Discreetly Decoding Eno’s Music
On its 40th anniversary, Discreet Music was decoded and reconstructed using Eno’s Oblique Strategies for a one-off performance to card-carrying members of the Brian Eno fan club.
Trying to be Brian Eno isn’t easy. Just ask Brian Eno. In 1995, when he was attempting to recreate Discreet Music using his Koan generative music system, the maestro himself found it impossible. In his diary A Year with Swollen Appendices, Eno wrote: “I am trying to replicate Discreet Music as accurately as possible. This is actually very hard — trying to duplicate the complicated analogue conditions of the original: a synth that never stayed properly in tune, variable waveform mixes and pulse-widths, variable filter frequency and Q, plus probably something like 30 audible generations of long-delay repeat, with all the interesting sonic degradation that introduced.
“My attempts to replicate Discreet Music result in interesting failure after interesting failure.”
Comforting words, I’m sure, for Matthew Brown when he got the call up to do exactly what Eno couldn’t, recreate Discreet Music live onstage in front of thousands. It wasn’t just him up there, but he had to figure out the bit with the out-of-tune endlessly matrix-able vintage synth and reels of tape degradation.
I recently headed along to the State Theatre at Melbourne’s Art Centre to witness the event, titled Discreet + Oblique. The conceit was to take the themes from Eno’s Discreet Music, on its 40th anniversary, and apply his Oblique Strategies cards to it in a live setting.
Onstage with Brown were Australian experimental trio, The Necks — Chris Abrahams (piano), Tony Buck (drums), and Lloyd Swanton (bass) — on one side. Flanking the other side of the stage were Golden Fur members Samuel Dunscombe (clarinet), Judith Hamann (violoncello), and James Rushford (viola). Behind Brown on two risers were the two Eno acolytes who co-produced the show, Leo Abrahams on electric guitar, and David Coulter on vibes and saw.
The whole performance wasn’t just a celebration of Discreet Music’s 40th anniversary, it was a mashup tribute to Eno as well. Towards the back of the stage sat a four-poster hospital bed; a ‘joke’ reference to the conception of the whole ambient music genre. The story goes that when Eno’s friend put on a record in his hospital room they left the volume so low Eno couldn’t hear it properly. Too sick to get out of bed and turn it up, he lay there noticing how the sounds were subsumed into the environment, beautifying it, rather than being a focal point. Whoosh, the dawn of ambient music.
Likewise, Eno’s video art Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan — projected from a TV on its side onto the big screen between Oblique Strategy cards — came after Discreet Music and isn’t technically supposed to be projected at all. “Bringing that TV into the hospital room doesn’t make much conceptual sense really,” said Abrahams. “But it’s a celebration and an anniversary so it’s a bit of a mashup.”
I guess performing music — through a giant Meyer Sound system — that was founded upon the sensation of not being able to properly hear it is, technically-speaking, not strictly ambient either.
CARDS OUT FOR ALL TO SEE
During the performance, Abrahams would randomly flip Oblique Strategies cards from a deck, and slide them under a document projector. If you’re not familiar with the concept, the cards are intended to trigger a fresh thought process that might get you out of the creative doldrums. They read things like, ‘Repetition is a form of change’, ‘What is the reality of the situation?’ ‘(Organic) machinery’ and ‘Remember those quiet evenings’. Some were obvious influencers. When ‘Fill every beat with something’ came up, it was as if someone had called Tony Buck’s number at the butchers. Others like ‘Intentions, credibility of, nobility of’ felt a bit like trying to read 10 minds at once.
Abrahams was coy about the ratio of improvisation to structured arrangements. He didn’t want to give the whole game away; concerned that punters experiencing the show at the Barbican in London in a couple of months would be cheated of the guessing game if the veneer was stripped away. “Part of the interesting thing about it is that it’s not certain how much is planned and how much isn’t,” he offered. “There’s a framework in which improvisation happens, but it’s quite a tight framework in terms of what happens at what time.” There’s still scope for the pieces to be longer or shorter, and have different textures or energy, but it’s still going to be roughly the same pieces. After all, that’s the whole conceit — Discreet plus Oblique. It’s still got to be Discreet Music, “recognisable,” said Abrahams. “Without it being a boring retread of the existing music.”
