In 1975, Brian Eno had long left Roxy Music behind. Having finished working in the studio, he made his way home. It was a rainy night and Eno slipped on the pavement into the path of a London taxi. Eno later said:
“At that instant my mind was operating incredibly fast,” he recalls. “On one channel, I thought, ‘So that may be the last thing I do.’ Then I thought, ‘If I’m going to survive this, I’ve got to get up as soon as it hits me,’ because I could see another car following the taxi that would surely swerve around and run over my head. The third thing I thought was, ‘Who is going to get in touch with my girlfriend?’ And the fourth thing was, ‘Isn’t the brain an incredible thing? It’s like a 24-track tape with all these things going on at once.’ It sounds ridiculous, but in that moment I developed a theory about how my brain worked. Then I got hit.”
Recuperating in hospital, a friend brought Eno some harp music to listen to. The friend left with the music playing in the background, the volume just at the point of audibility.
“At first I thought, ‘Oh God, I wish I could turn it up,'” Eno remembers. “But then I started to think how beautiful it was. It was raining heavily outside and I could just hear the loudest notes of the harp coming above the level of the rain.”
Eno decided to try and replicate that effect with the new music he recorded when he recovered.
His first attempt was “Discreet Music” released in 1975. The intention initially was that the A side would be used by Robert Fripp of King Crimson to play over in concert using a series of tape recorders, playing and recording together but slightly out of synch. The B side of the album was three variations on the “Canon in D Major” by Johann Pachelbell. The arrangements were by Gavin Bryars, who I became aware of via Tom Waits singing on his arrangement of “Jesus Blood Hasn’t Failed Me Yet.”
In the programme notes, Eno comments on just how primitive and wonky the recording of “Discreet Music” was. The synthesiser drifted out of tune as it warmed up (I recall reading this was a problem of many early electronic keyboards). The tapes that provided the echo were old and slipped, giving the effect of a chorus. This homespun nature of the album adds to its charms. It isn’t accurately programmed out as it would be now via Pro Tools.
Here’s the original. Pop it on in the background and walk away. It’s lovely to come back to as you go about your business. I’ve even had it playing on the computer and through the TV out of synch and it sounds even better:
The album spawned genres and imitators with the post rave ambient scene with artists such as the Orb, Aphex Twin and Orbital influenced by the record. Unfortunately, Susuma Yokata, one of the most underrated of the musicians how had followed in the footsteps of “Discreet Music”, has died recently at the young age of 54.
As part of the Transcender festival at the Barbican, a specially-assembled ensemble – electronic musician Benge, saxophonist John Harle, violinist Emma Smith, cellist Oliver Coates and experimental jazz trio The Necks – incorporated original equipment, including EMS synthesiser and Eno’s ‘Frippertronic’ tape looping system, to conjure something new out of Eno’s forty year old original.
The show had been put together by Leo Abrahams and David Coulter. Abrahams collaborated with Eno himself on the 2011 album, “Small Craft On A Milk Sea.” Coulter has also played with Eno.
Arriving at the venue was something of a culture shock – not that I’m unfamiliar with the Barbican. There was though a plethora of limos and people rattling their jewellery for the appearance of Benadryl Cummerbund aka Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet in the adjacent theatre
The stage was set with a bed and television at the rear as a homage to Eno’s hospitalisation. The rear screen showed cityscape photos and the side screens showed Eno’s “Oblique Strategy” cards with a few new ones added in. These were cards that Eno took into his recording sessions to encourage the musicians to think differently about what they were about to do. There’s Adam Buxton’s fabulous spoof of the recording of David Bowie’s “Low” with Eno which imagines the cards in action.
On the evening though, the cards were often used as cues for the musicians to change the way they were playing or swap instruments. The concert ended with a card saying “How would you have done it?”.
The first half of the gig was the first half of the record. It started with Benge starting a fairly faithful reproduction of “Discreet Music” with its three and four note motifs being repeated. It took off as the strings, woodwind and vibraphone joined in. The real switch up came about 25 minutes in when the Necks struck up. The band specialise in improvising both in a live and studio situation. They created a rolling muscular approximation of the theme which raised the possibility of breaking from slumber. There is a vogue at the moment for music to sleep by, especially Max Richter’s “From Sleep” which is a Rough Trade Album of The Month that I’ll be blogging about soon. Looking around the auditorium a few people had slipped into a snooze during the performance.
There was a short interval before the second half of the concert continued. This was performances based upon the Pachelbell piece. There was a lovely section with a musical saw. This half of the gig didn’t work as well for me. The music seemed constrained at times by the Pachelbell theme, particularly at one point when it looked like the Necks were ready to really cut loose.
And here’s an early music version of Pachelbel’s Canon:
- Discrete Music
- Variations on the Canon in D Major by Pachelbell