For our final composition study we looked at the early work of Brian Eno, in particular his generative or systems pieces.
By way of introduction, it is perhaps worth noting that Eno’s career did not begin with Roxy Music: like Brian Ferry he had a lengthy and decisive art-school background informing his every move. Whilst at Ipswich he was tutored by Roy Ascott and Tom Phillips, both now elder-statesmen of the British art scene. It was Phillips, in particular, who opened up the conceptual doors for Eno: Cage’s Silence, jazz and beat poetry, Minimalism, the New York school of composers (Tudor, Wolff, Feldman, Brown), and the British experimental composers (Bryars, Skempton, Nyman, and perhaps most importantly, Cornelius Cardew). Later, at Winchester, Eno became notorious for his chance/non-intentional activities which included a solo performance of La Monte Young’s X for Henry Flynt. Another influential figure, Peter Schmidt, introduced him to the first Velvet Underground album. In 1968 he even wrote an “analytical essay”, a “brief theoretical discourse inspired by lessons learned from John Cage, Christian Wolff and George Brecht” entitled Music for Non-Musicians (Sheppard 2008: 54). The seeds were sown.
The first of the pieces we listened to and discussed is ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’ from 1972’s No Pussyfooting with Robert Fripp. The set-up is very simple: two tape recorders connected in a feedback loop (a configuration directly derived from Terry Riley’s “time-lag accumulator”) with something like a simple mixer inbetween them, allowing control over what is exactly fed back.
‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’, as a system, anticipates Eno’s own ambient style. First of all, the piece is a system, or process: it represents a way of making music, a concept of music-making, as much as it represents a composition in the traditional sense. The process allowed Eno to operate in his favoured gently guiding, rather than authoritarian, role. Making the piece required thought and attention; Eno had to contemplate and inspect the sound as it rolled by, making changes and adjustments. The process, meanwhile, yielded maximal output (a lengthy, complex piece of music) from minimal input (selection of pitches and switches). Finally, the signal-loop procedure itself, with its gradually decaying tone quality, exemplified one of Eno’s cherished axioms: “Repetition is a form of change.”
‘Discreet Music’ from 1975 was the track we looked at next: it uses essentially the same process as ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation’ but with synth sounds as the musical sources and a graphic EQ in the feedback loop. The things that affords this track its mythical status are a) it us usually identified as the first example of ambient music, and b) the chance conditions that surrounded its creation. Legend has it that Eno was trying to make a backing track for Fripp, but that the phone kept ringing and people came to the door interrupting what he was doing, with the consequence that it almost made itself. As Eno describes it “I almost made it without listening to it”. And “I thought it was probably one of the best things I’d ever done and I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time” (both quotes from Tamm 1995: 135). Pure Eno.
Finally we considered ‘2/1’ from Music for Airports from 1979. Again, a very minimal means: nine recordings of a female voice singing “ah” at nine different pitches. Cut these up into tape loops of different lengths. Play and record the resulting process:
And so onto this week’s composition, which simply required the students to make a piece using one of the two techniques described above, or a mixture of both. Although I didn’t start out intending it this way, my piece ended up as a mixture of ‘Discreet Music’ and ‘The Heavenly Music Corporation”: looped synth melodies (actually going through a delay plug-in rather than being actual loops) and a distortion track that I generated using a variation on the “time-lag accumulator” idea (that is, using a plug-in delay but sending the delayed signal “out of the box”, through a valve EQ unit, and then back into the system):
Sheppard, D. (2008) On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno. Orion.
Tamm, E. (1995) Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. Da Capo.