Eno, Basinski and how ambient music provides calm in a storm
Brian Eno has a reputation as a thinker, but he’s even more impressive as a doer. Constantly working just outside the public eye, the self-described non-musician has a career which has taken him from a role as the elegant synthesiser-player in the British band Roxy Music to experimental work following entirely his own course.
As record producer, he worked on the best albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2. As label curator/owner (of Obscure, which released records from 1975-8) he released work by John Cage, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and David Toop. Not to mention an influential album called The Sinking of the Titanic, in which composer Gavin Bryars created an minimalist suite of ebbing and decaying sound, which incorporated audio testimony from survivors of the 1912 shipping disaster.
“Creative” has become a bit of a debased term, but on its best day, it describes Eno: a freethinking person, vital in all disciplines. In 1975 he devised the “Oblique Strategies”, a pack of cards containing advisory messages (such as “Be less critical more often”; “Is it finished?”) devised to ease creative tension. In 1994, he was commissioned by Microsoft to compose the start-up sound for Windows 95, which he did, on a Mac.
Most interesting and enduring, though, is his work as a producer of “ambient” music, minimal compositions devised to be absorbed passively, which he began in 1975 with Discreet Music on Obscure, and continued with 1977’s Music for Airports, based around a piano figure played by Robert Wyatt.
Eno in recent years has continued to produce records – most notably by Coldplay – and to collaborate – chiefly with David Byrne and Underworld’s Karl Hyde – but it’s his lower-profile works, many of them ambient, which have proved most rewarding. Asked in 2015 to provide a multi-channel sound installation for Fylkingen, a Swedish electronic music studio, Eno created sounds which resulted in his 2016 album The Ship – an engrossing electronic work which, like Bryars’s Titanic, implicitly pondered the idea of a supposedly unsinkable ship as a metaphor for the arrogance of empire.
Musically-speaking, the album’s 25-minute title track set up a series of searching, longform chords and themes. They seemed to be sounding the depths, lighting powerful electronic beams in an uncharted deep. Fragments of voices could be heard. Occasionally there was a primitive tolling of an electronic bell, while Eno’s own vocals (his first on his own record for a decade), placed frail humanity at the centre of the mix.
Released in a year which saw the deaths of Eno’s near-contemporaries Lou Reed (whose I’m Set Free was also covered on the album) and David Bowie, it created a contemplative space to think about human life. The last 10 minutes of the song are becalmed, as an elderly, scarcely-intelligible voice pronounces fragmentary words and phrases – “you are too polite”, “a man” – which seem to represent a jumble of last conscious thoughts. It felt valedictory, perhaps without having intended to be so. Whether they were there or not, we looked and saw our own concerns reflected back.
Reflection (the sleeve is an image of Eno as he might appear in his own idle iMac screen) doesn’t shy away from that idea. It’s music appropriate for thinking, the subjective nature of that experience acknowledged in the 500 “individually generated” albums he has released as a limited edition at the same time.
Eno has explained that the process by which this music is conceived is endless. A collaboration with his behind-the-scenes software guy Peter Chilvers, the length of Reflections is primarily dictated by how much sound can comfortably sit on a CD or record. Now that it’s software, Chilvers has explained, the music might even conceivably be configured to sound different at different times of the day – the melodies brighter in the morning, the notes more spaced out at night, for example.
In its simple CD version, it’s a beautiful 54 minutes. Some of the sounds possess the mysterious infinity of a “singing” wine glass, others as if a Fender Rhodes piano has been rewired by Nasa. Melancholic chord statements are proposed, and then allowed to echo down unhindered, a kind of warm mathematics. There is the occasional sound of a distant bell, heard perhaps in another century altogether.
At times, you can hear a tone, whistle or electronic bird call familiar from The Ship. What’s missing, though, in this infinite hall of mirrors, is that album’s awareness of time, the sense of change and fragility. This music is delicate and celestial but also robust. As it is in the laws of physics, so it is with this recording: Reflection gives you back precisely what you put in.
Fragility is more William Basinski’s bag. A composer working with nothing remotely like the notoriety of Eno, the American musician has spent much of his 35-year career making art from the vulnerability of sound fidelity: its static, its wow and flutter, the meaning that might be extracted from its looping and decay. He has kindred spirits like Tim Hecker, Christian Fennesz and Philip Jeck but his defining moment came around 15 years ago, with an epic and billowing four part work called The Disintegration Loops, which emerged from a project to digitise archival analogue tapes he made in 1982.
As Basinski played the tapes, their audio began to fail; his attempt to preserve them ironically only hastening their demise. Late in the piece from the third pasrt of the work, dlp 5 is representative of what this sounds like. As within a bright and stately chord progression, we gradually become aware of the mounting lacunae emerging in the recording, and with it, develop a sadness for the missing sound.
This erratic process formed the basis of what became a five-hour work, in which Basinski rescued from the melancholic chording of the original tapes, a statement on time and the integrity of memory. What testimony will be lost to history, and what will remain? What will be commemorated?
The experience of the music is beautiful but nostalgic, as when we observe a star in the night sky – the light radiant, but also tinged with the knowledge that the star which created it is dead. Basinski finished the project on the morning of 9/11, and the gravity, content and scale of the work invested it with a role as a meditation on the catastrophe.
Basinski’s latest album, A Shadow in Time is a concise 37-minute work, containing two pieces. The first, the title track, gives the impression of being less about loops and decay than a rate of travel. It feels like being on a ghost train for commuters, a subterranean ride of steady velocity, very much on rails but with the physicality of the ride and the sound of metal on metal never very far away. It arrives, 16 minutes later, in a distant station.
As spooky and involving as that is, it’s the second track, For David Robert Jones which makes the album essential. At first, the 20-minute composition seems of a piece with Disintegration Loops: revealing itself gradually, its looping melody initially heard as an impression behind a dense and rather forbidding fog bank. The music ebbs like the sea – but you certainly wouldn’t want to set out in it.
With attention to the shifting forces, though, shapes begin to emerge. At six minutes, we hear a brief saxophone phrase. While most listeners will have figured out that David Robert Jones was the birth name of David Bowie, this nod to the instrument that Bowie played in his first R&B bands and intermittently throughout his career seems a clue to what this might all be about.
We duly follow it as a beacon lighting through the rest of the music. As the sad chorale of weather billows behind it, this saxophone break reveals itself in greater detail to have another more baleful refrain behind it, while this is itself accompanied by a delicate guitar line. Rather than just wallowing in this sound, it’s there for a reason: the more we attention we pay it, the more it’s brought into focus for us.
There may be some similarity in the nature of the sound to his earlier monumental work, but this is not a piece about frailty of humanity memory. This instead is a work about how it endures. It’s about what survives of us, and how mourning or meditation might salvage something valuable from the watery depths of grief: clarity.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.
Updated: January 25, 2017 04:00 AM