The lights inside Royal Festival Hall in London dim and a bass drone fills the 2,700-capacity theater as musicians begin to walk onstage. First come the flutes pacing in from both flanks, then French horns, trombones, and nine violinists. An arsenal of percussion instruments is perched on an elevated riser: timpanis rumble and woodblocks clonk above the sea of building harmonies.
In the center, a single spotlight illuminates Brian Eno, 75 years old, wearing a bright pink suit, playing the “first tour” of his five-decade career.
Eno was the “non-musician” who coined the term ambient music—typically understood to mean soft, minimal mood music designed for passive listening. The 1975 experimental album Discreet Music was envisioned like a proto Chill Beats to Study To playlist: “You could pay attention or you could choose not to be distracted by it if you wanted to do something while it was on,” Eno said in a 1982 interview with U.K. music magazine Trouser Press. The influence of his early 1970s ambient albums like Music for Airports have reverberated loudly (though quite softly, in a literal sense) through generations of electronic, new age, and contemporary classical music. Eno is even cited as an influence on André 3000’s new flute-forward album, New Blue Sun.
Throughout his career, Eno always worked behind the scenes, producing albums for everyone from David Bowie to Fred Again. He hasn’t performed live except for rare one-offs, but in late 2023, the ambient pioneer amassed a 30-person orchestra to play seven shows across Europe.
In London, after 30 minutes of pensive soundscapes, the orchestra erupts into a bombastic theme that blows the audience’s hair back like a TV ad for Maxwell cassettes. It is the least ambient-sounding thing imaginable—which begs the question: Why, after 50 years of making music meant to be enjoyed in the background, would Brian Eno decide to tour?
Eno has a cold that won’t quit. In Paris, he is seen drinking garlic tea onstage with a tote bag of medicine at his feet. In London, he apologizes for the state of his voice: “If it sounds like an old man singing plaintively about his childhood, just imagine that’s what’s happening. It’s not too hard to imagine,” he says.
Brian Eno’s childhood began on May 15, 1948, in Suffolk (population: 5,000). There was a U.S. military base nearby, which is how Eno found records from American R&B vocal groups like the Silhouettes. While attending Ipswich Art School, about two hours northeast of London, he read John Cage’s book Silence as inspiration. One of Eno’s first pieces featured him striking a metal lampshade like a bell, then playing the recording back at different speeds.
After art school, he moved to a commune in London and cofounded Roxy Music in 1971. Eno’s glam-rock costuming and VCS3 synthesizer started drawing attention away from frontman Bryan Ferry. Crowds chanted “Eno!” at a festival show; then Ferry had the band’s manager kick Eno out. Eno “retired, in the main, from stage appearances,” as he told NME, preferring more ambient pursuits and studio experimentation.
Retiring from live performances at age 25 is a bold decision—and admittedly a little overzealous. Eno, in a recent letter written to his 21-year-old self, expressed regret about some of these types of youthful convictions.
“Sometimes, you must admit, you haven’t thought those matters through very carefully, and yet you argue for them as though you’ve spent years thinking about them,” he wrote in the Independent.
If it weren’t for an auto accident, we might not have the term “ambient music.”
In January 1975, Eno was struck by a taxi, hospitalized, and bedridden for weeks. The story goes that a friend brought him an album of harp music, but the stereo was too low and one speaker was unplugged. Eno wasn’t able to get up to fix it. As such, the music faded into the background, blending with the rain outside his window.
“I could hardly hear the music above the rain—just the loudest notes, like little crystals, sonic icebergs rising out of the storm,” he wrote in an essay from 1978 that was included in his book A Year With Swollen Appendices.
This sparked an evolution in Eno’s output. His art-rock extravagance was stripped down into tonal compositions intended to become a part of the environment rather than demanding one’s focus.
This wasn’t necessarily a new concept. Erik Satie called it “furniture music,” French composer Pierre Schaeffer used the term “music concrete,” elevator companies called it “Muzak,” and John Cage called it 4:33. Building on those ideas, Eno’s four albums from his late ’70s, early ’80s ambient series were foundational for the genre. Eno said he was abandoning pop music conventions of “action and variety, clear rhythms and song structures, and, most of all, voices.” He characterized ambient music by its “stillness, homogeneity, lack of surprises, and most of all, lack of variety.” In 2017, Eno told Pitchfork that for something to be considered ambient music, it has to be devoid of a centerpiece. “If there’s a personality there, that’s who you’ll follow,” he said.
One of the first experiments along these lines was Discreet Music. The first track is a generative drone composed for King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp to noodle over, followed by a suite of three experimental versions of “Canon in D Major.” If you need a Brian Eno album to study to, this is it.
Next came Another Green World, which straddles Eno’s rock and ambient eras. There are still voices—quite catchy ones on “I’ll Come Running”—but it also paints vivid audio landscapes inspired by nature (“In Dark Trees,” “Little Fishes,” “Sombre Reptiles”) and includes his most grandiose song, “The Big Ship,” which lit bros will recognize from the David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour.
