The last time I went record shopping — hole-in-the-wall record stores still proliferate in New York City, thank goodness — I walked out with an armload of film soundtracks: Le Grand Bleu, Taxi Driver, and a French SACD edition of Terminator 2 that I found in someone’s cut-out bin for $4. It’s not as if I have it in for actual albums from actual bands; there’s plenty of those to be talked about in time. It’s just that film soundtracks seize my attention in a way that most “regular “ albums don’t, and in a way can’t. They’re not just things unto themselves, but part of something larger that demands one’s full attention.
In most cases the film soundtracks I love are for films I know, but Music for Films is the exact opposite, and all the more fascinating for it. It’s a compilation of film music where the music preceded the films: Eno created the music in 1976, and then sent copies of a limited edition of the album to filmmakers so they could consider using it in their movies. In time, some of the music ended up in films as diverse as John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, and Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. Then again, Eno composed the classic Windows 95 startup and shutdown themes, so I’m used to him popping up in places where his name wouldn’t normally appear.
Films consists of eighteen very short tracks — the longest clocks in at 3:23 — rather than the ten-minute-plus or LP-side-long driftwork that Eno garnered most of his original attention for. Each track has the distinctiveness of an antique bauble found in a jewelry box: it sticks around long enough to make its general feeling known, and then fades out. When a track uses elements that shouldn’t be “ambient” (noises like the strange little guitar snarl [is it a guitar?] that opens “‘There Is Nobody’”), it manages somehow not to be jarring, and not just because the volume has been turned down. Even the loudest track in the whole collection, “M386”, has a pleasantly subdued flavor to it.
The original limited edition of the album was far more of a jumble. When reissued in the form most people are familiar with today, Eno selected and programmed it so that it played far more like a suite and not just a compilation of library music. Imposing that kind of narrative sweep on the whole album makes it feel all the more as if it could be the soundtrack to a film, singular. Even the brevity of the tracks doesn’t work against it in this regard: the ending, the appropriately titled “Final Sunset”, has notes that drift off into its conjured sunset as elegantly as the album opener, “Aragon”, begins from nothing more than a primal pulse.
I mentioned above how the tracks in Films have a way of showing up in odd places. One track (“Alternative 3”, added in the later editions of the album) was originally composed for a film of the same name whose very obscurity became the most significant thing about it. Said movie was a bogus April Fools’ episode of the UK TV series Science Report, purporting to be about a secret U.S./Russian space colonization plan, and the mere fact it was unavailable for so long allowed it to be taken entirely too seriously by people of the David Icke persuasion. It’s since restored to life on DVD and YouTube bootlegs, and Eno’s music is one of the more notable things about it: it’s insidious, creepy, “futuristic” without also being embarrassingly dated before its time. A big part of that I chalk up to Eno’s skills as a composer and not simply as a sound designer.
I confess that at first I resisted the album’s collection-of-little-pieces approach. I wanted the better, more interesting ideas to hang around and be developed further. Then I realized that was a mistake — that the real thing to be gleaned from the album was the imagery that suggested itself with each track for however long we had it. This isn’t a slap against the use of these tracks in actual films — just that most of their usage in films has been so esoteric that it’s best to approach these pieces on their own terms and let the imagery concoct itself. The real films in Films are the ones on the backs of your eyelids or behind your forehead, much as they must have been when Eno was first creating them.
It’s curious to come back to Films (and Eno’s other Music For … albums) now that “ambient music” — or, worse, “program music” — now has a repulsive cachet to it. In the decades since Films was released — and even before that — music has become a part of the air of public life whether we like it or not. Go out and take note of how many public places (shops, offices, etc.) have some kind of music playing. It’s difficult to drive a car for any length of time without succumbing to the temptation to snap on the radio. Even while sitting here typing this, I feel strange if there isn’t music playing, and having the excuse of needing this very album to listen to for the sake of writing this review doesn’t make it feel any less like a, well, an excuse.
To be a music lover on your own terms is one thing. It’s another entirely to find yourself in a society that has made the presence of music — bad music, dull music, any music — all but mandatory. Erik Satie, bless his misunderstood soul, wanted his music to be a functional kind of music, something that would fill in the spaces between the sounds of the cutlery and flatware hitting each other. He might well have set fire to his work if he imagined it would ever lead to the state we’re in now.
What I resent is not the music itself, but the lack of options created in the face of it. If I despise the Muzak from the speakers overhead in the drugstore or the DMV, my only alternative is to plug my ears … and maybe also to substitute my own soundtrack, within which Films might well appear. The fact I can do this is no compensation for the sense that I should not have to.
That might explain why I actually don’t listen to Films often outside of the house. It feels wrong to use it just to stuff up my ears against something else. This is music I want to approach on my own terms and use as a road to creating new things, rather than just something I want drizzled in my ears while waiting for my checks to be deposited.
Most everyone I know, me included, makes playlists that are meant to be soundtracks for creative projects. I’m not sure if I’ll ever come up with something that demands to have Music for Films used as its soundtrack, but given how much I love the record, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t. Maybe that is the highest honor I can pay something of its kind.