Brian Eno and the "Quiet Club":

Subtle Beauty as Social Critique

Peter Suchin

Ambient Music: a Miniature History

In the mid 1970s the composer, musician, record producer, lecturer, theorist of popular culture, video artist and diarist, Brian Eno became a pioneer in the field of the small, independent music label, releasing a series of ten long-playing discs under the collective name "Obscure Records". A few years later, in 1978, Eno instigated a second series, with his Music for Airports being the first of a four-record project collectively labelled "Ambient". Both series were packaged in an idiosyncratic, easily recognisable manner, giving to their overall presentation a coherent sense of intention, purpose, and design. With the Obscure works the composer's name had been the most prominent wording on the sleeve, the series name being indicated only on the cover's reverse. With the Ambient works, however, this collective title dominated the textual element of the layout. Each sleeve also displayed what appeared to be an enlarged but unreferenced section of a geological map, a link to a particular but unspecified location.1

The music contained within these "Ambient" records formed, together with the general unity of the design, a sort of proposal or argument pertaining to the function of, and possibilities for contemporary music. In the sleeve notes to Music for Airports Eno declared that his intention was "to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres." "Ambient Music", he continued, "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; It must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

The Obscure recordings also carried essays relating to the music contained on the discs. Discreet Music, released by Eno in 1975, included a statement in which he described how, as a collusion of circumstances that included a faulty stereo system and the effects of an accident suffered earlier that year, he inadvertently heard a recording of 18th century harp music in "what was for me a new way of hearing music - as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the lights and the sound of the rain were parts of that environment." Eno went on to propose that Discreet Music be listened to "at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility", and referred to Erik Satie's idea of a music that could mix with the sounds of knifes and forks during dinner. The remark from Satie to which Eno alluded is worth quoting at length: "we must bring about", Satie observed,

a music which is like furniture - a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks at dinner, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometime fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralise the street noises which so indiscretely enter into the play of conversation. To make such music would be to respond to a need.2

Satie is well know today, almost eighty years after his death, for his gentle, "Impressionistic" piano music, but he is at the same time frequently dismissed by the musical establishment as a mere amateur, with the music itself being considered, in Gavin Bryars' words, "lightweight, humouristic and eccentric".3 Yet Satie's Furniture Music, to which he refers in the passage quoted above, is nothing if not a seminal influence upon what is certainly one of today's most prominent musical forms, "background" or "elevator" music, or in its brand-name version, "Muzak". Satie not only theorised the possibility of a music that would dissolve into the general ambient noises of the environment, but in fact produced several examples of this paradoxical musical form, intended to be perceived as music and yet to be ignored.4 Today, it is virtually impossible to escape from the constant drone or babble of background music, whether it is rock, pop, jazz or classical works that are used to modify the atmosphere of a place, or those more consciously manufactured background effects such as those supplied by companies such as Muzak Incorporated itself.

Being keen to distinguish his own Ambient work from that of the producers of this manipulative product, Eno succinctly compared the latter with the former:

The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak. The connotations that this term carries are those particularly associated with the kind of material that Muzak Inc. produces - familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner. Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music...Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to "brighten" the environment by adding stimulus to it...Ambient Music is intended to produce calm and a space to think.5

The manifesto-like quality of this statement is apparent in the deliberate contrasting of "corporate-produced" background music with the sort of music released on the Ambient label. Its assertive tone implies conflict and critique, the refusal of what has become a somewhat normative, if involuntary, listening experience in western culture. J G Ballard has neatly described the negatively utilitarian status of this inescapable aural accompaniment: "the intentions of background music are openly political," he remarks, "and an example of how political power is constantly shifting from the ballot box into areas where the voter has nowhere to mark his ballot paper. The most important political choices in the future will probably never be consciously exercised." These words are quoted in Joseph Lanza's somewhat ambivalent history of canned sound, Elevator Music.6

