Eric Tamm – Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound

With this book, Eric Tamm takes one of the deepest looks ever put to paper about an electronic musician.

Tamm’s book, Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, is divided into two main sections. The first is a review of Brian Eno and his work in the context of modern music. This looks at both his role in the world of popular music and where he fits in the world of “art” music. It also looks at his background, influences, working methods, and the ideas that infuse his work.

The second part of his book looks in detail at Eno’s recordings. It examines both his rock and ambient music, and traces how Eno’s rock albums evolved into ambient pop:

PART I – Eno in the world of music

  • One: Eno’s work in perspective
  • Two: Backgrounds and influences
  • Three: On other music: Eno as critic
  • Four: The ear of the non-musician
  • Five: Listeners and aims
  • Six: The compositional process
  • Seven: The musician as philosopher

Part II – Eno’s Music

  • Eight: Taking rock to the limit
  • Nine: Eno’s progressive rock: The music
  • Ten: The ‘ambient sound’
  • Eleven: Collaborations
  • Twelve: Essence, History and Beauty

Tamm begins by putting Brian Eno’s work in perspective. He gives a good summary of Eno’s position in the world of music:

“He is a prime example of a new type of composer who has drawn freely on the resources of many types of music and ideas about music. These include a variety of popular genres such as rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, progressive rock, punk, and new wave, as well as African, Middle Eastern, and oriental styles. Also notable among his influences are minimalism, experimental new music, post-Cage avant-garde ideas, and electronic music. Eno has combined music with visual art in the form of video and sculptural installations, has lectured on musical subjects extensively, and is the author or co-author of a number of written materials. Although he has performed live, his primary arena of operation is the recording studio, which he has called his real instrument. In addition to the knobs and switches of the mixing board and multi-track tape recorder, Eno plays keyboards (primarily synthesizer), guitar (primarily electric), electric bass, and a variety of percussion instruments, he is also a singer.”

The overview is respectful and insightful, without fawning over Eno. Tamm states that “Eno’s music has received sustained critical attention out of all proportion to the (rather meager) number of records he has sold.” Tamm’s matter-of-fact approach is refreshing, and it helps put Eno’s place in music into perspective. Eno’s music is interesting and important, but Tamm points out that his greatest influence may be through the artists that he has influenced.

Tamm also sees the paradoxes encapsulated in Eno’s music, that it sometimes seems mindless in its simplicity.

“Is Eno’s music divinely simple or merely simplistic? Is it primal and elemental, or primitive and elementary? If it proceeds from a wondrous, enchanting ‘What if?’ attitude, do the results sometimes call for a cynical ‘So what?’ response? Eno himself combines a sophisticated, well-read intellectual sensibility with a vulnerable, child-like curiosity, in an alchemical mixture as rare in the rock world as outside it. Faced with the paradox, the listener must ultimately make his own decision.”

The second chapter looks at Eno’s influences. Tamm covers Eno’s pop music influences, and discusses how Eno was most interested in music that had arrived in Britain without a context. Doo-wop, for example, seemed foreign and exotic to Eno, because it came to Europe without a context or history. Tamm also notes several important influences from the classical world on Eno, including John Cage, Eric Satie, and the early minimal composers, especially Steve Reich.

Tamm even points out historical trails of ideas that Eno has developed. One example is Cage’s discussion of Satie, and its influence on Eno:

“In discussing Satie’s music to accompany the sounds of knives and forks, Cage says that ‘It is evidently a question of bringing one’s intended actions into relation with the ambient unintended ones.’ Although Eno has never publicly said as much, this reference to ‘ambient’ sounds is very likely the genesis of Eno’s own concept of ambient music, or at least the source of his use of the word. Later on the same page, Cage characteristically defines silence as ‘ambient noise.’ Cage quotes Satie again:

‘They will tell you I am not a musician. That’s right … Take the Fils des Etoiles or the Morceaux en forme de poire, En habit de cheval or the Sarabandes, it is clear no musical idea presided at the creation of these works.’

