Brian Eno once remarked that given the choice between bitter and sweet, he’d prefer to have both. If anyone is looking for an elemental sentiment that informs his 50 year production of ambient music, that may be it. Ambient music is meant to be ignored until you can ignore it no more. What draws you into a piece of ambient music is an emotional charge conjured somewhere in the mirage of notes, a sudden snatch of melody, imagined perhaps yet there. At its best, Eno’s music thrives on your constant inability to stay with what you are losing. You don’t know what has escaped but you long for it all the same. You’re in the woods and catch a glimpse of a figure in the corner of your eye. When you turn, the figure often has dashed off. But sometimes the figure is right there in front of you just long enough to taunt you.
To promote Mixing Colors (2020) a new album of treated tone poems by Eno and his brother Roger, Deutsche Grammaphon held a contest. People were invited to submit videos to accompany each one of the album’s eighteen tracks. Most of the winners are suitably ambient in their visual motifs — slow motion dollies of roads and promenades, close ups of nature and serene patio settings. There is one video, however, that is unique. For the song “Iris,” a gent in England stood outside his house and filmed, through the window, a lady friend dancing in slow motion, assumedly during a pandemic Zoom dance party. On the walls and ceiling are the colored lights of a disco ball. It’s a mesmerizing three minutes. And devastating.
Oscar Wilde said that there is no such thing as happiness, only moments of happiness. This is clearly one of those moments. Does the young lady know she is being filmed? Does the voyeurism of the camera and our gaze tarnish that bliss any more than the knowledge that a Zoom dance party is a pale substitute for dancing with friends in the flesh? After months of plague, any moment of bliss is a gift, so precarious, almost stolen. Yet her physicality is strong and self-confident. This is a lady fully committed to her dancing. It feels like a triumph of defiance. To quote Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves from the movie “Network”: I’m a human being; my life has value.
“Iris” is the most spare track on the whole album. Brian, to his credit, leaves his brother’s playing alone, save for a few notes on the organ in the last bars. No echo, no reverb, no synthetic washes or treatments. It is a poignant song, more sweet than bitter. I imagine Roger Eno searching out the notes (key of G major) on a spinster’s rickety piano haggled over at an estate sale, not in London but Austin, Texas or Charleston, West Virginia. “Iris” is late night folk music, more American than British, a last tickle of the ivories before the walk home through the pines from a dancehall in the sticks. For a man with a deep and abiding love of American musical traditions, Brian Eno rarely gives us music that is redolent of that love. Here Eno and Daniel Lanois offer a woozy impromptu performance of a Stax soul standard, two old pals around the hearth of the piano.
The video of “Iris” is the most affecting of Eno’s ambient because there is the perfect marriage between image and sound; the alchemy is intensely human and immediate. It is the one Eno piece of art you can’t ignore as wallpaper or enoble in artspeak as an installation or strategy or experiment or whatever. Even the legendary “Apollo” soundtrack that he and Roger and Daniel Lanois put together, complete with pedal steel guitar, lacks the same impact of image and sound. “Iris” does not fall apart or drift away. It makes its human witness upfront. Iris, she’s a beauty, here and now.