Although Lanza provides much information on and around his subject, the overall impression one has upon reading this work is of an uncritical surrender to what is in

fact a sharply marketed, piously domineering aesthetic form. "Elevator music", Lanza writes at the conclusion of his account, is, "besides just being good music":

essentially a distillation of the happiness that modern technology has promised. A world without elevator music would be much grimmer than its detractors (and those who take it for granted) could ever realize...because most of us, in our hearts, want a world tailored by Walt Disney's "imagineers", an ergonomical "Main Street U.S.A.,"...where the act of paying admission is tantamount to a screen test - and where the music never stops."7

This conservative, celebratory account of background music, packed with what are at best some very dubious assumptions and beliefs, can be contrasted with a number of much more politically astute readings of this (and related) phenomena. Writing in the 1960s, Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander argued that:

Under present conditions men are beginning to lose the capacity to discriminate between sound and noise - between the desirable and the irrelevant...The problem of isolating undesirable sounds is technically so hard to solve that acoustics engineers now recommend the simpler expedient of providing artificial background noise in one's own domain as an acoustic cushion or muffler. Making more noise is the only economical way, apparently, of drowning out unwanted noise and of not being overheard. It seems that the illusion of quiet can only be maintained in noise.8

And the French politician and theorist Jacques Attali, in his important book Noise The Political Economy of Music, made the following observation about music:

Ambiguous and fragile, ostensibly secondary and of minor importance, it has invaded our world and daily life. Today, it is unavoidable, as if, in a world now devoid of meaning, a background noise were increasingly necessary to give people a sense of security.9

Attali's point about music's apparent triviality is important. As he also remarked:

All music, any organization of sounds is...a tool for the creation or consolidation of a community, of a totality. It is what links a power center to its subjects, and thus, more generally, it is an attribute of power in all its forms...any theory of power today must include a theory of the localization of noise and its endowment with form...noise is inscribed from the start within the panoply of power.10

One of the difficulties of even raising for discussion the matter of background music is that the topic does not generally appear to be considered worthy of critical debate, or, if it is, then it is so to only a very limited degree. Even in Lanza's ostensibly discursive account background music is presented as an acceptable, indeed desirable aspect of everyday experience, and not something to take issue with or to regard as supplementary to, or as a surplus of, unmediated noise. This in itself suggests how much of an orthodoxy the acceptance of background music has become. People appear to either acknowledge it as a naturalised part of the space they occupy (including public or semi-public environments where they have no say over its presence), or they resign themselves to the thought that they are unable to escape it. "The monologue of standardized, stereotyped music", Attali noted, "accompanies and hems in a daily life in which in reality no one has the right to speak any more...What is called music today is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power."11

Attali's book offers many interconnected thoughts relating to noise, music and power, two of which are of particular relevance here. The first of these, already touched on above, is that music, a supposedly pleasurable and emotionally expressive force, is not neutral but is (as with the rest of the products of the entertainment industry) politically aligned. Attali emphasises that music's "appropriation and control is a reflection of is essentially political."12

This claim is expanded elsewhere in his text: is used and an attempt to make people forget the general make people believe in the general harmony of the world, that there is order in exchange and legitimacy in commercial serves to silence, by mass-producing a deafening, syncretic kind of music, and censoring all other human noises.13

and also:

Everywhere we look, the monopolization of the broadcast of messages, the control of noise, and the institutionalization of the silence of others assure the durability of power...Music and the musician essentially become either objects of consumption like everything else, recuperators of subversion, or meaningless noise.14

The second thread of Attali's analysis I want to briefly give attention to here concerns noise as kind of weapon or antagonistic device, an instigator, also, of illness and displeasure: "noise", he boldly states, "is violence: it disturbs." He continues:

To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder...In its biological reality, noise is a source of pain...Diminished intellectual capacity, accelerated respiration and heartbeat, hypertension, slowed digestion, neurosis, altered diction: these are the consequences of excessive noise in the environment.15

Noise is thus a politically engaged or loaded force, a tool of power whose deployment can have, and frequently does have deleterious effects. This is perhaps more obvious when pop music, as opposed to background music proper, is played at high volume in public spaces, negating the possibility of coherent thought, effectively bullying the involuntary listener into submission. Pop music lacks, as it were by definition, the sort of musical structure that can readily be ignored, talked around or through. If Ambient Music can be described as an attempt to tint or otherwise respectfully modify the environment, pop might be said to positively swamp the context in which it is played, determining a mood from which it is difficult to escape short of literally vacating the space.