Again, although one may not be exactly sure how to interpret Satie’s blend of irony, bitterness, and wit, the statement ‘I am not a musician’ was taken up eagerly by Eno in the 1970’s, and became almost his motto or credo, however numerous the misunderstandings to which it has given rise may be.”

It’s clear, reading passages like this, that Tamm has done his work researching Eno and reflecting on what he found.

Another good example of the depth of Tamm’s research is found in his discussion of the influence of Steve Reich on Eno. Tamm pieces together several sources of information into a compelling explanation of the effects of minimal music and their influence on Eno:

“Although Eno has spoken with admiration of Riley’s music, a more decisive minimalist influence on his work was Steve Reich’s (b. 1936) phase tape pieces. In a 1985 interview he singled out Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain as probably ‘the most important piece that I heard, in that it gave me an idea I’ve never ceased being fascinated with – how variety can be generated by very, very simple systems.’ “

Eno continues:

“I heard this in the early 1970’s, which was just at the time that most of the people that I was involved with were doing exactly the opposite thing. Twenty-four track recorders had just become current, and the idea was to make more and more grotesque, Gothic pieces of music, filling up every space and every corner of the canvas. And to hear something that was as alive as this Reich piece, and so simple, was a real shock to me … I thought, I can do this. It’s not hard.’ [laughs]”

This passage also gives significant insight into Eno’s ear for music and his compositional approach. Tamm makes it clear that, while Cage’s writing helped open up the ideas of ambient sound to Eno, Reich’s work gave Eno license to think as a serious composer.

The chapter about Eno as a critic reviews Eno’s writing on other music. The chapter gives a little insight into how thinks about other music, his likes and dislikes, and a deeper understanding of his influences. The chapter, again, is well-researched, and covers Eno’s writing on many musical styles. The quotes Tamm has chosen reveal much about Eno’s interests, and Tamm’s commentary helps show how Eno’s opinions of other music shaped his own.

“Like many other white musicians of the late 1970’s (most notably the Police, who forged a distinctive popular style based on the angular vocal melodies and off-beat bass lines of reggae), Eno was fascinated with the sounds of Jamaican reggae music. Once again, it was the procedure of how the music was put together, as much as the sound itself, that interested Eno:

‘The contemporary studio composer is like a painter who puts things on, puts things together, tries things out, and erases them. The condition of the reggae composer is like that of the sculptor, I think. Five or six musicians play, they’re well isolated from one another. Then the thing they played, which you can regard as a kind of cube of music, is hacked away at – things are taken out, for long periods.

A guitar will appear for two strums, then never appear again, the bass will suddenly drop out, and an interesting space is created. Reggae composers have created a sense of dimension in the music, by very clever, unconventional use of echo, by leaving out instruments, and by the very open rhythmic structure of the music.’

The ‘sculptural’ approach has clearly influenced Eno’s own way of composing. It is characteristic that he has shown no interest in reggae’s political implications, neither in terms of the indigenous philosophy or life-style of Rastafarianism nor in terms of Western white musicians and audiences finding some sort of meaning in expressing solidarity with the Third World through the reggae beat – Bob Dylan’s use of a Jamaican rhythm section on his 1983 album Infidels being a typical case in point. Eno’s interest is in the sound of the music, in the engineering point of view, in what the music can teach him as a composer, if a ‘political’ meaning of music is important to Eno at all, it is restricted to the local level of interaction between musicians and between musicians and audience.”

In this chapter, Tamm effectively makes connections between music and ideas that would otherwise seem disparate. This selection, for example, connects techniques found in Reggae music with Eno’s mature work, which sounds nothing like reggae. Nevertheless, Tamm helps point out that many of the techniques that Eno uses are ones that he could hear in the studio work of reggae musicians.

Chapter 4, The Ear of the Non-Musician, looks at Eno’s art school background, and how Eno’s non-traditional training influences his approach to music. It discusses ideas that were popular when Eno was in school, such as the processes of art being the art itself.