Whether or not the pieces are fully improvised or entirely structured is somewhat beside the point. Everyone that turns up to a Brian Eno tribute concert is probably somewhat familiar with his first major ambient work, whether it’s clogged in every-greyer grey matter or freshly imprinted. The point is that using the Oblique Strategies cards is supposed to fun, not didactic. You don’t have to follow them to the letter. “The purpose of the Oblique Strategies is to reframe the producer’s relationship to the music they’re making,” reminded Abrahams. “Or the musician’s relationship.” For an audience of thousands who may have never used the cards, the show was a chance for them to get in on the act. To experience first hand the effect the cards can have.
“The cards serve a function, but essentially I see it as a theatrical device,” said Abrahams. “The whole event is supposed to be a celebration of the anniversary of this piece and also a celebration of Brian’s work. The cards — their language, humour, gentleness as well as their depth — is a really big part of what he’s like as an artist, but also what he’s like as a person. Although he’s frequently seen as a very serious theorist, which he is in some ways, he’s also extremely good fun!”
The show was comprised of about two hour-long pieces with a break inbetween. Essentially riffing on sides A and B of Discreet Music. But Abrahams said they never made it to an hour in rehearsal. He’d worked with all the musicians before but “I didn’t really know what kind of contribution they were going to make because their repertoire is so diverse in terms of what atmospheres they create,” he said. “Strangely, after the first couple of run-throughs, I felt I could predict the energy of it. But I certainly couldn’t predict how amazingly they would have dealt with the Discreet Music motifs. I think we were all holding something back at the rehearsals. We never got to the end of Discreet Music in rehearsal; we would come in at 20 minutes, which is way too short. We needed the tension of an audience to actually do the piece properly.”
FLIP ON FRIPPERTRONICS
Discreet Music begins with the slow entrance of the main motif, a confluence of EMS Synthi lines looped on a Frippertronics system. As Eno’s diary alludes, there’s a bit more to it than that. In the album liner notes, there’s a basic diagram of the Frippertronics system that plots the basic points: synthesiser to graphic EQ to echo unit, then into the tape delay system comprising looping back from the playback head of one onto the record of another. For Brown, that was like looking at a tourist snap of a building; he needed the schematics, which no one had.
He started by decoding the loops. Brown: “The two repeated phrases have such slow attacks, it’s really hard to work out the loop size. I could hear there were two delays happening; a short one made on the Echoplex, and the longer one, which I think went for 66 seconds. I chopped all the long loops up, measured the sample sizes and averaged them to get the most accurate idea of their length. I looked at the spectrograph of the sound and saw it wasn’t going above 3kHz. I realised it must be slowed down. I suspect Brian Eno made it, then slowed it down on the tape machine to 3.75ips from 7.5ips. It was quite hard to reproduce, because I think he did one take, and mixed it down onto one track, then did a second take with a second melody and mixed that down onto the other half of the 1/4-inch tape, which the diagram on the back of the record doesn’t mention.”
For the Frippertronics system, Brown used a pair of Revox B77 MkII two-track tape machines, straddling the ends of a long trestle, with a length of tape running over the top of his EMS Synthi. Brown: “You have the tape running past the heads from the left hand one, then past the heads onto the takeup reel on the right hand one. The sound gets recorded on the left hand one, and goes past the playback head of the right hand machine, which is plugged into the record head of the left hand one. It makes a copy of a copy of a copy. So the sound breaks down and you get that wonderful tape delay sound.
“The delay time is relative to the speed the tape is moving and the distance between them. I divided the length by four, because the original length was about 6.4m, which was too big for the stage. We talked about having a zig zag array inbetween the two machines, which would have been a nightmare — bits of coat hangers failing miserably.
“I suspect Brian Eno had it shorter and slowed the tape down to get the final result. If you do the maths, you can probably guess the size of his living room from the maximum length of time he could get out of them. A bit of acoustic archaeology.”
The initial Synthi patch had Brown a bit bemused: “The more I looked into it, the less it sounded like the EMS synthesizer and more like the high notes of an oboe, or clarinet. When he was in Roxy Music, Andy McKay — who was also very experimental and avant garde — played those instruments. I started suspecting it could possibly be a loop of McKay playing, and feeding into the system rather than the synthesizer. Maybe I’ve been staring at it too long.
