Part of what's made Brian Eno the authority on ambient music is his conviction that the genre will never accommodate any such thing as authority. To Eno, ambient is a shifting document merely suggestive of time, place, and mood; matters of its design, ownership, and impact are ultimately less crucial than the room for interpretation it creates. On Reflection, Eno's seventh release in seven years, this underlying logic is repurposed for what Eno calls “generative music” (his word for “pieces that make themselves”), meaning that the album's single 54-minute track is merely one incarnation of an infinite musical system, a window into a massive soundscape of loops and lulls.
This conceptual needling has endowed Eno's career with extracurricular significance, and his output with an otherworldly aura and appeal. “Reflection” is a case where he chips away at his original artistic endeavor (writing a short phase of music) with a series of algorithmic manipulations (such as pitch-shifting every 50th note), thereby creating a system of understated inconsistencies; as the piece proceeds and these manipulations repeat, they become increasingly consistent, almost as recognizable as the origin loop itself. The question in this dance between rule and rule-breaking is which is more central to the experience of the piece, and whether “Reflection” would be as captivating without its instances of quiet rebellion.
Listening to “Reflection” is therefore a relaxed acclimation to its repetitive motif and its whisper-thin departures. Eno's central pattern—a procession of calm, reverberating chimes—is continually introduced by a slow bed of synths, and then followed by a rise and fall of midtempo synths; other recurring noises include distant buzzing, the sustained whirr of what sounds like an ocean wave captured sonically, and an effect that seems uncannily like a finger running the rim of a half-filled glass of water. (Certain instruments bring to mind warm, improvised vibraphones, while others evoke the automated tones of elevators and public transit; the mix evokes man and machine merging together, one of Eno's thematic fixations.)
This is music that's never the same but sounds like it is, obsessed with the fact that it isn't.
Moments of suspense come and go but with diminishing returns, and by the 10th arrival of the same passage of calculated tension there's little fear that it won't pass yet again. And in between are long stretches of hovering that find “Reflection” at its most lost, most in need of a grand drama not quite captured by Eno's infinite (and infinitely small) variations. The result is one of his most nuanced and meticulous pieces but not one dependent on—nor effectively displaying—its little deviations.
Reflection is accompanied by an app that allows endless streaming of the piece as it changes subtly according to the time of day. (As explained by Peter Chilvers, Eno's collaborator on the project: “The harmony is brighter in the morning…[the piece reaches] the original key by the evening”). In a sense, the 54-minute track is therefore something of an advertisement, an excerpt cut to the size of the industry's sales format to preview an extended director's version. Yet it's hard to imagine anybody sitting through this near-hour of music and coming away with the impression that the one thing it needs is to be considerably longer; instead, it's more rewarding to consider “Reflection” as-is, and as Eno's final say on the piece (as opposed to one permutation of a boundless symphony, as abstractly worthwhile as that may be).
Most of all, “Reflection” is cause to revisit Eno's theory that musical repetition doesn't really exist, that “as far as the mind is concerned, nothing happens the same twice.” This idea—that the imprecision of human interpretation obscures repetition— works just as well in the other direction: Even a piece such as “Reflection,” which consciously evades repeating itself, can be experienced by the listener as something which in fact does repeat. “Reflection” the song is thus another thoughtful contribution from Eno, and perhaps his strongest and most focused soundscape since 1978's landmark Music for Airports. But packaged as Reflection the album alongside Reflection the app, the piece adopts a conceptual hang-up: This is music that's never the same but sounds like it is, obsessed with the fact that it isn't.