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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Brian Eno: Discreet Music


1) Discreet Music; 2) Fullness Of Wind; 3) French Catalogues; 4) Brutal Ardour.

First things first: in general, I «like» and «accept» Eno's ambient albums, or, rather, the philo­sophy behind these albums. They are not supposed to be listened to — they are supposed to be heard when you're busy doing other tasks, and not only is that something right up every re­viewer's alley, it is an understandable and perhaps even necessary niche, that «furniture music» conception of Satie's. Of course, any piece of music could become furniture music if you so de­sired, but the mistake of so many mediocre artists is that they aim for loftier goals while never rising above furniture music level — not to mention that, like furniture itself, furniture music can wide­ly vary in quality.

Do not, therefore, make the mistake of listening to Discreet Music intently, in order to achieve some transcendental illumination or advance to Arhat level with a super cheat code. Legend says that the idea to make this kind of music came to Brian when he was lying in a hospital bed, lis­tening to an album of 18th century harp music with the volume turned all the way down, unable to get out of bed and turn it up — «feeling» the sounds rather than «hearing» them directly. Per­haps if this accident had not happened, he would have gone on making pop records, all the way into 1986 and beyond. But it did, and although Discreet Music is not tied into it directly (not featuring any harp music at all), it marks the start of the gradual, and utterly painless, transmu­tation of Brian Eno into furniture.

As a first try, though, the album is distinctly different from the «typical» Eno ambient album. The first side (30 minutes of the title track) is all electronic, but the second side is not — it consists of three minimalist chamber pieces, performed by the so-called «Cockpit Ensemble», conducted by Gavin Bryars who also co-arranged the pieces with Eno, all three being «deconstructed» varia­tions on Pachelbel's Canon In D Major. In the future, Eno would largely refrain from twiddling around with classical motives (at least those not transposed to the electronic format), but this re­mains a curious and somewhat unique experiment, though, obviously, not to everybody's liking.

The algorithmic nature of ʽDiscreet Musicʼ has been described in many sources, and I would probably mess something up trying to retell the process — all that interests us, really, is that there are only two simple superimposed musical phrases here, produced by an EMS Synthi AKS machine and then subtly played around with for half an hour. The «melody» has a becalming, somewhat pastoral feel (you could imagine it as a call-and-response session between several shepherds, piping each other in some high mountainous area), and for about three or four minutes, you could even give it your attention — then go on about your business if you have any business. If you don't... well... try to get some. It'll save you the trouble of hating the track's last twenty minutes, and pointless hatred tends to shorten people's life spans.

The three «Pachelbel variations», all based on cutting out small pieces of the original and stret­ching, twisting, and looping them until they begin to look like polyethylene pieces under a micro­scope, all have the same mood and feel — a seemingly endless sea of extended violin tones. For­tunately, the violins are well tuned and there is no musical hooliganry involved, so the sound never becomes irritating, which is an essential quality for furniture music.

The simple reason why this experiment, to me, looks like a successful one, is because it lacks ideological pretense. «Minimalism» as such tends to take itself seriously, even when the mini­malist is clearly endowed with a sense of humor — think Steve Reich, for instance — and this results in experiments that are ugly and crazy when you «listen» and annoying and off-putting when you restrict yourself to «hearing». Eno's understanding of ambient, however, has not the slightest intention of messing up our layman conventions of «musical beauty» — such as were, among other people, set up by the likes of Pachelbel himself.

The idea is simple: you just cut yourself out a small piece of that beauty, then magnify it tenfold, fiftyfold, hundredfold, and set it out as a desktop background, and see (hear) what happens. It is even reflected, I believe, to some degree in the punny album title: this is «discreet» music, as in, «music to be played privately and quietly», and it is also «discrete» music, consisting of these separate chopped-up and meticulously scrutinized pieces, each of which is taxed to the max for every ounce of «beauty» it can yield. I am totally at home with this ideology, as long as I am not forced to play this stuff at top volume with my ears glued to the speakers. I will not, however, give it — or any of Eno's «good» ambient albums, for that matter — an individual «thumbs up», since it kind of goes against my principles to describe furniture music in terms of blue, red, or gray. And in any case, discreet music should be rated discreetly. No need to shout about it.


  1. This one is on my short list of introductory albums that sabotaged my interest in exploring the artist's work until much later.

    Another one was something something "...That You Can Dance To"

    1. "Music That You Can Dance To" by Sparks?

  2. There are early examples of, if not exactly "minimalist" music, then western avant garde music that goes on for a long time with very little seeming to happen, that are certainly ugly and crazy, and maybe even count as conventionally beautiful: Dennis Johnson's "November," Harold Budd's "Madrigals of the Rose Angel," maybe Morton Feldman's "Rothko Chapel" et al.

    It's an interesting idea, though, that Eno gets around the latent annoying quality of even the gentlest, prettiest examples of that kind of music by designing it to not be listened to. (Though I'm not sure he does get around it.)

    Personally, I like this the best of his ambient albums because I find the synthesizer tones used in the title track to be particularly lovely.

    1. Jesus: meant to write "certainly NOT ugly and crazy."