“The wonderful thing about the EMS Synthi is it uses a matrix. You can do all these ‘illegal’ things like tell the sound that’s coming out of the synthesiser to modulate the tuning knob, so you’re doing FM synthesis. The audio and control information is one.”
In the second piece, one of the highlights was the merging of Brown’s Synthi solo into an energetic clarinet part, highlighting how alike the two could sound. “For my solo, I took a few cues from when Brian played in Roxy Music,” said Brown. “The solos he did were a bit like that; crazy bombastic things that wobbled all over the place. With the patch, I had the LFO controlling the wet/dry mix rate of the spring reverb. And the ring modulation was coming in and out. There was a lot of stuff that sounded like ring modulation but was actually frequency modulation.”
The other module on Brian Eno’s diagram was the graphic equaliser, which Brown set to “shift so it goes through the EQ. There are certain frequency patterns the magnetic tape picks up; it will feed back and get sweet spots. But if you change the EQ all the time, it will allow different parts of the sound to get through and feedback more so than others.”
Brian is someone who hates looking back and talking about the past. I really respect that because he’s honestly one of the most forward-looking and unencumbered people
DIAL IN THE RADIO
While Discreet Music was just a synthesiser and delays, and the other side of the record primarily a string orchestra, Abrahams did some decoding too and noticed some cumulative effects he could emulate on guitar. Abrahams: “There seem to be some keyboard overdubs, and once the tape delays get really thick in the first piece, it gives the illusion of there being other instruments. I used the guitar to try and fill in the gaps beyond what the other musicians were doing.
“In the first half I was trying to blend with the vibes and the tapes, because the frequency range of the guitar isn’t dissimilar to the range of the EMS. In the second half I drowned out the space with an organ-ish sound.
“From there, it was a case of being very selective about when the sounds have attack. For most of the show the sounds were a combination of a slow attack delay, a quiet context, and high-pass filter reverb with a long pre-delay. Normally when I perform, I’ll have hundreds of sounds in a show. But this time I only wanted to have one or two so it’d feel like a chamber ensemble.
One of the more recognisable sounds was a broken up radio effect that Abrahams summoned from his pedal chain of an Eventide Pitch Factor, a Strymon Timeline and a Strymon Big Sky. “There’s a really nice lo-fi module in the Timeline pedal,” said Abrahams. “The radio sound was that going into the Big Sky. It’s not enough to just dial up the radio sound, you have to play in a very broken way to make it convincing.
“I like sounds which are simple but give a lot back, so you feel like you’re collaborating with the sounds in a way. It gets really expressive with very little movement on your part. There was one part where the bass of the EMS needed a bit of a backup, so I had a four-octave down pitch shift on the Eventide going into a high-pass filtered reverb — it made a 63Hz throb.”
THE GHOST OF ENO PAST
Leo Abrahams has been working on and off with Brian Eno for 14 years now. In that time he can only ever remember the Oblique Strategies cards coming once; relatively recently actually, on the High Life record.
As far as Abrahams is concerned, the cards are just a manifestation of Eno’s way of working that the man himself doesn’t actually require the use of them. “The feeling the cards give you — that lateral thinking about music — is very familiar to me having worked with him,” said Abrahams. “It’s like the cards are a manifestation of one of his philosophies of work. I don’t think he’s had to resort to using them because he does things like that just by being who he is.”
It was the first time Abrahams had performed a tribute to one of Eno’s works without him being there and he was a bit worried about it. “In a way it feels a bit creepy!” He said. “I thought if you’re going to do a tribute then you ought to not know them. Also, Brian is someone who hates looking back and talking about the past. I really respect that because he’s honestly one of the most forward-looking and unencumbered people, and I didn’t want to stalk him to look at it. But as it turned out he was really generous and supportive with the project.
“I didn’t talk to him much about the nuts and bolts of it but he wrote the very generous program notes and let me come over and scan the original cards he made by hand in 1973, which appeared in the second half. I did say to him, ‘I’m sorry if this is awkward for you because I know you don’t like looking back.’ His reply was, ‘This is so long ago it almost seems like someone else’s life!’”