Brian Eno – Reflection (2017)

I first heard Brian Eno’s Reflection as part of a mix titled The Pastel Theatre, on the Ambient Landscape blog, quite a few years ago. I liked that mix (still do), and it got me curious about the source material. Back then I got the 54 minute long version on CD (I rarely buy CDs nowadays).

It definitely resembles Eno’s earlier attempts at “generative ambient” and the most obvious thread that I can see goes from Thursday Afternoon via Neroli and Lux to Reflection. I’d put Thursday Afternoon as a close second to Reflection; Lux in hindsight (I mean now that we have Reflection) feels like a sketch that lacks a bit of substance; Neroli I find too dark, all in all.

I eventually learned that in the case of Reflection though, it’s the first time that we can actually hear how generative ambient is meant to be. The CD, download and streaming versions defeat the idea of the project: they’re a recording, but Reflection is really an algorithm that is constantly performing โ€” and with the CD, download and streaming versions, you’re getting a recording of the performance, not the actual performance.

If you ever listened to a Western Mockingbird, you know that they repeat individual elements of their repertoire, but never sing the same arrangement twice. They always recombine the elements that they sing, and it’s delightful. The CD and streaming versions of Reflection are like a recording of the song of a mockingbird โ€” they’re missing the ever-changing nature of the performance.

The “real” Reflection is an app that is, both unfortunately and to my great luck, available for iOS, iPadOS and TvOS (sorry, Android users and all others). It’s also quite a bit more expensive than the CD/download version, but I think deservedly so: for the very first time, we get to listen to truly generative music. The algorithm performs on your phone, in your pocket. I think it’s nothing else but revolutionary.

Eno made some forays into this with other apps that play music based on user interaction (and/or fall back to an algorithmic sound) and I guess Reflection is the culmination of these efforts.

The app version greets you with a spartan user interface. The first thing that you see is the season you’re in before some simply color animation fades in as the sound begins to play. I noticed slightly different sounds. There was a gentle, wind-like wooshing every now and then. A simple synth-pad appears, rarely, that swells in and out like a small wave that gentle rolls into the sand, leftover of a bigger wave. The tapping onto what I find sounds like Tibetian singing bowls (that also reminded me of the bell at a railroad crossing:) seemed to be new as well. Was this new in the “deluxe” version that I had downloaded?

At some point I thought “well, I guess I’ve sort of heard it all now…” and then two weeks later, I launched the app again and “it” had moved on without me, and sounded different. It was the same sounds, but it felt like more of the same notes followed each other, it was a little more monotonous that way, and the intervals between notes had also changed. The difference was noticeable and I was fascinated, all over again.

Now, I wouldn’t laud music and add it to my virtual “Best of Ambient” box solely for a technical achievement. It has to do something for me, and Reflection absolutely does. It is, and this may sound odd, wonderfully “sterile” and neutral. The music has, in the best sense of Brian Eno’s original idea of “ambient”, no mood.

This gives it a purity that I find quite unique, and it works well as a background for all kinds of activities (somewhat similar to Ambient 1: Music For Airports in that regard; and the opposite of Ambient 4: On Land for me, which, with its organic sounds and brooding atmospheres, is full of mood).

The Reflection app also has a sleep timer and that’s the ONE thing that doesn’t work for me: listening to this music and trying to fall asleep. ๐Ÿ™‚ I find the volume changes and sounds too… intensive. Sometimes, the sounds ever so gently fade out over a rather long period of time (a very long “release” on the ADSR curve). This sounds like an ending, and that’s the point where one might drift away into sleep, but the algorithm never sleeps, of course… it picks up again โ€” and I’m pulled away from sleep.

If you’d like to dive in, you can stream/download “Reflection” on Bandcamp (priced at 1.60๏ฟก it’s a steal) or, if you must have yet more plastic in your house ๐Ÿ˜› the CD is readily available everywhere still too. But, as I wrote, the true nature of the work can only be heard in the “Reflection” app in Apple’s app store.