Song of the day: BRIAN ENO – An Ending (Ascent) (1983)

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.

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20 responses to “Song of the day: BRIAN ENO – An Ending (Ascent) (1983)

  1. I’m listening to it right now. I’d forgotten just how jaw-dropping beautiful this piece of music is. I believe you have captured its essence in your writing. As for any You-Tube representations….I think I will cleave to my own images.

  2. a brilliant observation. i think its the most beautiful sound i have ever heard created by a human. do u have any idea what the chords are?

  3. I’ve no idea what the chords are, although they all sound minor key to me. It would be an interesting experiment to try and transcribe the tune for guitar. Wonder how that would sound!

  4. Hi there,

    Thanks so much for including and writing kindly about my music video for Brian Eno’s piece. It was filmed at a local beach in Wells, Maine. Yeah, none of my work was high-budget–a lot of homemade work.

    -Keith

  5. I remember posting here already but somehow my message got deleted. Anyway as I was saying previoulsy : Most chords are MAJOR and the key is Ab Major.

  6. This I one of my favourite tracks of all time.
    The rason the chords flow in and out of each other is actually to do with the fact that it was originally played forwards and then reversed to give the song released. If you reverse this track you can hear how it was originally recorded.

  7. I believe the chords are

    C# G# Esus E

    I may be wrong, and there may be more chords, but I found atleast thesee :)

  8. I’m not ashamed to say I fit into the category of people who think this is genuinely the greatest piece of music I’ve ever heard. It’s perfect to listen to when I’m happy, yet also perfect to listen to when I’m feeling sad. I never fail to get goosebumps every time I listen to this :)

  9. an outsdanding peace of music i lost my brother of 43years last year and if i close my eyes i feel him back with me when listerning to this.

  10. So many happy and delightfull childhood memorys spring to mind the moment I hear the begining of this song. It makes me want to cry. Its almost as though I could just switch off from the world and just listen peacfully and happerly alone. Its such a stress releasing piece of music and will never be forgotten.

  11. Pingback: An ending | Sabine's Blog

  12. Strangely enough, we just had a death in the family and I realised how much I loved this piece of music, but what’s more is how you put what I feel into words. Magic. Thank you for this.

  13. “On the face of it, it’s just a series of chords (mainly in a minor key) that ebb and flow.”

    Well, not really. This song has no chords, just two interlocking melodies. The song is in a major key (can’t remember which one, I play it in G but I don’t think it’s that one), and the chords implied by the bass melody are I, IV and V, which are always major chords in a major scale.

  14. This music is the sonic equivalent of the Aurora Borealis. It swells and fades from one wave of color to the next endlessly. I am considering for a soundtrack to a story I’m writing that features a romantic interlude under the phosphorescent sky.

  15. Pingback: the soundtrack of life | buck up little camper

  16. Recently mixed my own 1 hour version of this where I alternate the original track dovetailing with a reversed version.
    There are no minor chords in this piece. The recording I have is in A-flat major and as correctly pointed out above by Boarezina, the implied harmonies given by the bass notes and the higher melodies are the I (A-flat major), IV (D-flat major) and V (E-flat major) chords.
    The V chord is held for twice as long as the I and the IV, so the cycle tends to follow a feeling of IV – I – V __ and therefore gives the impression of never ending (despite the title!).
    The melody notes occasionally provide some beautiful moments of tension and release by causing suspensions against the implied harmonies.
    None of this theory analysis however will alter the fact that it is truly a simply sublime – and sublimely simple – work. Eno and Lanois at their undisputed best.

  17. I too am one of the many who are obsessed with this piece of music. Heard it shortly after it’s original release as I followed Brian Eno faithfully after his departure from Roxy Music. This has remained my favorite song since and I have worked as a mobile DJ for 25 years and exposed to endless new music during this time – and yet nothing comes close to this. EXCEPT perhaps – Frou Frou’s “Hear Me Out” which I listened to for many years before discovering that “An Ending” is sampled throughout the song very subtly – no wonder I love it that much!! Check it out.

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