Eno's own recordings for the Ambient series, released some four years apart, exemplify two different approaches to the making of Ambient Music. Music for Airports is superficially close to the open, "cool", clear musical structures of certain compositions by Satie, whilst On Land is an altogether much denser amalgam of electronic and "found" sounds, a collage of compressed and processed elements taken from a plethora of sources and locations. This work is arguably connected, at

least in its overall approach, to that emphasis upon listening to the environmental sounds in a musical way so passionately advocated in the 1960s by John Cage, a figure Eno has claimed as an important precursor regarding his own work. Cage was also partly responsible for bringing into prominent attention Satie's persona, music, and writings, including in his influential book Silence (1961) a piece on his music and ideas, and also organising one of the first pubic performances of the enigmatic Vexations, a work written by Satie in the early 1890s. Cage's text quotes extensively from Satie's writings, and includes a remark by him that today appears more than pertinent: "There'll probably be some music, but we'll manage to find a quiet corner where we can talk."16

Music for Airports was composed both as a response to the question of how one might produce music for a particular kind of modern, public space, an airport, but also as a work capable of being able to withstand exposure to a wide variety of contexts and circumstances. Its four tracks, in part produced by cutting the magnetic tape used in the recording studio to different lengths, thus letting the sounds contained on them run randomly in and out of sync, contain numerous points where the music, or one or other of its components, is absent. Between portions of simple piano, synthesizer or voice, silences appear, implicitly mitigating in defence of an "openness" to musical form. "Ambient Music", as again the sleeve notes indicate, "is intended to induce calm and a space to think."

The issue of writing music "for airports" partly developed out of Eno's inveterate travelling through, and waiting around in them:

In an airport you have this captive group of people who don't really have options; so you can create a place where you can introduce some sort of meditative calm for a while. I guess I'm looking for some feeling of luscious silence, a feeling of solitariness.17

The particularity of such spaces as airports requires a specific type of musical structure. On the one hand, at airports, people are frequently nervous, waiting around, keen to leave but stuck there until they are told they can move; on the other, any form of distraction, musical or otherwise, has to fit into the context and concerns of the space in such a way that it doesn't dominate it, or steal too resolutely the listener's attention, not least because passengers are actively waiting to hear announcements relating to their flights, or receive other information. Eno therefore crafted his record around these and other related factors.

However, with On Land, the kind of openness so prominent within Music for Airports had been replaced by a compressed weave of sound. Though lacking in "gaps" or clear spaces this work offered a different type of aural experience, an openness of a different kind; not a cluster of alternating sounds and pauses but something that might readily be described as drift. "Drifting", commented Roland Barthes, "occurs whenever I do not respect the whole".18 To drift is to give oneself up to a certain condition of language or behaviour, in which the self is fragmented, open to multiplicity and difference, divorced from the orthodox utilitarian mores of everyday life. On Land, its title implying being surrounded, located, placed at the centre of something fluid and detached, operates as a collection of dense but distinct moods or atmospheres which are, nonetheless, relatively unassertive. Sonic elements of an implied but imaginary landscape fade in and out of the sound frame, parts of the record itself appearing to be hovering somewhere between the sound source and the space in which it is being heard. Once again, an idea from Barthes, that which he has called, in an idiosyncratic usage, Text, is more than mildly pertinent when considered in relation to this record.

