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Posts from the ‘Ambient music’ Category

Brian Eno: The Ship

Brian Eno The ShipSomewhere in West London, there is said to be a dealer in second-hand hi-fi equipment whose face lights up every time Brian Eno walks in. Eno’s interest in speakers of all types and sizes was on show this morning in his Notting Hill studio, where a small audience gathered to listen to a 15-channel 3D mix of his new album, The Ship. After the playback, I took the photograph above in order to give a partial sense of the configuration.

Originally commissioned by a gallery in Stockholm, The Ship has also been seen in Barcelona and Geneva in a larger audio-visual form which enables Eno to describe the installation as “songs you can walk around in”. When plans to install it at Somerset House fell apart, Eno decided to present this stripped-down version privately on his own premises, but there are still hopes of a full public treatment in London in the near future. I hope that happens, because to sit in the middle of it — with the sounds coming from all angles and heights, distributed by Eno and his collaborator, Peter Chilvers, according to the individual speakers’ inherent characteristics — was a very worthwhile experience.

This, Eno says, is his First World War album, treating the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 as a prelude to the slaughter that began on the Western Front two years later. To paraphrase him, its subjects are the relationship between hubris and paranoia, and the way the oceans and the land persist while “we pass in a cloud of chatter”. I had no idea of the theme before I sat down to listen, but I couldn’t miss the sense of a threnody running through the two pieces making up the album: “The Ship” itself, 21 minutes long, and a 26-minute suite in three parts called “Fickle Sun”, in which voices and lyrics are allowed to drift in a sea of sounds largely familiar from Eno’s adventures in ambient music.

At first, listening to the slow electronic washes and bleeps and the dislocated recitative of “The Ship”, and noting a tolling bell, I wondered if this was his elegant way of saying goodbye to his friend David Bowie. Wrong there, apparently. But a lovely piece nonetheless, its overlapping layers of synthetic sounds and occasional choirs of distant shadow-voices gradually building a mood of subdued disquiet.

“Fickle Sun” begins with tintinnabulation and flutter, soon thickened by a muffled bass-drum and a wandering rubberised bass line. Eno’s sombre, careful delivery of his stately melody reminds me of Nico singing “Frozen Warnings” or “The End” — at least until organ and staccato synth-brass chords intrude with a faint echo of Holst’s “Mars”, raising the tension before the textures thin out again to support a conversation between the double-tracked natural voice and its synthesised sibling. The short second movement features the actor Peter Serafinowicz reading Eno’s poem “The Hour is Thin” against simple acoustic piano figures: “The hour is thin / Trafalgar Square is calm / Birds and cold black dark / The final famine of a wicked sun…” The suite concludes with a gently paced cover of Lou Reed’s “I’m Set Free”, that famous declaration from the Velvets’ third album, with Eno’s lead vocal, sometimes double-tracked or harmonised, floating on the bell-like keyboards of Jon Hopkins, the guitar of Leo Abrahams and the violin and viola of Neil Catchpole.

Placed at the end of the album instead of being located in the middle of side two, as it was in its original incarnation on The Velvet Underground, this deceptively reassuring song seems even more unsettling. Which, at the end of a cycle of pieces dedicated to investigating the eternal interplay of hubris and paranoia, was presumably the intention.

* The Ship is released on April 29 on the Opal label in various CD and vinyl formats. The full audio-visual installation is travelling to Belgrade, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Mantua and Lodz.

Discreet Music: 40 years on

Discreet Music 3

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.