Thursday Afternoon

Brian Eno

Tracks: 1—Thursday Afternoon.

Tags: Ambient, Electronica, Minimalist, Drone

Release Date: October 1985

Rating: ★★★★★

When Compact Disc technology first became popular in the mid-1980s, it naturally became a challenge to electronic composer and experimental minimalist Brian Eno to come up with something unique to this new medium. At that time, a disc could easily handle up to 70 minutes of recording time. Eno’s trick was to create something that would be available exclusively on CD — a work consisting of a single, uninterrupted, ambient musical track lasting 61 minutes.

Composers Erik Satie (1866-1925) and Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) were supporters of what they called “furniture music” — musical constructs of such soft timbral expression that (in the words quoted by Music from the Hearts of Space producer Steven Hill) “they were as interesting as they were ignorable.” Satie’s Gymnopédies and György Ligeti’s Atmosphéres and Lux Aeterna (these latter two used in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey) are acoustic and vocal examples (respectively) of this genre. In all cases, the idea of a melodic line is lost in the pursuit of a more generalized, atmospheric sensation; there are no recognizable thematic motives, but instead the music moves as if following a meandering yet harmonically pleasant track. (It may be noted that the infamous Arnold Schöenberg [Pierro Lunaire] also created meandering musical lines in similar works; he is, however, best known for his abominable atonal music and, for the purposes of this review, he shall be soundly ignored.)

This music — a single presentation of 61 minutes — begins with the introduction of a soft “pedal,” or droning sound, which will remain for the entirety of the work. Individual tones appear soon after, singly, in pairs, in combinations that might suggest some sort of melody but which never quite fulfill that expectation. There is evidence of a major key with the occasional gentle dissonance of a diminished seventh note, but the drone — which itself consists of an open fifth whose top note is not emphasized — continues to provide unobtrusive, continuous support of the soft tapestry of the work. Occasionally, some other sounds will appear, again without emphasis or regularity, from momentary, gentle, not-quite-chords to a background sound of a downward-sliding octave. The music exists but barely moves as if shimmering in aetheric light or, as a friend put it, “something you might experience if you were floating in a sensory deprivation tank.”

Just as this music exists almost without moving, so did Eno create a video of some 82 minutes in length (extending this musical track still further), showing a woman standing against a very simple stage setting, and during which time there is virtually no movement whatsoever. According to Wikipedia sources, the film was originally distributed with the picture “on its side,” forcing the viewer either to watch it lying down or to reorient the physical monitor on which he watched it. Either option caused issues, and when a DVD was released, an option existed to correct this, allowing the viewer to watch it “sitting up.”

This music will not satisfy anyone who wishes a tuneful work, or who is seeking something for attention and memory to grab hold of. It is an excellent example of what is sometimes called a “drone space.” Paradoxically, it is not music meant to be listened to, but rather to be experienced. I find it perfect for helping me focus on my writing, particularly my fiction work, precisely because it has nothing fixed or uniquely identifiable to distract me; instead, it is the equivalent of a light blanket on a mild summer night, providing a comforting cloak that, in its way, both is and is not there.

I apologize for speaking in riddles and Zen koans, but that is the delicious paradox of drone space. I recommend this work for anyone who wishes to create a sense of focused quiet that is not the “absence of sound” but instead is a gentle, warm space in which one may work, relax, meditate, or invite friends in to talk or play games. It enables focus, whether alone or in groups. If you want to try it, my advice is to start the disc, set at normal or even lower than normal volume for your system, and promptly forget about it. You’ll find yourself far more relaxed afterward, perhaps even wondering why. Never mind why. Enjoy.

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