Barthes uses the term "Text" to describe a kind of writerly or artistic practice, the implications of which are at the very least radical when juxtaposed with conventional categories of literature or art. In order to sharpen his definition Barthes contrasts it with the more traditional notion of the "Work", with an emphasis upon Text as a new kind of artistic form in which hitherto clearly defined boundaries and conventions are dissolved. Although he is in the first instance discussing literature Barthes' remarks are, I think, more broadly generalisable. (In literature itself an example of a Work might be a Balzac novel or other piece of writing with a clearly structured narrative, emphatically stated meanings or values, and a strong authorial voice; an example of Text might be, to give only the most obvious instance, Joyce's Finnegans Wake).

In the essay "From Work to Text" Barthes observed that:

The Text is not a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an overcrossing; thus it answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination. The plural of the Text depends... on what might be called the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifiers (etymologically speaking, the text is a tissue, a woven fabric). The reader of the Text may be compared to someone at a loose end...this passably empty subject strolls...on the side of a valley, an oued flowing down below (oued is there to bear witness to a certain feeling of unfamiliarity); what he perceives is multiple, irreducible, coming from a disconnected, heterogenous variety of substances and perspectives: lights, colours, vegetation, heat, air, slender explosions of noises, scant cries of birds, children's voices from over on the other side, passages, gestures, clothes of inhabitants near or far away. All these incidents are half-identifiable: they come from codes which are known but their combination is unique... [The Text is] "...woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages... antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony...the citations...are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas.19

This passage, particularly the part describing walking along a valley's edge, reads like a potential summary the prevalent "mood" of On Land, even as Eno himself discussed the record in the notes accompanying the CD version of the recording (1986). Here Eno refers to listening, during a visit to Ghana, to a landscape of sounds through headphones linked to a stereo microphone, thus framing them as "music", as well as to utilising within On Land itself recordings of birds, frogs and insects, and "the complete body of my own earlier work". In the interview with Eno conducted by Richard Grabel in 1982 Eno, talking about this record, observed that "There's a way of making music where you specify exactly what's going to happen, you handcraft everything, so when the record is finished it isn't full of surprises for you anymore. This record was made a different way. It's more like a number of actions carried out near microphones. It's apparently a very bland territory at first, but in the way it yields itself it has considerable depths and slowness."20 Barthes' point about the Text being woven from innumerable references is recalled when one considers Eno's remark about utilising his own earlier recordings as part of the material used in the making of On Land; that Eno's music sometimes appears to be something like a treated recollection or memory of other musical forms - the work of

Satie or, on occasion, "Country and Western" or "Soul" - adds to the similarity with Barthes' description of Text as citation.

Music for Airports and On Land are in some senses at opposite ends of the aural spectrum that is Ambient Music. Together they provide, and function as exemplars of a type of listening experience that is politically at odds with conventional background music and its supporters. The affinities with the Barthesian Text imply a radical repositioning of the social role of music within society at the present time.

I have discussed at some length what I consider to be Eno's two key Ambient recordings of the 1970s and 1980s, works carefully presented as part of a group of records collectively intended to provoke serious consideration of environmental music as a viable and important artistic category. In practice, quite a number of Eno's other records may be thought to derive from principles associated with Ambient Music, including Discreet Music from 1975, Apollo (1983), Thursday Afternoon (1985)21 , and The Shutov Assembly (1992). It is not possible in the present essay to develop a more extensive analysis of this "category" of music, though I would like to mention two more (sometimes overlapping) features of this work before moving on to discuss Eno's practice as a visual artist.22

The first of these themes is the completely artificial nature of Eno's music as it relates to the representation of landscape and place. By referring here to artifice I am certainly not intending to imply a derogatory reading of the music; rather, the point is that the work is, despite often being in part made with conventional musical instruments, produced in and through the novel artistic medium of the recording studio. As such, it is not, despite Eno's frequent use of terms such as "landscape" and "place" when talking or writing about his music, a case of tracing or otherwise capturing the specific atmosphere of actual geographical locations during the making of his records.23 It is more appropriate to say that the technology of sound recording24 enabled Eno to produce false or imagined aural "landscapes", "sound pictures" (as one might call them) of possible locations. As Eno told Anthony Korner in 1986:

