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.