The following release was the first in Eno’s four-album ambient series: Music for Airports, a calming choral soundtrack to a layover. Then his biggest “hit” came in 1983 with the outer-space atmospheres of “An Ending (Ascent),” which was composed for a NASA documentary and compiled into the album Apollo. It is still his most streamed song to this day, the opening track of the Ambient Essentials playlist on Spotify (The Ringer’s parent company), and a standout soundtrack moment in the single calm scene in the zombie flick 28 Days Later. In the movie, the song drifts in the background, just like Eno intended.
“The whole point of ambient music was to say, look, it’s not as if people were going to sit down in front of their speakers and focus,” Eno told The New York Times in 2022.
Music has become so embedded in most people’s lives that it is rarely the center of attention. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the average person spent 177 minutes a day listening to music in 2023. The most popular way to listen to music is in the car (50 percent), followed by commuting to work or school (45 percent), relaxing or unwinding (41 percent), or housework (39 percent). Thirty percent of those surveyed across 26 countries listen to music while taking a bath or shower.
Multitasking while listening to music is now almost guaranteed, and as you might expect, the context dictates whether users will play Music for Airports or Harry Styles’s “Music for A Sushi Restaurant.” Seventy-five percent of respondents to a Spotify survey agreed that music needs to be tailored to a specific activity or environment. That same survey inexplicably lists that the no. 1 chill/ambient song on Spotify as Drake’s “Chicago Freestyle” (but to be honest, Drake began fading into the background years ago).
What began as a philosophical approach to compositional has now become a catchall genre term that includes everything from hours-long chunks of white noise to the softer side of Aphex Twin. The calming nature sounds played in the background of a yoga session? That’s ambient. A “sound bath” held at a new-age nondenominational church? That’s ambient, too. The symphony of bleeps and bloops produced by a mountainous modular synth? Also ambient. André 3000 noodling on the flute alongside hotshot L.A. jazz heads? Now that’s what I call ambient!
Eno himself isn’t even sure what the term ambient stands for anymore. On the liner notes for Reflection, he wrote that the genre has “swollen to accommodate some quite unexpected bedfellows.” Ambient musicians latched on to stylistic elements of quiet and mellow tones, but on a philosophical level, Eno believes ambient music can also be quite unpleasant and even sinister (he cited “On Land”).
Reflection was the height of Eno’s ambient experiments, both sonically and technologically. The 2017 album was purely generative and available as an app that would stream an ever-evolving composition. “My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be,” he wrote in the liner notes.
Perhaps it was because he’d hit Peak Ambient, or because humanity has hit rock bottom in terms of attention span, but Eno’s latest album, FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE, is a total about-face. It’s a response to the idea that due to relentless multitasking, all music is now ambient music. “I’m trying to make a space where people can rest their attention in one place for a while. One of the epidemics of now is the inability to focus or concentrate,” he told the Times.
In a vintage live TV broadcast of “Seven Deadly Finns” on TopPop, Eno sings to a TV audience from in front of a green screen. One YouTube commenter remarked that “he acts about as interested as a banker waiting for a sandwich at the deli.”
Despite his early “retirement,” Eno did make several returns to live settings throughout the ’70s. He formed a supergroup dubbed ACNE (Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico, and Eno) in 1974 and made some drones with Fripp in Paris in 1975. There’s a festival performance floating around from 1990, a live collab with Can that’s soon to be released for the first time, a piano duet performance at the Acropolis in 2021 with his brother, Roger. He’s also done countless academic talks and enough installations and visual art to fill a 400-page book. So Eno isn’t particularly shy, but these shows are the first time that he’s been under a literal spotlight.
At the concert in London, Eno isn’t much more active than on Top of the Pops. As one might expect from a 75-year-old with a cold, Eno’s stage presence is mainly an argument for pink menswear. His primary instrument that night is his voice, singing while manipulating a vocoder synth and lightly clapping his hands during “Who Gives a Thought” from FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE. He stands still with the orchestra orbiting him, instrumentalists walking the stage in the style of David Byrne’s wireless American Utopia tour.
Not surprisingly, there were signs outside the concert halls on this tour with a personal request from Eno for attendees to keep their phones in their pockets.
When Eno stopped performing live in the mid-’70s, he began producing albums for some of the world’s biggest rock stars (and most animated live performers in the world). He worked with Byrne on five albums, produced Devo’s debut, made four U2 albums and two Coldplay albums, and even crashed a Television recording session (his contributions were reportedly not appreciated, but this “Marquee Moon” demo sure sounds a lot like the Warm Jets).