I was...moving into a kind of landscape sensibility of music, the idea being that one is listening to a body of sound presented as a happening in a particular type of space, a location of some sort. One of the characteristics of recorded music is that the composer is in a position to design not only new instruments but new locations for them. One does this by using reverberation, echo, and other such treatments as a part of the composition and not as a cosmetic."25

Indeed, for many years Eno had been advocating that the recording studio should be employed not merely to reproduce music initially generated and performed outside the studio, but as itself a means of actually composing music. In this sense the resulting "landscape" was very much a formal or technical outcome of applying this sensibility or attitude to the technology employed in modern sound recording. Whilst frequently working within and across the fields of "pop" and "serious" music, Eno's formative musical experiences were in large part connected with pop, being a founder member in the early 1970s of the "experimental", but commercially very successful Roxy Music. During an interview on the BBC radio programme Kaleidoscope in November 1990 Eno said:

When I first started recording I didn't have the background of a musician, and in fact it was only because of the recording studio and because of the technology that existed there that I was ever able to become a musician of any kind...the recording studio allows you to become a painter with sound, that's really what you do in a studio, you make pictures with sound...Making records was quite a different way of composing from the techniques that we'd been used to in the past. This is...different from the old idea of presenting a record of a performance.26

Eno has also pointed out that:

The recording studio has been responsible for a quiet revolution in music...A completely new form has developed, which people still regard as music because it comes out on record, but which is produced, executed and intended to be listened to in a different way from before.27

The second feature to be noted is that the recording studio has also enabled and encouraged is a new emphasis in music making, that of texture and specificity of sound:

The interest today isn't in developing serial music or polyphony or anything like that. It is in constantly dealing with new textures. One of the interesting things about pop music is that you can quite often identify a record from a fifth of a second of it. You hear the briefest snatch of sound and know, "Oh, that's "Good Vibrations," "or whatever...The sound is the thing that you recognise."28

Such an emphasis upon texture is clearly evident in Ambient Music; it is one reason why Eno can describe his work as "holographic".29 With a hologram, any given fragment of the whole image contains, in miniature, the complete picture. Ambient Music is high in textural "content" and low on narrative or chronological development. This kind of composition and structure, like Barthes' Text, foregrounds, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, "the soft drift of the text".30 The music never changes much, but it never stops changing, a condition compared by Eno to the actions of clouds or a river.31 The context in which the music exists is tinted by it but the listening subject is not caught up in, not forced to subsume his activities to a predetermined narrative or "assertive" artistic vision, but can instead get on with other things, treating the music as but one of several components of the broader environmental framework of the place thus acoustically "framed".

"Video Paintings" and "Quiet Clubs"

This focus upon slowness, texture, drift and authorial restraint32 can also be found in Eno's video works, installations, and so-called "Quiet Clubs", the latter being proposals, albeit in part practically realised, for a new kind of public space. In a talk given by Eno following the opening of one of his video installations in Copenhagen in 1986, he remarked:

Music for Airports...was intended as a proposal to take seriously the task of composing music for large public spaces. I hope the present exhibition suggests a type of ambience that might be produced in a more particular social space - perhaps a place poised between a club, a gallery, a church, a square and a park and sharing aspects of all of these.33

Eno has, then, in so many words marked out his intention to construct a new kind of social context in which, through a juxtaposition of features in part borrowed from already-extant spaces, new public spaces may be developed. This interest in constructing new social spaces appears to have in part come out of Eno's work as a video artist. In the 1980s, whilst living in New York, Eno made a number of video works using a conventional camera and recorder. The static camera, turned on its side, and with the colour controls fixed at unconventional settings, recorded the skyline of New York, the towers and other buildings set in sharp contrast at the "bottom" of the image, with, in some cases, the picture mostly framing the sky above the buildings rather than the city structures themselves. As with his Ambient Music (which provided the soundtrack to the video pieces), Eno's video work foregrounded drift and gradual change over action and multiple fast editing (the normal televisual experience). Eno described these works as "video paintings", intending them to be looked at with the aesthetics of painting rather than TV or film:

