April 23, 2013

Paging Doctor Eno

When I started exploring electronic music a few years ago it was only a matter of time before I discovered the particular ghetto of the genre called “ambient.” In a lot of ways it shares some of the characteristics of progressive rock – it’s often epic, lacks anything “catchy” upon which a listener might cling, and has a somewhat sullied reputation. I’m not sure whether this recent development will help or hurt that reputation.

Brian Eno is generally credited with giving a name to, if not outright starting, the ambient genre back in the 1970. The idea was to create music that designed to work as part of a particular environment, to be, as it were, aural wallpaper. For example, the first album to explicitly label itself “ambient,” Eno’s 1978 Ambient 1: Music for Airports was inspired by his unpleasant experience with the atmosphere of a German airport. In the liner notes, he explained:
Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

* * *

Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.
Shift scene, then, to Brighton, England, in 2010, where Eno has installed a music/art piece called “77 Million Paintings.” Enter surgeon Robin Turner:
His mother-in-law also went, said Turner, and ‘she is normally very fidgety, you can’t pin her down; the phrase we use is that she goes at a million miles an hour with her hair on fire. She went in and was there for two hours, which is unheard of. It was proof that this has a calming influence on people’.
The experience prompted Turner to get in touch with Eno, the result being a “hospital quiet room” designed by Eno for a new hospital in Hove. Eno jumped at the chance:
It was the first time, he said, that he had been able to practise his belief that music can be made that deliberately affects mood. ‘I’ve met many women who have had children listening to one of my records so I knew there was this dimension and here, in the last couple of days I’ve met patients and staff who have said, ‘I really like that room, it makes a big difference’.
Turner and staff are going to collect hard biometric data to see if it backs up positive anecdotal reports.

It’s long been said that “[m]usic has charms to soothe a savage breast,” but I’m still not sure it’s the best PR for a genre derided as boring and coldly intellectual that it has the power to calm elderly ADHD patients. One thing’s for certain – if you really want to be sedated, call Doctor Eno, not The Ramones.

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