It also introduces a key idea of the book, that Eno’s music is “vertical”. Calling Eno’s music “vertical” is Tamm’s way of saying that the music doesn’t conform to traditional western ideas of music being linear, or of having a time-based form.

“Much of Eno’s music is constructed on a vertical basis: to a great extent, it is music concerned with the sheer color of sound, rather than with the linear (horizontal) growth of melodies. Each moment in Eno’s music presents certain tone colors or timbres, and the interest lies in the relationships between these colors – rather than in the evolution of thematic material, which has been the norm in most Western art music for centuries.”

Tamm’s characterization, while valid, seems to be a slight oversimplification. It’s true that Eno’s work doesn’t follow a traditional linear progression, or display traditional forms. It does change in significant ways over time, though. In his earliest ambient pieces, like his proto-ambient Discreet Music, Eno uses filtering and equalization to change the sound of the synthesizer lines in important ways over time.

Eno’s discussion of his approach in Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts makes clear that he’s most interested in creating systems that generate interesting music. Eno’s approach is to create sound paintings that have enough stasis to be consistent and recognizable, yet that have enough variety to be interesting. This tension between the static sound that identifies an individual piece and the range of infinite possibilities is what makes Eno’s approach to music interesting.

In fact, in Eno’s 1978 line notes for his Ambient series, Eno states that ambient music should be “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Tamm’s “vertical” characterization is certainly an important aspect of Eno’s music; Eno’s work embraces a sort of stasis that is unusual in western classical music. However, his music would be dull if this were not balanced with the tension generated by unexpected variation. The crux of understanding Eno’s sound is appreciating not just the “vertical” aspect of his music, but in also understanding the tension Eno generates between stasis and randomness, in “generating and organizing variety” within his music.

Tamm also discusses the idea of craftsmanship within Eno’s music. Eno is not a trained musician, is proficient but not virtuosic on the instruments he plays, and even questions the idea that he is a musician. Tamm provides an excellent discussion of Eno’s views:

“This resolute lack of technique has become an integral part of Eno’s whole philosophical approach to music-making. Whether out of inner or outer defensiveness, or out of honest self-examination, he has come up with a variety of justifications for remaining a ‘non-musician.’ One is that lack of technique almost forces one to be creative: it makes one confront one’s vulnerability. Eno explains:

‘I’ve seen musicians stuck for an idea, and what they’ll do between takes is just diddle around, playing the blues or whatever, just to reassure themselves that, Hey, I’m not useless. Look, I can do this.’ But I believe that to have that [technique] to fall back on is an illusion. It’s better to say, I’m useless,’ and start from that position. I think the way technique gets in the way is by fooling you into thinking that you are doing something when you actually are not.'”

Tamm shows that Eno views technique as a double-edged sword. It can be useful for creating and recreating music, but it can also be a crutch that can substitute for creative insight.

Tamm summarizes Eno’s craft and approach:

“Eno’s primary asset, as with any composer, is his ear. Particularly since he works with sounds on tape rather than notes on the page, listening is his primary compositional activity. He has stressed again and again that the problem with many musicians, whether studio instrumentalists, instrumental virtuosi, synthesizer wizards, or computer-music composers, is that they do not listen to what they are doing. For his part, he is content to work with sound materials that he can understand, however minimal they may appear. As he has said, ‘The greater you understand the structure of something, the more you’ll be amazed at the tiniest movement within it. In that sense the possibilities are limitless.’

As we have already seen, some of the musicians Eno admires most are those who have realized that there are really distinct advantages to working within a quite restricted range of possibilities. Ultimately, this line of thought can become a transformational philosophy applicable to the whole of life, not just to musical composition. As Eno has advised, ‘Regard your limitations as secret strengths. Or as constraints that you can make use of.’

By 1981, if not before, Eno had come to the conclusion that the recording studio and the empirical method of composing has created a new art form, a whole new kind of music’: In some sense it’s so different that it really should be called by a different name. The only similarity is that people listen to it, so it enters through the same sense, but in the way it’s made it’s really a different thing.'”