I see TV as a picture medium rather than a narrative medium. Video for me is a way of configuring light, just as painting is a way of configuring paint. What you see is simply light patterned in various ways. For an artist, video is the best light organ that anyone has ever invented.34

The extremely beautiful colour contrasts in Eno's "Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan" to some extent destroy or distract one from the figurative image on the screen: one focuses instead on the slowly changing colours of the Manhattan skyline as huge clouds float into the rectangle of the screen. Some of these video paintings were eventually shown at airports in the USA and Europe. With respect to these displays Eno observed that:

Soon after the monitors go on, you realise that nothing's going to happen. It lets you off the hook in a way. You know you can sit there and look around and drift back to it whenever you want. So your approach to it is quite different from reading a magazine, where you're put in the position of having to search and concentrate all the time.35

The next development in Eno's video work comprised exhibitions of "video sculptures", which led directly to the "Quiet Club" installations. The video sculptures were essentially simply made cardboard or plastic boxes cut into a variety of basic geometrical shapes, and were either mounted on the wall or placed on the floor. Inside each "sculpture" was a video monitor on which images from specially prepared tapes were displayed. Consisting primarily of a sequence of pure colours, the light from these monitors could be seen through, and was modified by, the cardboard or plastic filters out of which the structure was constructed. The effect was one of a constantly shifting range of colours and shapes. Shown usually in large darkened rooms, the effect was - is - quietly but seductively engaging. Kevin Eden summarises the resulting effects:

In these beautiful installations the setting is active, not passive. The environment is more than the sum of its parts; it is the experience. These environments have to be given time. The effects are physical and cumulative. Once the visitor has adjusted to both the low light levels and the slow-moving rhythms, it is not uncommon to stay for several hours, moving contemplatively from zone to zone. The installations are tranquil - they reduce stress and offer a kind of secular solace.36

Eno's sound and video installations have been held internationally as exhibitions in art galleries, either as solo shows or as part of broader group exhibitions. The most recent UK showing - there have not been many - was as part of the Hayward Gallery's Sonic Boom in 2000. Within the display, Eno's section was labelled as a proposal for a Quiet Club. A CD of the music extracted from that used for this particular "Club" was available in the gallery shop. Entitled Music for Civic Recovery Centre37 , the title itself gives one more angle or aspect to the notion of the Quiet Club as a critically-functioning public space. A dozen years before the Hayward installation and CD Eno was talking about the Quiet Clubs in the following way:

So many people have said to be that they wish cities always had a permanent location like these exhibitions. It would replace so many aspects of the city that you don't find any more - like quiet parks, gentlemen's clubs, even quiet libraries. I want something a little more than a cafe/art gallery that will wrap up all these elements under one roof.38

The Quiet Clubs, as such, have not materialised as permanent places, for reasons which I have been unable to ascertain.39 As a proposition for a new kind of public context they have fairly important implications. If one accepts Jacques Attali's arguments about the current, all-pervasive state of noise and music, together with his view that the deployment of controlled sound is a means of social manipulation, then the attempt to construct quiet, calming but not bland social spaces is not a trivial or merely decorative concern. Richard Sennett has pointed out, both in his celebrated book The Fall of Public Man and elsewhere,40 that public space as it existed even up until quite recently, has been, and continues to be rapidly eroded. Private capital, and private ownership of what were once public venues continues to increase, and with this will no doubt come more advertising, noise, and promotional material, burying whatever near-neutrality such spaces once had, replacing this with a more than biased manifestation for which the status of a "public service" will be claimed. Just as Ambient Music was a refusal of the dominance of Muzak and imposed noise, the Quiet Club, if it can be made to exist in a more permanent form, might just act as a marker for the return to prominence of a genuinely viable, genuinely public forum, and this even if its origin is or was the art gallery or museum.

