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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Brian Eno: The Shutov Assembly


1) Triennale; 2) Alhondiga; 3) Markgraph; 4) Lanzarote; 5) Francisco; 6) Riverside; 7) Innocenti; 8) Stedelijk; 9) Ikebukuro; 10) Cavallino.

And now, back to magic ambient territory. This is actually a collection of various tracks, most of them recorded by Eno in the second half of the 1980s for assorted installations around the world (hence all the titles where you can distinguish Italian, German, Dutch, and Japanese words that relate to installation geography) — and then put together as a mix tape for the Russian artist Sergei Shutov. The latter, as it happens, contacted Eno saying that he loved to work to the sound of his records, but that he also had limited access to these records (I guess the contact either took place before 1991, or else Sergei was too poor at the time to buy imported CDs and too honest to stock up on bootlegs), so Eno took pity on the music-hungry artist and put together all these tracks as a present (I guess Sergei didn't mean to say that he was actually shaking his ass off to Here Come The Warm Jets while working — now that would have been one funny case of artistic miscommunication).

Eventually, Eno liked his own mix tape so much that he proclaimed there was a common theme to all these tracks (mere mortal men will not be able to see it, though, so it is a good test on whether you are predisposed to immortality), and put it out commercially. Normally, I tend to avoid commenting on his «installation albums», because there's so many of them and they are so interchangeable, but The Shutov Assembly does not formally count as one, and at the same time it does give you a very representative peek into Eno's music-as-painting approach. Unlike Thurs­day Afternoon, this one can be rather easily sat through: all the tracks but one are relatively short, there is some diversity involved, and the minimalism is rarely jarring, because, for the most part, this is not Eno trying to see how much he can squeeze out of one note — this is Eno producing soundscapes to match visual settings, and the degree of minimalism here most likely depends on the type of visual setting.

Nothing here counts as a breakthrough idea or anything like that, but it might be the best kind of «guess your environment!» game album by the man since Another Green World (stuff like Apollo was all just one environment, and the Music For Films series were quite scattered and sketchy). Here is a quick runthrough, made up on the spot.

ʽTriennaleʼ is clearly a quiet, beautiful, and slightly dangerous underwater environment, small currents and aquatic organisms gliding past you without paying much attention. ʽAlhondigaʼ is a cavernous setting, with various minerals glistening off the walls and cool, fidgety breezes running through the tunnels in the form of white-noise swooshes or violin-like tremolos. ʽMarkgraphʼ is a dusty old dungeon, inhabited by loyal spirits of the former occupants quietly hooting around. ʽLanzaroteʼ probably takes place on a moonless night somewhere in a large clearing, surrounded by deep forest on all sides — you're placed in the middle and you have to sniff out which side does the danger come from. (Hint: it never ever comes). ʽFranciscoʼ takes you to a cave once again, but this time it is a magical one, maybe Ali Baba's or something, with gold glistening all around that you find yourself afraid to touch.

ʽRiversideʼ, despite the title (which really just refers to Riverside Studios in London), could have fit in well on Apollo — it's full of little space bleeps that convey the serene beauty of nothing out there. ʽInnocentiʼ is actually similar in mood to ʽRiversideʼ, but has a larger amount of robotic electronic noises, so maybe it has you inside the spaceship rather than on the ʽRiversideʼ outside. ʽStedelijkʼ has lots of church organ-like tones, so you could try and imagine yourself inside some sort of futuristic temple where you float through the air when communicating with God, because gravity prevents you from successful communication. ʽIkebukuroʼ, the longest track on the album, is also the weirdest one — a 16-minute pattern of deep faraway chimes that echo off each other, overdubbed with what sounds like furiously, frantically, and pointlessly flapping wings... umm... Pegasus caught up in a musical spider web? Whatever. Finally, ʽCavallinoʼ is a quiet, but stately sunset that also takes place on a distant planet with its own Sun.

If there really is a «common theme» to it all, I have yet to find it, although one must not forget that the thin line between deep insight and ridiculous bullshit in modern art is dainty thin indeed. Regardless, this is a pretty nifty collection of atmospheres: I certainly wish he'd taken some un­ne­cessary fat off ʽIkebukuroʼ (sixteen minutes of wing-flap brings this way too close to Thurs­day Afternoon for comfort), and the degree of diversity isn't really so high as to make it his latter-day equivalent of Another Green World, but at least this is one fine gift for the likes of Shutov.

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