The fifth chapter looks at Listeners and Aims. This includes a deep exploration of Eno’s ambient sound, and Tamm provides many great quotes from Eno. His coverage of Eno’s ideas about ambient music one of the most interesting sections of the book.

This chapter also provides some of Tamm’s most interesting writing.

Tamm begins by quoting Eno:

“‘Critics can’t stand these records, by and large, because in their search for eternal adolescence they still want it all to be spunky and manic and witty. They come back to rock music again and again, expecting to feel like kids. That isn’t what I want from music anymore – not in quite that way. I’m interested in the idea of feeling like a very young child, but I’m not interested in feeling like a teenager.’

The last paragraph in this quotation ties in with Eno’s many reservations about rock in general. Clearly, his ambient music has been aimed at a different audience than his progressive rock music, or at least at a different mode of receptivity. With his ambient works, Eno has explicitly tried to make music that is not too self-assertive, that does not intrude too much, that does not dare its audience to listen nor threaten them if they choose not to – yet at the same time, music that is complex and deep enough to sustain and reward close listening. His ambient music is designed to be played at low or medium volume, high volume settings do violence to the sense and spirit of the music. Close listening reveals a constantly changing soundscape, yet paradoxically the same music can seem static and uneventful, though benign enough, if one is not really paying attention. Critics of Eno’s ambient works have often complained that nothing much happens in the music. He answers such criticism by comparing his musical works to paintings, in their aspect ‘as a sort of continuous part of the environment’ that one can choose to notice or to ignore:

‘If a painting is hanging on a wall where we live, we don’t feel that we’re missing something by not paying attention to it … Yet with music and video, we still have the expectation of some kind of drama. My music and videos do change, but they change slowly. And they change in such a way that it doesn’t matter if you miss a bit … The conventional commercial notion that people want a lot of stimulus and constant change simply isn’t true. In the world I come from, the pop world, there’s always this notion that the public is basically very lazy and has to be prodded all the time. So everything is loaded with so-called surprises and changes.'”

There are at least three layers of ideas going on within Tamm’s writing here. He’s quoting Eno, giving a view of the music straight from the source. He’s providing a context for how Eno’s music was received by critics and listeners. Finally, Tamm reveals, indirectly, something about his own ear and interpretation.

This chapter also includes an excellent discussion of Eno’s essay, Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts. This essay is key to understanding Eno’s approach to music, and is probably Eno’s clearest explanation of the ideas underlying his approach. Tamm places Eno’s ideas within a larger context of the world of other art music, and covers how Eno’s interest in cybernetics and systems shows itself within his work.

Chapter 6 covers Eno’s compositional process. Of greatest interest in this chapter is Tamm’s discussion of Eno’s use of the studio as a compositional tool.

“As Eno himself has pointed out, his musical work is so heavily dependent on technology that it could not have existed in any previous age. When he speaks of himself in terms of being a painter with sound, or a constructor of sonic landscapes, he is being more than metaphorical: for in a very real sense, magnetic tape is his canvas, and he applies his sound-substances to that canvas, mixes them, blends them, determines their shape, in a specific painterly’ way. He has just enough instrumental technique to give him his pigments’ to begin with, in the previous chapter we saw how he finds it much more difficult to work with initial recorded materials that already have a complexity of their own. His claim to be not so much a composer as a sound-painter is reinforced by his statements to the effect that the way he works with light in his video pieces is identical to the way he works with sound in his music.”

Tamm goes on to discuss Eno’s important lecture The Studio As Compositional Tool, which discusses the way recording has changed the nature of music, and how it can be used as a tool to make music that has never before existed.

Of interest to gear-heads, this chapter also discusses Eno’s use of synthesizers. Tamm briefly discusses the instruments that have been important elements of Eno’s sound, including the EMS Model AKS, Yamaha CS-80, Yamaha DX7, Arp 2600, Korg Micropreset, and Yamaha YC-45D organ.