Eno made the recording studio both his instrument and his stage. He emphasized avant-garde songwriting techniques and fused electronic soundscapes with radio hooks. His Bowie collaboration is a prime example. The B-side of Low could easily be retitled Another Another Green World. The soaring harmonies of “Heroes”—Eno is credited as cowriter on the title track—give way to ambient excursions devoid of “clear rhythms and song structures, and, most of all, voices.” The surround-sound orchestral odyssey of “Subterraneans” is a great example, and it bears a striking resemblance to the soundscapes of Eno’s London concert.
You can hear Eno in Bowie’s sound, but he’s also very present in the vision. During the Berlin Trilogy, Bowie relied heavily on a deck of cards called Oblique Strategies, which Eno designed (and which was for sale at the London concerts). Each card has a different creative instruction: cut a vital connection, work at a different speed, or simply, water. On “Sense of Doubt,” Bowie and Eno would blindly pick cards as they traded versions of the song back and forth. The legend goes that Eno’s pulled “simple subtraction,” and Bowie got “emphasize the differences.” During the Lodger sessions, the cards inspired the band to use their instruments in unfamiliar ways (“Change instrument roles”) and play melodies backward (... “Backwards”).
Eno would serve as a creative guru on so many other monumental records that it’s hard to even name-check them all, using every Oblique Strategy in the deck. But it seems that sometime in early 2023, he pulled “Is there something missing?”
For Brian Eno devotees, that missing piece is a concert ticket stub. In a brief conversation with Uncut Magazine leading up to his fall 2023 concerts, he described what appeals to him conceptually about a live event. “I think as everything else becomes easier and more reproducible, that which isn’t reproducible becomes more valuable. You pay more attention,” he said.
That isn’t a particularly profound idea in its own right—what’s striking is how it seems to contradict Eno’s old ideas about passive listening. Attention is the very thing Eno rejected when he walked off the glam-rock stage to write a symphony for claiming one’s luggage.
You can play “An Ending” softly on repeat for an hour because there’s nowhere to look, nothing to see here except a Yamaha DX7 organ preset and a cloud of reverb. Ambient music doesn’t demand your attention, which is why it’s so effective at enhancing your attention. Most purely ambient music (not counting subgenres like ambient house/industrial/pop) simply isn’t intended for active listening unless you’re preparing for a nap (in which case I suggest Max Richter’s Sleep). Performed live, the 45-minute suite of The Ship still has the type of mellow and meditative tones that are associated with ambient music, but the orchestral arrangements are so sonically playful that it becomes an exciting exercise in active listening. The musical focal point shifts around the orchestra every few measures, the audience’s eyes and ears following the musicians as they traverse the stage. There is a surprising amount of personality in the compositions, conductor Kristjan Järvi pulling instruments in and out like a dub producer at a mixing board.
Then, as if to reward the audience, Eno shrugs off any further ambient pretense with the two most memorable songs of the night—an immaculate cover of his old collaborator Nico, “I’m Set Free,” and a stunning rendition of “By This River,” the emotional backbone of Before and After Science (and perhaps his entire catalog).
I don’t think it was on anyone’s Eno Set List Bingo Card, but next he played two songs on the rare 2005 album Another Day on Earth (currently unavailable for streaming). “And Then So Clear” is a luxuriously textured ballad that even the biggest Eno fans likely spent six minutes trying to place. The dissonant drones of “Bone Bomb” could be considered textbook ambient, but a spoken-word monologue about terrorism in Palestine and Israel makes it anything but a passive listen. After the song, Eno condemned the civilian casualties in Gaza and said that proceeds from the show would be donated to Palestinian aid organizations.
The London concert concluded with two songs from FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE. In “Making Gardens Out of Silence,” the percussionists twirled orange sticks above their heads. During “There Were Bells,” spotlights beamed onto four massive disco balls, reflecting throughout the hall as Eno sang the closing lyrics: “There were those who ran away, there were those who had to stay, in the end, they all went the same way.”
For a monumental concert like this, many artists would choose a set list of greatest hits or play their most popular album front to back. Eno didn’t do that; rather, he essentially skipped the late ’70s to the mid-2000s completely, the period of work that he’s most often associated with. Despite the moment of fan service with “By This River,” an offhand remark in London about the song being nearly 50 years old hinted at some nostalgia, but also a detachment from his older self.
After almost two hours of Eno’s orchestra, those youthful pretensions about passive listening suddenly felt ancient, impressions chosen from another time. As he stood in the middle of the stage, wearing a pink suit jacket, no less, the moniker “godfather of ambient music” no longer seemed to apply. Eno and his music finally stepped out of the background and into the center of attention.
An earlier version of this piece misstated which synthesizer Eno played in Roxy Music.
Dan Gentile is a journalist, DJ, and music producer based in San Francisco. He currently works as the culture editor at SFGATE, where he has won awards for commentary and investigative reporting. He has freelanced for publications like Rolling Stone, Wax Poetics, Red Bull Music Academy, VICE, Texas Monthly, and more. His recent “ambient” album Night Swim was released in November 2023 on Horisontal Mambo Records.