Matt Beck

Matt Beck is a sometime poet, writer and kultur-blogger living in Northern California.

Brian Eno and Discreet Music

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 can be difficult to see around him. One can choose any number of his legacies to consider, beginning 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 there is the minor matter of his production and co-production credits for others, most notably 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 synthesizers and tape delays to create a form of a generative system, something he’s believed to have learned from composer Terry Riley.

The title track lasts 30:35 – 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 to 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 ubiquitous as wedding march music. The pieces are played by a small ensemble who are each playing separate fragments and varying tempi or, more precisely, varying degrees of change of tempi. Again, if this sounds 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… at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility”. Considering when it was released, I was probably stretching the upper decibel limits of my father’s Kenwood receiver and Advent speakers with Blood on the Tracks and Born to Run.)

The oft-repeated legend of Discreet Music‘s 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.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think it’s 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.

So Much to Read:
Updike, Angstrom and Procrastination

John Updike
March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009

I can’t claim to be John Updike’s biggest fan. I’ve only read a couple of his books. But I was perturbed to learn of his death this past Tuesday. For this California boy, he represented the leather-patch-on-the-tweed-jacket kind of writer – a WASPy New Englander who snapped away on his Underwood and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Anyone who made their living writing was, for me, someone to emulate. But for would-be writers like me, the iconic imagery that surrounds real writers blows away like so much fog (or cigarette smoke) as one gets older, and leaves only what you can glean from the work. This is as it should be, of course – if you’ve actually read the books.

The 76-year old novelist, essayist, short-story writer, poet, and critic’s place in the pantheon is unassailable. Two Pulitzer Prizes, a PEN-Faulkner Award and a host of other prizes cement his legacy as one of the great white writers. And while I’ve read a few of Updike’s novels and some of his critical essays and poetry, the book that sticks most to my ribs is Rabbit, Run, which I read a few years ago.

More than 40 years after it was written, Rabbit, Run still seems as fine a portrayal of helpless masculine angst as ever there was. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the has-been prep basketball star: making all the wrong decisions, listening to bad advice, and fleeing neurotically at the first sign of emotional distress, was a true everyman – more like myself and most guys I knew who were confronted with relationship troubles without the requisite skills or preparation. Bouncing between his demanding and very pregnant wife and an obliging (at first) prostitute named Ruth, the hapless Rabbit leaves us, as the title suggests, fleeing from his life and the mess he has made of it.

In 1976 Updike saw his own first marriage fall to the divorce decade that was the 1970s. His name-making book Couples (1968) presaged the tone of the swinging seventies amongst the married – at least those in the art world. The titular couples spawn a whirlwind of sexual exploration and selfishness that was one of legacies of the 1960s, while a lingering cloud of guilt surrounds them. Given the divorce rate then and since, perhaps art does imitate life.

Updike remarried the following year, and remained married until his death. While his most acclaimed work was published long ago, his 15 minutes of real fame came with the film adaptation of his 1984 novel, The Witches of Eastwick. Never particularly comfortable with fame, Updike avoided the maelstrom of a Hollywood production as best as he could. The novel was purportedly a response to persistent feminist criticism of his fiction, so the hostile response from feminists was perhaps not surprising. It is not hard to see the novel’s gleeful trio all sharing (and ultimately being bested by) one male protagonist as more than a bit of nose-thumbing at feminist attacks, though Updike denied this connection in a piece.

But perhaps the most important Updike legacy is the sheer volume of his work. More than twenty-five novels (including a Witches sequel published last year) and many more volumes of stories, poetry and criticism garnered many awards, though, alas, no Nobel Prize. It became easy for readers to take him for granted; you might browse the reviews of his books as they came along, knowing you already had enough of his back catalog to wade through.

And so procrastination raises its ugly head. In his introduction to the Everyman’s Library collection of the four Rabbit Angstrom novels, Updike says the books became a sort of “running report on the state of my hero and his nation.” I don’t know about that, but I do remember loving that first one. Rabbit stands as a kind of touchstone for American men feeling battered and buffeted by modern life (read: most of us). And the approximate ten year span in real and fictional time between the books appealed to the procrastinator in me; my plan was to read the books in the same time sequence – one every ten years. Checking the copyright page, however, I appear to be about four years overdue in reading the second book.

I’m also delinquent in reading the second book of Angstrom’s literary descendant Frank Bascomb, hero of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter and Independence Day. I did enjoy Sportswriter, finally, though Bascomb’s wishy-washy, ambivalent moodiness nearly made me put the book down prematurely. So now it will be back to the Everyman collection, after I’ve finished Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Maybe Independence Day after that. You can only put things off for so long, you know: before you know your time will be up.