This is, finally, to imply that the Utopian intentions attributed to artists at the beginning of the twentieth century may not be entirely a forgotten possibility, nor the deliberate taking up of what may be termed an "avant garde" stance - that of the artist as instigator of broad cultural change - an entirely broken thread. For at the present time, as the public sphere rapidly contracts, it may be left to artists with access to influential positions within culture to propose and pursue new models of social circumstance and exchange. The disarmingly beautiful, yet unassertive space of the Quiet Club is one means through which the widespread privatisation of public space, and public culture, might be seriously, if discreetly, criticised and refused.


  1. The other works in the series were: Harold Budd/Brian Eno, The Plateaux of Mirror (1980), Laraaji, Day of Radiance (1980); Brian Eno, On Land (1982). All four recordings are currently available on compact disc.

  2. Quoted in John Cage, Silence, MIT, 1969, p. 76.

  3. Gavin Bryars, "Berners, Rouseau, Satie", Studio International, Vol. 192, No. 984, November/December 1976, p. 308. It should be pointed out that Bryars is one of Satie's most ardent supporters and is not party to the derogatory attitude he describes.

  4. For an account of a public performance of some of Satie's Furniture Music see Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years, Faber, 1959, especially chapter 6. Examples of the music can be heard on the LP by Marius Constant and the Ensemble Ars Nova, Erik Satie, Erato, 1971.

  5. Eno, sleeve notes to Music for Airports, 1978.

  6. Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music, Quartet, 1995. The remark from Ballard, the source of which is not supplied, is on p. 148.

  7. Lanza, ibid., p. 233.

  8. Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, Community and Privacy, Penguin, 1966, pp. 96 - 98.

  9. Jacques Attali, Noise The Political Economy of Music, Manchester University Press, 1985, p. 3.

  10. Ibid., p. 6.

  11. Ibid., pp. 8 - 9.

  12. Ibid., p. 6.

  13. Ibid., p. 19.

  14. Ibid., p. 8.

  15. Ibid., pp. 26 - 27.

  16. Cage, op. cit., p. 76.

  17. Eno, quoted in Kevin Eden, "Ambient Lightworks", Fourth Door Review, No. 4, 2000, p. 35. Eden's essay draws to a considerable degree on John Hutchinson's "From Music to Landscape", included in the booklet Place # 13 (Eno), a publication accompanying Eno's 1986 exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin.

  18. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, Hill and Wang, 1975, p. 18. For further interesting accounts of drift and reverie see Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, Beacon Press, 1971.

  19. Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Fontana, 1977, pp. 159 - 160.

  20. Eno in Richard Grabel/Brian Eno, "The Soul Inside the Shades", New Musical Express, 24 April 1982.

  21. Commissioned by the Sony corporation to test the then novel technology of the compact disc, Thursday Afternoon was the first recording specifically made with release in this medium in mind. This point is made in Ziyad Georgis/Brian Eno, "East of the Testcard", Melody Maker, 23 November 1985 (by ZG). This interview also contains Eno's claim that his video work is the most abstract thing to be seen on a television screen.

  22. There is not space in the present account to deal with Eno's more recent "Generative Music", a form of Ambient Music in which various systems are used to produce music which is ever-changing within certain specified parameters, as set up on a computer or other means of storing potential combinations of sounds. See on this pp. 330 - 332 of Eno's A Year with Swollen Appendices, Faber, 1996, which also contains sections on Ambient Music and related material.

  23. On Land does, however, relate to actual places Eno visited during his childhood in East Anglia.

  24. In the 1970s Eno gave public lectures on the theme of "The Studio as Compositional Tool". See Eric Tamm, Brian Eno His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, Faber, 1989, chapter 6.

  25. Eno in Anthony Korner/Brian Eno, "Aurora Musicalis", Artforum, Vol. XXIV, No. 10, Summer 1986, p. 77.

  26. BBC Radio 4, November 1990 (exact date of broadcast unknown). Glenn Gould, whom Eno has occasionally mentioned in interviews, was a pioneer of the use of recording technology to manipulate and redefine musical performance and its reproduction. See Eno's "On record", The Sunday Times Magazine, 31 October 1982, and also Gould's important essay "The Prospects of Recording" (1966), included in Tim Page (Ed.), The Glenn Gould Reader, Faber, 1987.

