Discreet Music: 40 years on
My contribution to the creation of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music was a tiny one, but I’m proud of it. Back in 1975 Eno was preparing the release of the first batch of four albums on his Obscure label, under the umbrella of Island Records, where I was in charge of A&R. Almost everything had been taken care of by the time he departed for a trip abroad (to New York, I think). I was left with a single task: to provide a title for a track on the album’s second side, the middle movement of a three-part suite based on Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D. The titles for the first and third movements — “Fullness of Wind” and “Brutal Ardour” — had been chosen by Brian at random from the sleeve note to his favourite recording of the Pachelbel piece, by the conductor Jean-François Paillard on the Erato label, and he invited me to follow suit. My eye fell on the phrase “French Catalogues”. So there it is. Well, I told you it was tiny.
It was impossible to predict, 40 years ago, that Discreet Music would become so a significant a progenitor of what we hear around us today, or that it would eventually become the subject of a concert such as the one at the Barbican in London last night, when a nine-piece group directed by David Coulter and Leo Abrahams performed extended variations on both sides of the original album.
One third of the ensemble consisted of the members of the Necks: Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (bass), and Tony Buck (drums). They were positioned on the left-hand side of the stage. On the extreme right were the great reeds player John Harle, the cellist Oliver Coates, and the violinist Emma Smith. In the middle, at the base of a deep V, were Coulter (vibraphone, musical saw and iPhone) and Leo Abrahams (guitar), with the desk containing the synthesiser and other hardware manipulated by the electronics specialist Benge (Ben Edwards) front and centre. Flanking the stage were a pair of large screens on which a selection of cards from the Oblique Strategies series devised by Eno and the late Peter Schmidt were projected, containing helpful counter-intuitive maxims and admonitions: “Repetition is a form of change”, “Abandon normal instruments”, “Disconnect from device”, and so on.
For the first half, devoted to an extended version of the piece titled “Discreet Music”, which was originally created by the composer with the modest means of a synthesiser, a sequencer, an echo unit and two tape recorders, a vertical screen above and behind the players showed the slowly changing images of Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan, Eno’s 47-minute film of the New York skyline. Electronics opened this new treatment, outlining the two simple but rather haunting phrases — one ascending, the other descending — on which the piece is structured. Clarinet and bowed vibes took over, followed by gentle guitar, violin and cello, with Harle switching to bass clarinet. The Necks’ entry came about 20 minutes in: the first to join in was Swanton, playing sonorous arco phrases, then Buck, with a brush on his hi-hat, and finally Abrahams picking out liquid single notes. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, after the other instruments had fallen away, the performance evolved in a passage of full-strength Necks collective improvisation, their surges reaching a pitch of thunderous but beautifully controlled violence before receding as the other musicians rejoined for the finale. The arrangement both honoured the original and expanded it in several dimensions, investigating the flow and interplay of texture and line, producing something both intellectually absorbing and absolutely gorgeous. The ovation from a full house was entirely merited.
The stage lighting turned from blue to red for the Pachelbel piece, which first came to my attention when Eno used the Erato recording as the introductory music on an early Roxy Music tour. His refracted and discursive version on Discreet Music, arranged with the help of Gavin Bryars, was performed by the string players of the Cockpit Ensemble. Once again the expanded resources at the disposal of Coulter and Abrahams succeeded in opening out the work, allowing us glimpses of the Canon’s familiar phrases while introducing new elements: a duet for bowed saw and guitar, a poised solo piano interlude, some lovely clarinet/violin/cello counterpoint, and a double-trio passage for the two formations at opposite ends of the stage, eventually interrupted by harsh electronics that preceding the elegant closing diminuendo.
One thing that struck me about the evening was how the nine musicians, despite being strung out across the full width of the Barbican Hall stage, managed create such a powerful sense of intimacy. Aside from the individual phrases familiar from the original versions, it was often hard to tell where the new score ended and the improvising began. Everyone emerged with maximum credit, not least the man whose remarkable imagination and appetite for adventure had made it possible in the first place.