A way for two siblings to stay connected over the years and the distance through their shared love of music. Maybe that is enough.
Mixing Colours is the first fully collaborative work by Brian Eno and his brother Roger. The former is, of course, a legendary forerunner of ambient music. The latter is an accomplished – if lesser-known for being consigned to the “classical” label – multi-instrumentalist. The two previously collaborated on Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks alongside Daniel Lanois in 1983, though that album was credited primarily to Brian.
This album has been long in the works, beginning 15 years ago when Roger began sending improvisational piano pieces as MIDI files to his brother, who would then tinker with them, filling in the absences between the “islands” of piano music. The brothers have likened this process to a conversation. Organically, this collection of stray collaborations grew into the possibility of an album. With Mixing Colours, that possibility comes to fruition.
The result of this conversation, then, is an hour and a quarter of gentle, Schubert-ian piano music, embedded in delicate – but never over-bearing – ambient soundscapes. While the piano work on the album is undoubtedly skillful – evincing a subtle but emotive touch – the individual compositions tend to be most successful when the ambient and melodic sides of the music are most blended. “Obsidian,” for instance, transfers the keyboard work to a gothic organ sound, which naturally fills the space and collides with the ambient undertones for interesting atmospheric effect. “Wintergreen” is one of the few tracks that is content to allow silence to expand for a few moments. By leaving spaces between the delicate keyboard movement, the track allows the notes to resonate and settle within the listeners mind before the melody is developed further or more layers of sound are added.
An exception to this rule of integration is “Ultramarine.” The haunting piano melody takes center stage and, crucially, the low end of the keyboard is utilized to develop a richness often left to the ambient side of these tunes. “Deep Saffron” is a track that uses the piano as a source of ambient sounds itself. Notes and motifs reverberate and stack up with very little sonic backdrop aside from the sound of striking keys, echoing far into the track. While never exactly amelodic, the track does allow for interesting moments of surprising dissonance.
Less interesting are tracks like “Snow,” which are merely underdeveloped piano motifs laid over and inoffensive sonic palette. “Blonde” demonstrates a persistent pattern on the album. Beginning with a gentle piano melody, layers of sound are added throughout, coming to a full crescendo before dropping out for the last quarter of the song. Over the length of the record, these dynamics grow predictable and, while never grating, demand less and less of the listener’s interest.
That being said, it seems petty to knock an album for simply being content with pleasantness. And it is a pleasant record, if never all that groundbreaking. There is a long tradition of background music in both the classical and ambient worlds. Whether you prefer Erik Satie or New Age music, you could do far worse than listening to this conversation that the Eno brothers were kind enough to share with listeners.
Unlike Brian’s most well-respected work, Mixing Colours does not sound like a secret the listener has just stumbled upon and must share zealously with all who will listen. Instead, it sounds like what it is: a way for two siblings to stay connected over the years and the distance through their shared love of music. Maybe that is enough.