  27. Eno, "On record", p. 94.

  28. Eno, "Aurora Musicalis", pp. 76 - 77; and NB the following quotation from Eno: "I believe we are moving towards a position of using music and recorded sound with the variety of options that we presently use with colour - we might simply use it to "tint" the environment, we might use it "diagrammatically", we might use it to modify our moods in almost subliminal ways. I predict that the concept of "muzak", once it has shed its connotations of aural garbage, might enjoy a new and very fruitful lease of life. Muzak, you see, has one great asset: you don't have to pay attention to it. This strikes me as a generous humility with which to imbue a piece of music, though it is also nice to ensure that the music can offer rewards to those who do give it their attention." (Quoted in Kevin Eden, "Ambient Lightworks", p. 33).

  29. Ibid., p. 77.

  30. Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, NLB, 1979, p. 71.

  31. This comparison with natural processes was made by Eno in a talk given in Copenhagen in January 1986, reproduced in Eno, "Works Constructed with Sound and Light, a brochure accompanying his 1986 exhibition at Riverside Studios, London.

  32. Eno's Discreet Music essay opens with the sentence: "Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part." This appears to parallel, perhaps inadvertently, Raymond Roussel's remark to Leiris to the effect that he (Roussel) preferred the "domain of Conception to that of reality". See Michel Leiris, "Conception and Reality in the Work of Raymond Roussel", in Raymond Roussel: Life, Death & Works, Alaistair Brotchie et al (Eds.), Atlas, 1987, p. 73.

  33. Eno, "Works Constructed with Sound and Light".

  34. Eno, in Peter Nasmyth/Brian Eno, "New Life of Brian", The Observer Magazine, 17 January 1988, p. 42. Monet's vast canvases of waterlilies might be viewed as a precedent for Eno's video work, focusing as they do on patches of intense light and colour within an otherwise very open compositional field. Other influences or precedents, though I have yet to find them cited elsewhere, might include the television and video works of Nam June Paik (turning the TV on its side, the use of "abstract" images, etc); Wolf Vostell's "TV De-Collage No. 1" of 1958 (a blank canvas behind which are placed several TV monitors, parts of which are visible through holes cut into the canvas); the multiscreen vignettes of Joan Jonas (for example, "Volcano Saga" of 1987). Kurt Schwitters' various Merzbau may have been yet another point of reference for Eno, particularly with respect to the Quiet Clubs.

  35. Eno, quoted in Kevin Eden, "Ambient Lightworks", p. 35.

  36. Eno, quoted in Kevin Eden, "Ambient Lightworks", p. 39.

  37. Eno, Music for Civic Recovery Centre, Opal, 2000.

  38. Eno, "New Life of Brian", p. 42. Eno himself writes that his video works were in part produced "from a mixture of nostalgia and hope, and from the desire to make a quiet place for myself." (From the liner notes to Eno's video painting Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan, Opal/Hendring, 1987).

  39. Eno himself told me, though without conveying further details, that he was unable to realise the project of opening the Clubs. Private conversation, London, Sunday, 25 June, 2000.

  40. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Faber, 1986. Sennett also made remarks about the decline of public space pertinent to the present essay at a talk given at the Serpentine Gallery, London, on 30 July, 2001. NB the remark from Eno, quoted in Kevin Eden, "Ambient Lightworks", p. 39: "I've thought a lot about public spaces...and how they aren't used very well. They're kind of ignored spaces, nobody thinks they're wonderful to put their work into...".

NB: This essay employs and adapts material from three unpublished texts by Peter Suchin: "The Art of Brian Eno" (1978), "s on Noise" (1998), and a letter to Eno, dated 7 April, 2001. It was first published in the journal Two Nine Two, No. 3, 2002.