June 29, 2011

Discreet Music - Brian Eno [1975]

Placid intoxication. Instantly, eternally familiar. 

Liner Notes:

"Discreet Music" (30:35)  Recorded at Brian Eno's studio 9-5-75
Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachebel 
(i) "Fullness of Wind" (9:57) 
(ii) "French Catalogues" (5:18) 
(iii) "Brutal Ardour" (8:17) 
Performed by The Cockpit Ensemble, conducted by Gavin Bryars (who also helped arrange the pieces) 

Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part.

That is to say, I tend towards the roles of the planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results. Two ways of satisfying this interest are exemplified on this album. "Discreet Music" is a technological approach to the problem. If there is any score for the piece, it must be the operational diagram of the particular apparatus I used for its production. The key configuration here is the long delay echo system with which I have experimented since I became aware of the musical possibilities of tape recorders in 1964. Having set up this apparatus, my degree of participation in what it subsequently did was limited to (a) providing an input (in this case, two simple and mutually compatible melodic lines of different duration stored on a digital recall system) and (b) occasionally altering the timbre of the synthesizer's output by means of a graphic equalizer.

It is a point of discipline to accept this passive role, and for once, to ignore the tendency to play the artist by dabbling and interfering. In this case, I was aided by the idea that what I was making was simply a background for my friend Robert Fripp to play over in a series of concerts we had planned. This notion of its future utility, coupled with my own pleasure in "gradual processes" prevented me from attempting to create surprises and less than predictable changes in the piece. I was trying to make a piece that could be listened to and yet could be ignored... perhaps in the spirit of Satie who wanted to make music that could "mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner."

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 for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.

Another way of satisfying the interest in self-regulating and self-generating systems is exemplified in the 3 variations on the Pachebel Canon. These take their titles from the charmingly inaccurate translation of the French cover notes for the "Erato" recording of the piece made by the orchestra of Jean Francois Paillard. That particular recording inspired these pieces by its unashamedly romantic rendition of a very systematic Renaissance canon.

In this case the "system" is a group of performers with a set of instructions - and the "input" is the fragment of Pachebel. Each variation takes a small section of the score (two or four bars) as its starting point, and permutates the players' parts such that they overlay each other in ways not suggested by the original score. In "Fullness of Wind" each player's tempo is decreased, the rate of decrease governed by the pitch of his instrument (bass=slow). "French Catalogues" groups together sets of notes and melodies with time directions gathered from other parts of the score. In "Brutal Ardour" each player has a sequence of notes related to those of the other players, but the sequences are of different lengths so that the original relationships quickly break down.
London, September 1975


Oddi wrth y brawd


ximeremix said...

This is THE first idea of ambient music! And it still sounds as fresh today as it did 36 years ago. Discreet Music is one of my favourites for so many reasons. Firstly because it is/was so different to anything that is/was out there. Secondly you can use it in so many situations - to help you sleep, to (god-forbid) pass as dinner party music and thirdly, to sleep to. So slight, so delightful, so discreet.

Y Brawd said...

Well put. Tks for commenting.

martin said...

ximeremix, I don't know if you noticed, but you mentioned its usefulness for sleeping twice. What was the third use?

hex conduction hour said...

I do hope you saw Eno's recent talk at Moogfest -- he specifically (and hilariously) mentions these pieces. Love the blog, keep it up.