In addition to the studio itself and synthesizers, Tamm points out that effects are an important part of Eno’s sound:

“Other important components of Eno’s mega-instrument are the innumerable electronic boxes or devices that can be added to a circuit, usually between the guitar or keyboard and amplifier, to alter the tone color and sound envelope characteristics. Typical effects to be got from these linking machines include echo, reverb, (intentional) distortion, flange, phase shift, chorus, and wah-wah. Some of these effects can also be produced at the mixing board, but it often makes a difference where in the total electronic circuit the sound-altering device is located: echoed fuzz may have a different sound profile than fuzzed echo. Possibilities multiply, as Eno has said,

‘The whole point of using effects devices is to try to reintroduce those idiosyncrasies into the sound, to take the sound out of the realm of the perfect and into the realm of the real. I’ll put any amount of junk in a long line after my synthesizer to see what will happen to it [the sound].’

Where possible, Eno likes to work with devices that make use of a foot-pedal – again, to give him a sense of physical control. He has no standard ‘line of junk’ – his configurations of sound-altering devices are always changing. He sees graphic equalization as being totally essential’ in most of the circuits he puts together, echo effects are almost as important, and he is liable to use two or even three echo devices at once, normally at the end of the chain nearest to the tape recorder. Echo and reverb are in a sense in a different class than other effects, since they create the illusion of the physical space where the music is taking place. The same instrument can be made to sound as if it is located in a small room, a large room, a concert hall, a stone cathedral, or even the Grand Canyon. Echo and reverb effects can evoke a whole geography.'”

Tamm’s discussion of effects is important, because they are so important to Eno’s sound, and have become essential elements of modern ambient music. The use of these cheap effects has largely been ignored by electronic musicians working in a classical context. As a result, Eno’s sonic explorations have been some of the most original uses of these tools.

Tamm goes beyond name-checking the equipment that Eno’ uses. He even diagrams a hypothetical studio configuration for one of Eno’s pieces. It shows how Eno uses equipment in conventional and unconventional ways to create unique effects, and the compositional function of various studio elements. This leads to Tamm’s discussion of Eno’s Systems of Composing. This section looks at how Eno works within his studio, what he does to create inspiration, what his working methods are.

Chapter 7 discusses The musician as philosopher. The theme of this chapter is a bit of a stretch, especially since Tamm has pointed out earlier that Eno doesn’t really consider himself a musician, and questions whether his work is even music. The chapter looks at underlying philosophical ideas within Eno’s music. Tamm discussion includes: Ultimate Realities, such as the existence of God; Culture and Information; The Masculine and the Feminine; Politics; and Metaphors and Images.

This chapter is less compelling that some of Tamm’s other chapters, though, because Eno’s music tends to be absolute music, rather than programmatic. While Eno’s music may convey wonder, it’s not really about a religion.

The second part of the book is an in-depth look at Eno’s music. Chapter 8, Taking Rock to the Limit, looks at Eno’s solo rock albums. Tamm focuses on albums where Eno is the primary composer. This chapter introduces each of Eno’s main solo works, and discusses their place at the fringe of the rock world.

Chapter 9, Eno’s Progressive Rock: The Music, digs in great detail into these works. It categorizes Eno’s pop work into five main groups: assaultive songs that attack the listener with distortion, driving beats and aggressive imagery; pop songs that have a more palatable sound; “strange” songs that combine elements of rock, pop and jazz to create a weird, wistful, or dreamlike effect; and hymn-like songs that feature slow diatonic melodies over string or organ-like backing; and instrumental pieces that anticipate Eno’s later work.

Tamm’s groupings are insightful, and he applies these categories to each of the pieces on Here come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before and After Science. Tamm then reviews each type of song, and dissects a prime example of each type.

