Review: Brian Eno “Music For Installations” 9 LP box set

by Paul Ashby

After the piece had been running for about a week, I decided to do a bit of customer research and I went to the park with a translator and asked the old guys how they liked it. One of them said it was possibly a bit too loud. That’s my kind of listener. I turned the [ten CD] players down a little. Another said “I want this to be here all the time.”
— Brian Eno

Eno has been exhibiting immersive video, light, and sound installations since the mid-80s. Much of the music for these events has remained unreleased until now. On May 4th, Opal / Universal issued a nine-LP box set (and, separately, a six-CD box) entitled Music For Installations that collects the audio from his site-specific events over the years.

The CD set costs about $65. The slipcased LP version comes in around $250, and, while out of print, can be found on Discogs and Amazon from third-party sellers. Both include a softcover book with color photos and text by Eno. There’s also an very limited version of the CD package with a Plexiglass-covered, engraved and signed edition of the book that costs a lot more and went out of print pretty much immediately, and Discogs currently shows flippers trying to unload them for upwards of $550.

Half of the music contained in the box hasn’t been available in recorded form, and the other half only in strictly limited mailorder CD editions. For the Eno forager, this box set is low-hanging (but expensive) fruit.

As with my review of the Bowie box from 2017, I’ve taken it upon myself to spin the entire thing — all nine albums — so you don’t (necessarily) have to.

Removed, as they are, from any originally-intended visual accompaniment, it’s curious to see (oops, I mean listen to) how the pieces in Music For Installations stand on their own. Well, not exactly their own — Eno’s explanations in the lovely, 64-page, 12″ x 12″ color book add helpful context. Brian has always been all about the process being as (if not more) important as the result, and his concise recollections of the events make for pleasant and entertaining reading while listening. His delivery balances art-wonkery with dry academia and subtle humor. My kind of writer.

The music on the nine LPs dwells among the ambient category. Music “as ignorable as it is interesting” was Eno’s pithy description of the then-nascent genre in the liner notes for 1978’s Music For Airports. As background music goes, the majority of Music For Installations might qualify to “mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner” as Satie once claimed of his own works. Here, though, that meal might be served in a very dark room, with colorful lightboxes emanating shifting glows, or in a Beijing park, where solitary, elderly men fly kites, or as an endless, constantly-changing, never-repeating score for an entrancing screensaver.

“Ambient”, in this context, isn’t interchangeable with “new age” (some might pronounce the latter to rhyme with “sewage”). Eno’s take on ambient — he coined the genre, so let’s grant him appropriate leeway in its interpretation — often relies on structure, instrumentation and atmospheres that lend a certain tension to the proceedings. That sense of unease belies any attempted comparison to, say, the work of Yanni or John Tesh and the like.

I Dormienti, for example, has a palpable vibe of peril, especially when spun at a higher volume. The airier drones recall Eno’s Thursday Afternoon (a long-form, unsettling masterpiece in its own right, which, in 1985, was the first CD-only release); this is music that likely delights in harshing any and all mellow, preconception-wise and otherwise.

Another consideration is that individual elements of some of the original pieces were played on-site on staggered arrays of multiple auto-reverse cassette machines, or numerous CD players set on “shuffle”, affording gallery visitors a fully immersive experience. There was no chance of the mix remaining the same from hour to hour. Obviously these LPs can’t duplicate that environment; deciding on the final stereo mixes must have been an interesting process.

Making Space is the most “active” album of the nine. It includes music played at 77 Million Paintings exhibitions (live events based on the “entrancing screensaver” mentioned above) in 2010. If, perchance, you find your mind wandering unacceptably while listening to other LPs in the box set, this portion of the proceedings could serve as an attention-span palate cleanser.

If the luscious box and book aren’t enough, of additional appeal to Eno trainspotters is LP number nine, Music For Future Installations: four new songs, including a side-long piece entitled “Surbahar Sleeping Music.” The material on this disk is relatively featureless compared to the rest of the set. It serves as both a bonus album and a teaser — this Eno fellow may or may not have more events up his sleeve.

I don’t go for scale. I go for length.
– Brian Eno

What to make of nine LPs of pensive instrumental music divorced from its multimedia origins? Glib wags might dismiss this package as Music To Watch Paint Dry To. Or Grass Grow. Me, I’ve always got some extra time set aside for both. Roses? Heck, stop and smell the paint. Eno’s never been one for broad brushstrokes. This is heady, detailed stuff, and Music For Installations is not to be missed by Eno completists and/or fans of his quieter, more conceptual works.

I can’t resist a kvetch regarding the enclosed download coupon. It requires an email address / registration validation or social media account … which is becoming the norm. And is annoying. More annoying still is that the email validation DOESN’T WORK. Universal Music Group (via something called TheSoundOfVinyl) would much prefer to be granted access to one of your social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, etc) in order to have the user gain access to the download page. Following a 36-hour wait for a helpdesk reply regarding the failures of repeated email validation attempts (I was instructed to flush my cookies, which my browsers do every time I close them, but thanks), I resorted to a barely-used Google Plus profile that I sacrificed for the privilege of downloading the WAV files. The download clocks in at nearly 3.7GB and contains two 24/44 tracks, “Modified Fishes” and “Purple Zone”, not on the LP. The low-frequency thunder-rumble of “Fishes” freaked my cats out, so there’s that.

Still, harumph.

A note on the packaging: the LPs are sleeved in heavy-stock, color die-cut cardboard. The jackets are attractive, with a design that matches the LP labels … but they exemplify form over function. The interior of these sleeves isn’t something that is friendly to the surface of vinyl. I immediately removed the discs, cleaned them and slipped them into Mobile Fidelity poly sleeves (I’ve been upbraided more than once by my Discogs friends — of which I have none — that I should be using Diskeeper sleeves instead of MoFi. Perhaps the cost and extent of this box set might sway me over to the Diskeeper sector of the realm).

The pressing quality is excellent and very quiet, thankfully. The overall presentation (other than the cardboard bugaboo) is flawless, and snazzy in a low-key, conceptual, arty way.

Which is, of course, Eno’s way.

About the Author

Paul Ashby has, gratefully, retired from the music business but still can’t resist sniping from the sidelines from time to time.

He lives in Contra Costa County, California, with his partner Kate Burkart and their cats, Wafflehead and Timmy.

He is approaching the tipping point where he enjoys gardening and landscaping more than music. We’ll see how that pans out.