collection, but nothing could have prepared me for this release.
Ambient 4 On Land
The sleeve offered up this cryptic world. Bold black letters spelt out AMBIENT 4, accompanied by a smaller typeface crediting On Land, Brian Eno. The artwork was a kind of colourful pointillist abstraction, an overhead graphic of an imaginary place, as if George Seurat had been commissioned to create an Ordnance Survey Map.
The reverse of the sleeve was filled with words and a graphic diagram. The text is worth directly quoting from, as it offered up technical information what was a minefield for a boy living at home with a Pioneer Hi-Fi system:
I regard this music as environmental: to be experienced from the inside. Accordingly, I considered releasing a quadrophonic version of it, an idea I abandoned upon realising that very few people (myself included) own quadrophonic systems. However, I have for many years been using a three-way speaker system that is both simple to install and inexpensive, and which seems to work very well on any music with a broad stereo image. The effect is subtle but definite – it opens out the music and seems to enlarge the room acoustically.
Well, I was never to experience this music in the way in which Eno imagined some might, but it still left a significant mark upon me. First listening revealed no discernible tunes as such, more a series of textural soundscapes (though that was not a word in my vocabulary yet). My mother would have simply called it ‘weird’ and returned to her Neil Diamond and Leo Sayer LPs.
It was murky music, occupying an unusual and unique space. Was that frogs and insects I was hearing or electronics? At certain moments, it actually felt as the music had been recorded deep in the mud of a reservoir, as nature would interrupt the electronic sound flow in a beautifully elegant manner.
A little more context
Interviews at the time helped to contextualise this music, as Eno explained:
The idea of making music that in some way related to a sense of place – landscape, environment – had occurred to me many times over the years preceding On Land. Working from the realisation that my music was less and less connected with performability but was created in and of the studio, I took advantage of the fact that music produced in recording studios (rather than music reproduced by studios) has the option of creating its own psychoacoustic space.
From Another Green World onwards I became interested in exaggerating and inventing rather than replicating spaces, experimenting in particular with various techniques of time distortion. This record represents one culmination of that development and in it the landscape has ceased to be a backdrop for something else to happen in front of; instead, everything that happens is a part of the landscape. There is no longer a sharp distinction between foreground and background.
In using the term ‘landscape’ I am thinking of places, times, climates and the moods that they evoke. And of expanded moments of memory too… One of the inspirations for this record was Fellini’s Amarcord“ (I Remember), a presumably unfaithful reconstruction of childhood moments. Watching that film, I imagined an aural counterpart to it, and that became one of the threads woven into the fabric of the music.
And yet the music takes a surprising turn
However, the music was about to take on an entirely different direction, one which Eno could never have anticipated. On one of my first listens I was drawn in by the use of voices in the recording, buried deep, deep in the mix. It was a female voice, affectionate, sweet, amorous, filled with a sunny warmth, joined by the crackling of radio noise and interference. I was astonished how well this worked. I went to bed dreaming of such music.
The very next morning I excitedly played back the LP again. But there were no voices. How could this be? Was I losing my mind already at aged just 17? I didn’t understand. Had I somehow imagined all of this? Later that day I was listening to another LP and suddenly there was that voice again, the dreamy girl had returned!
After a little detective work I discovered out that the girl was in fact living right around the corner from me and talking to her boyfriend on their CB radio systems. Citizens Band radio was extremely popular at the time, Truckers were known to use them, and their popularity made its way into films, television, and music by the late 1970s. Films such as Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Breaker! Breaker! (1977) and Convoy (1978), made heavy reference to the phenomenon.
As entertaining as this discovery was, it was also extremely irritating since our neighbour would also appear on random radio broadcasts and even the TV at times. The solution was to contact the Post Office who were responsible for telecommunication transmissions in those times. One day a man visited and installed a large circular coil around the back of my Hi-Fi system which mysteriously stopped all the transmissions. This had the added bonus, that should I wish to add an element of randomness or simply voyeurism to my listening habits, then I simply had to remove the coil and often our neighbour would come to visit again sonically.
I had already been using recordings of voices in my work, with family, friends and strangers on public transport all taking centre stage. I would also record crossed line phone calls at home onto my portable Sony tape recorder, but this incident endorsed the idea of how the use of random voices could really work. I would have to wait another decade to actually put this into action, with the discovery of the radio scanner that allowed me to pick up these indiscriminate signals from the ether and pull them down to use in my own productions. And the rest they say is history. Well, I do. The world of Scanner was born then.
A couple of years later after the release of On Land I actually visited some of the locations that the track titles referred to, such as Lizard Point in Cornwall and remember marvelling on a cold misty morning how well the music had painted this scenery in my head many years earlier. The relationship of music to space and how each engages with the other continues to fascinate me to this day.
When John Cage offered up his seminal work 4’ 33”, focusing on the silence around us, it was clear to listeners that we need not fear about the future of music as it was around us in all forms. To this day I’m fascinated with how artists have imaginatively transformed our environment and stimulated thought around notions of place and sense. I’m grateful to this unimaginable collaboration between Brian Eno and my neighbour, neither of whom knows where it led this 17 year old boy years later. I thank them both.