For example, here is Tamm’s discussion of St. Elmo’s Fire:

“St. Elmo’s Fire (Green World) is the most unblushingly poppish song Eno has ever committed to record – it was doubtless prominent in the minds of those critics who called Another Green World Eno’s most accessible album – and it is a considerable puzzle why he did not release it as a single, as it seems to have most of the ingredients of a popular hit: conventional verse/refrain form, a lively beat, simple major tonality, pleasant and unobjectionable though original instrumentation, a dynamic guitar solo, suave falsetto harmonies on the refrain, and – most importantly – a genuine melodic/lyrical hook in the refrain (the words In the blue August moon/In the cool August moon’). If the song lacks one crucial element for the hit parade, it is the earthiness and sensuality of explicit romantic interest: St. Elmo’s Fire is a love song of a sort, but its imagery is too rarefied for the Top 40, telling of a couple’s metaphorical journey through moors, briars, endless blue meanders, fires, wires, highways and storms (‘Then we rested in a desert/Where the bones were white as teeth sir/And we saw St. Elmo’s fire/Splitting ions in the ether’). St. Elmo’s Fire is completely non-ironic, a beautiful pop song that accepts and embraces the limitations of the medium.

Only two musicians took part in making the song. Eno plays organ, piano, Yamaha bass pedals, desert guitars,’ and synthetic percussion (including tom-tom-drum-like and wood-block-like effects, whose driving rhythms compensate for the lack of actual drums), while Robert Fripp adds the Wimshurst guitar’ solo whose genesis has been described above (see p. 89). Overall, the texture in St. Elmo’s Fire is more dense than usual for Eno, but this is in keeping with the song’s more popular nature. At three minutes, it does not overstay its welcome. The song’s form is easily schematized:

Example 2

Form of St. Elmo’s Fire

  • Introduction (cumulative entrance of instruments)
  • Verse 1 (over major tonic chord)
  • Refrain (over ||: vi | V | IV :|| progression)
  • Verse 2
  • Refrain
  • Verse 3 (Wimshurst guitar warms up in background)
  • Wimshurst guitar solo (over Refrain chords)
  • Refrain
  • Fade-out over tonic chord

Straightforward as it is harmonically, rhythmically, melodically, and formally, Eno was correct in pointing out that songs like this cannot be reductively analyzed in such terms alone: ‘You can’t notate the sound of St. Elmo’s Fire.’ (Emphasis mine.)

Reading through Tamm’s detailed analysis made me want to revisit the recordings.

In addition to the thorough discussion of the solo rock albums, their place in rock history, and the music, Tamm shows a progression from Eno’s first rock album to his last that reveal Eno’s growing interest in ambient instrumental music.

In Chapter 10, Tamm gets into the The Ambient sound. This section is one of the most interesting of the book, and provides an excellent introduction to ambient music.

The bulk of this chapter looks at the work that Eno created in one of his richest creative periods, 1978-1982. In these years, Eno released the four albums that make up his Ambient series, Ambient I-IV. These works created ambient music as a style, and each album explored different musical territory, territory that artists are revisiting to this day.

Tamm brings the same depth of critical analysis to his discussion of Eno’s ambient works as he did to Eno’s rock music. Of particular interest is his discussion of one of the loveliest pieces from Eno’s Ambient 1, Music for Airports:

“‘2/1,’ the second piece on the first side, is the purest, and arguably most effective, of the four compositions. The only sound sources used are taped female voices singing single pitches with an absolutely unwavering tone production, on the syllable ah,’ for about five seconds per pitch. These sung notes have been electronically treated to give them a soft attack/decay envelope and a slight hiss that accompanies the tone. Once again, the pitch material is very limited: seven tones that taken together spell a Db major seventh chord with an added ninth. (See Example 10.)

Example 10

Harmonic content of ‘2/1’

The rhythm of ‘2/1’ is serially organized. As Eno has explained, each long note was recorded onto a separate piece of tape, and each piece of tape was made into a loop of a different length. The relationships between the lengths of the loops ‘aren’t simple, they’re not six to four. They’re like 27 to 79, or something like that. Numbers that mean they would constantly be falling in different relationships to one another.’ In fact, Eno did not measure the lengths precisely, but simply spun off what seemed like a ‘reasonable’ amount of extra tape for each note. ‘And then I started all the loops running, and let them configure in the way they chose to configure. So sometimes you get dense clusters and fairly long silences, and then you get a sequence of notes that makes a kind of melody.’

