One of the odd things about instrumental music is that it can trigger off different moods in different people, even when they agree on its merits. “An Ending (Ascent)” is one piece that some find desolate and depressing where others see rhapsody. It appears on the 1983 album Apollo – Atmospheres and Soundtracks, an ambient collaboration between Brian Eno, his younger brother Roger and producer Daniel Lanois. The record is loosely inspired by the Apollo moon missions. As an album it has its moments, but it’s not particularly exceptional. Apart from the 4 minutes 20 of this track, that is.
“An Ending (Ascent)” has an astonishing psychological resonance with a lot of people. Out there in webworld you’ll find a surprising number of passionate testaments acclaiming it as the greatest, most moving piece of music of all time, and many folk who want it played at their funeral. It’s difficult to work out how it has the immense power that it undoubtedly does possess. On the face of it, it’s just a series of chords (mainly in a minor key) that ebb and flow. There’s no dramatic progression, no changes of structure, nor any conventionally repetitive melody. And yet it is so much more than a chilled out ambient wash of sound. I think its secret is in the way that it uses a series of ‘dissolves’ for each chord change. If you think of a computer slide show, the dissolve setting makes each picture fade into the next so that, for a large part of the process, there are a series of ever changing composite images in between each focussed shot. Eno does the same with this track. Rather than a clang and fade that would be achieved with the percussive action used on an acoustic instrument, each chord fades in, climaxes and then fades away, bleeding into the next one in the process. It sounds totally different to most music we hear, and have been conditioned to hear over centuries, and this, I think, gives it its other-worldly quality.
Other-worldly music is, by its very nature, suited to outer space (an other-worldly place!). Thus “An Ending” is so effective at conjuring up some pretty cosmic resonances. With closed eyes, it really is possible to drift into a state that borders on blissful rapture listening to it. And that may be the key why different people have such polarised responses of mood to it. It can unlock emotions and memories that can be moving in very different ways. It can release inhibited grief, but also can induce a kind of mesmeric joy not a million miles away from the effects produced by mild dosages of hallucinogens or other dissociative narcotics. It’s a stunning piece of music, whichever way you look at it.
There are a few home-made videos to the track on YouTube. One is a beautifully shot slideshow of images of cemeteries. No, no, no! That’s just completely wrong on every conceivable level. The one I’ve linked to consists of heavily filtered footage of rippling, ebbing and cascading water. The dancing lights on the surface look like stars. The film-maker’s budget obviously didn’t stretch to a trip on the space-shuttle, but he’s done a good job of evoking the cosmos right here on earth. The film was made by someone going by the name of Tracerprod.