28 January 2009

Listening Diary: Discreet Music: Brian Eno (1975)

Amidst the sturm und drang that is my daily life, I have an end-of-the-day ritual that hasn't failed me. A hot cup of tea, a fine book and a copacetic bit of music. There are a lot of true believers out there who think that music must be consciously listened to AT ALL TIMES. But some good music is actually meant to be background noise.

Brian Eno is enough of a modern music legend that it is almost difficult to see around him. One can choose any number of legacies, starting with Roxy Music, the art rock band of which he was a member in the group's earliest days. You might consider his solo rock albums (Another Green World, Before and After Science, Here Come the Warm Jets, etc.) which are legendary in their own way. Or is he the David Bowie collaborator who helped forge the sound of the "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, Lodger and Heroes? Then you have the minor matter of his production and co-production credits for others, most notably the bands U2 and Talking Heads, two of the most influential bands of the 1980s and 90s.

But I believe he will be remembered most for his contributions to ambient and generative music. Discreet Music is not Eno's first foray into the ambient sound, but it is a very early one, and one that would help to plant the seed of generative music, which is software-generated from an assemblage of notes and phrases. In 1975 the tools were more limited, and Eno used digital synthesisers and tape delays to create a form of a generative system.

The title track is 30:35 minutes of two short phrases, with echoes and variations of the resulting theme that combine in myriad ways. If you are familiar with Eno's later ventures such as Music for Airports and On Land, you have the idea. It must sound a bit boring to the uninitiated, but for someone who listens to a great deal of music it acts almost as a sonic palate-cleanser. The three tracks that follow (and constituted Side 2 of the original LP) are variations on Pachelbel's Canon in D Major, which is now so ubiquitous as wedding march music. The pieces are played by a small ensemble who are each playing seperate fragments and varying tempi or, more precisely, varying degrees of change of tempi. If it all sounds very bland and watery to you, let me assure you the results are anything but--these are new ways of hearing a piece of music that has become commonplace through overexposure.

It was a novel concept to produce a record like this in 1975--a record the artist suggests "listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility". (At the time I was probably stretching the decibel limits of my father's Kenwood receiver and Advent speakers with Blood on the Tracks.) The oft-repeated legend of its origins are contained in the liner notes:

"In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music - as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience."

It is not likely that many recuperating rock musicians of the day would be even listening to 18th century harp music, let alone drawing inspiration from it. In Brian Eno's case, the inspiration resulted in one of the icons of ambient music.

Track listing via Wikipedia:

Side one

  1. "Discreet Music" – 30:35

Side two

Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel

  1. "Fullness of Wind" – 9:57
  2. "French Catalogues" – 5:18
  3. "Brutal Ardour" – 8:17

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