Thus the exact ratios between the cycles of repetition of the seven notes Eno deemed unimportant. For the record, the approximate duration of each cycle, determined through measurement with a stopwatch, is given in Example 11, the pitches are given in order of their first appearance.

Example 11

Approximate Duration of Pitch-Cycles in 2/1′

c’ eb’ f ab’ db’ f’ ab
21′ 17′ 25′ 18′ 31′ 20′ 22′

It is interesting to note that once again Eno’s pitch material adds up to a chord that is not in root position (that is, the theoretically strongest note, Db, is not the lowest note of the chord). Furthermore, the root Db, the one note capable of producing a high-level dissonance in the context (a minor second with the neighboring C), has the longest cycle of the whole set, and is thus heard least frequently. The competing tonics’ of Db and Ab exemplify the modal ambiguity found frequently in Eno’s music. Such music suggests a key, keys, or mode, but does not assert one unambiguously. The melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic cadences so important to the establishment of key in tonal music are completely absent here.

The balance between sound and silence is of the essence in ‘2/1,’ and in no other piece of Eno’s is silence itself so important. The composition, in its rarefied nature, its systematic use of long notes, and its serial organization, is reminiscent of Webern pieces like the first movement of his Symphony, Op. 21, of 1928, in spite of the different tonal idioms. Most critics and musicologists would agree, however, that even those initiated souls who have plotted out numerically the complex double canon among tone-row forms in that Symphony’s exposition are unlikely to have much success following the canon in real time without a score. In Eno’s ‘2/1,’ on the other hand, owing to the limited pitch material, the fixed, narrow register, and the slow rhythmic cycles, the informed listener has considerably greater hope of following the serial unfolding, should he or she choose to do so. Between the poles of airport ambiance and mental chess game, ‘2/1’ admirably lives up to its professed goal of being able to accommodate different levels of listening attention while offering different kinds of rewards at each level.”

Tamm recognizes that the depth of his analyis may be a musicalogical geek-out. However, like all good music analysis and criticism, Tamm’s writing will give a new depth of understanding and appreciation of Eno’s music to interested readers.

Chapter 11, Collaborations looks at Eno’s work with other musicians. Eno has a long history of working with other interesting musicians, and he often acts as a catalyst to help them create their best work. In fact, if you look at Eno’s work with other musicians, it’s not only a list of some of their best albums, but some of the best pop music of the last 30 years. His collaborations include: Robert Fripp’s ambient guitar work; David Bowie’s Low, Heroes, and Lodger; Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!; Talking Heads’ More Songs about Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light; and with U2 on many of their best albums.

Because Eno works as a producer or collaborator on these albums, Tamm does not go into as much detail in his discussion of these albums. These collaborations do reveal a great deal of Eno’s ability as a collaborator, and also of his insight and intelligence in understanding in the world of popular music.

Chapter 12, Essence, History and Beauty puts Eno’s work into a context within both western classical music and popular electronic music. It sums up Eno’s place.

This chapter, in some ways, serves to qualify Tamm’s work. Tamm recognizes that, while the tools of western classic music theory are great tools for understanding classical music, they are somewhat limited for understanding Eno’s music:

“Yet the theoretical tradition has had little direct impact on the way most people perceive music. Although theory and analysis certainly represent a continuous conversation – and probably an indispensable one – in the totality of the world’s musical discourse, I doubt whether a precise measurement of the tape-loop lengths of Eno’s ‘2/1′ is likely to hold any greater sway over most listeners’ reaction to the sounding surface than is an explanation of the operation of tone row forms in Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21. A suggestion that recurring cycles underlie the piece’s structure is enough, and Eno knows it.”

While Tamm recognizes the limitations of applying his training in classical theory to Eno’s music, he doesn’t use this as an excuse to shy away from dealing with the questions raised by Eno’s work.

The author provides several additional sections that add details that would have otherwise bogged down his writing. An Epilog updates the book with some of Eno’s more recent work. An extensive set of end notes and a bibliography provide sources for the annotations that appear throughout the book. Hardcore Eno fans will find these useful for finding both Eno’s most important writings and other writing related to Eno’s work. A Glossary defines terms that Tamm uses in the book that are part of the lingo of music theory, but that many readers may not be familiar with. Finally, a Discography identifies Eno’s recorded work through 1995, and is thorough without anal-retentive excess.

Brian Eno – His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound is one of the most thorough books ever written about a modern musician in the pop or art arena. It covers Eno’s music with obvious respect, but without fawning reverence. It is thorough, comprehensive and deep, attacks the important questions that Eno’s music raises, and subjects Eno’s music to fair critical scrutiny. Tamm’s book is the best written on Brian Eno and his music, the deepest look at ambient music, and one of the best books on electronic music that I’ve read.

While Tamm’s work is an excellent, essential book, it is not without weaknesses. The most obvious problem of the book is that it was originally written as a thesis. It is occasionally dry or academic as a result, which drains some of the life out of the subject matter.

Another weakness is the almost complete lack of illustrations. Additional illustrations would make the book much more accessible, and would give insight into Eno’s background as a visual artist. Eno’s album covers, for example, are sometimes visual representations of his music, and at other times amplify the ideas of moods contained in his music. Tamm at one point discusses sexuality and sexual roles in Eno’s work, and photos of Eno over time would help amplify this discussion. When Tamm discusses Eno’s studio and how he works, it would have been interesting to have photos to refer to for this, also.

Though Tamm emphasizes the “vertical color of sound” in Eno’s music, there is little discussion of Eno’s orchestration, or the instrumentation of his pieces. Eno sees himself as more of a sound painter, rather than a musician, and his use of tone color, sound effects, and reverberant spaces is a very important aspect of his music. Eno is also well-known for his use of Yamaha DX-7’s, and FM synthesis. Readers interested in his approach to orchestration, his sound palette, and the actual tone colors used in his work may be disappointed by Tamm’s coverage.

More discussion of Eno’s musical judgment would have been interesting, also. Tamm notes that Eno’s work is a bit of a paradox. It’s simple to the point of being simplistic. In fact, many musicians that listen to Eno’s work might think that “I could do that” by simply taking some pretty sounds, looping them, and adding a lot of reverb.

In fact, hundreds of musicians have done just that. There are now dozens of variations on ambient music: ambient pop, ambient trance, dark ambient, ambient rock, and so on. While many of the musicians inspired by Eno have done interesting work, none has been able to equal the mystery and beauty of Eno’s seminal pieces. Most “ambient” work seems inspired by the superficial sound of some of Eno’s more accessible pieces, rather than by an understanding of the ideas and processes Eno uses to create his work.

What makes Eno’s ambient work different? Additional discussion of Eno’s musical judgment might provide some context for understanding and appreciating his work in relationship to other ambient music.

It reflects well on Tamm’s work that each of these “weaknesses” are examples of his writing making one want to know even more.


Tamm’s book is essential reading for fans of Eno, ambient music, and electronic music in general. The book is deep, thorough, and provides a great deal of insight into the music and mind of one of the most influential musicians, composers and thinkers of the late twentieth century.

The book is a serious and thorough review of the ideas and techniques in the music of Brian Eno. It’s a very interesting read, and will inspire readers to listen with new appreciation of Eno’s music.

Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound is essential reading for anyone interested in ambient and electronic music.


Eric Tamm, authorAbout the Author

Eric Tamm, right, is a musician and writer, and works as a marketing writer in the software industry. He is co-founder of the seminal Silicon Valley rock band The Raving Daves, and, according to his site, he composes and records “unbelievable quantities of warped classicoid music, a miniscule fraction of which is available on CD.”

In addition to his book on Brian Eno, Tamm has written Robert Fripp: From King Crimson to Guitar Craft.

His website has information on his music, the Raving Daves, his books, and his painting.


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