Brian Eno – the beauty of the moment

Brian Eno by Pete Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

This article suggests that there’s a running theme in Brian Eno’s work that is akin to mysticism.  I’m not claiming Eno is a mystic or a religious person in any way, in fact I’m sure he isn’t. But in the lyrics of several songs are strong suggestions of what we might call mysticism in its broadest sense.

Mystic: a person who claims to attain, or believes in the possibility ofattaining, insight into mysteries transcending ordinary human knowledge, as by direct communication with the divine or immediate intuition in a state of spiritual ecstasy (www.dictionary.com)(www.dictionary.com)

A person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect. (Oxford Dictionary)

 

The present moment

One of my lifelong interests has been meditation; not really for its own sake but for the insights it provides in everyday life.

When meditation is discussed in the context of Zen Buddhism, there’s an emphasis on being still in the present moment. Of course, you can’t be anywhere other than the present moment but here it means appreciating the present moment and dropping concerns with past and future. This appreciation doesn’t last, and part of the practice is letting go of whatever the fruits of the insight are – peace or joy or whatever – and moving on.

This dropping of concern with past and future, meaning thoughts and desires for the past and future, goes deeper in that what sometimes happens is that the self disappears. What? It doesn’t mean you become a zombie or a robot, but that the feeling of ‘I’ being somehow in the driving seat, steering the body through life like a fork lift truck, disappears and momentarily the sensations of the world are experienced directly. So instead of ‘ I am hearing the birds outside ‘ there’s just the experience of the sound. The ‘I’ is unnecessary. This experience gives whatever one is looking at or hearing a special significance and a sense of being an element in some larger, transcendent experience.

This experience is described in literature across the world and throughout history. While Zen Buddhism tends to focus on it, it doesn’t own it. Wordsworth’s poetry returns to it again and again.

“Oft in these moments such a holy calm

Would overspread my soul, that bodily eyes

Were utterly forgotten, and what I saw

Appeared like something in myself, a dream:

A prospect in the mind”

(Prelude, Book V)

“The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light.”
(Ode on Intimations of Immortality)

Eno is not a Buddhist, he’s naturally bald

To me this sense of the sudden recognition of the beauty of the moment seems to be a recurring theme in Eno’s lyrics. I’m not suggesting Eno is a Buddhist or even a meditator, although he is familiar with the concepts of both. In fact in a public gig in a Liverpool record shop, when Robert Fripp invited questions, he was asked if Eno was involved in Buddhism. Fripp said ‘Eno’s not a Buddhist. He’s naturally bald.’

There were hints of it in a few songs on his first three albums, for example, Golden Hours from Another Green World:

How can moments go so slow.
Several times
I’ve seen the evening slide away
Watching the signs
Taking over from the fading day

But these are just couplets out of context in songs whose themes are generally opaque and possibly produced by randomising methods.

Julie With …

The first song that focuses only on this insight is Julie With, from 1977’s album Before and After Science. What a perfect evocation of a moment of beauty, with sensual language pulling in sight, sound and touch, and perhaps a slight sense of foreboding, that this moment can’t last:

I am on an open sea
Just drifting as the hours go slowly by
Julie with her open blouse
Is gazing up into the empty sky

Now it seems to me so strange here
Now it’s so blue
The still sea is darker than before

No wind disturbs our coloured sail
The radio is silent, so are we
Julie’s head is on her arm
Her fingers brush the surface of the sea

Now I wonder if we’ll be seen, here
Or if time has left us all alone
The still sea is darker than before

By This River

On the same album By This River, sung over a simple, spacious piano figure, could be the same moment from another viewpoint:

Here we are
Stuck by this river
You and I
Underneath a sky that’s ever falling down, down, down
Ever falling down
Through the day
As if on an ocean
Waiting here
Always failing to remember why we came, came, came

The Belldog

In 1978, Eno released a second collaboration with the German musicians Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, called After The Heat, which contains my favourite Brian Eno song – The Belldog. It seems to describe a worker, a functionary in some kind of surveillance station, who loses his sense of a separate self in a glorious epiphany of the world and the sky. That’s my interpretation anyway.

 

Most of the day, we were at the machinery
In the dark sheds that the seasons ignored
I held the levers that guided the signals to the radio
But the words I received, random code, broken fragments from before

Out in the trees, my reason deserted me
All the dark stars cluster over the bay
Then in a certain moment, I lose control
And at last, I am part of the machinery
(Belldog, Where are you?)
And the light disappears
As the world makes its circle through the sky


The Belldog in the title puzzled me for years. When I came across Eno talking about it in the book More Dark Than Shark by Russell Mills, it seems to bear little relation to the song itself but in itself is a good story:

‘I was walking through Washington Square Park, towards the “Arc de Triomphe” style monument there. There was a little group of people under the arch, and the full moon stood low on the horizon, visible through the top of the arch. As I got closer I saw what it was that had attracted their attention. A very grubby man of indeterminate age was playing an out-of-tune upright piano on wheels: his touch was that of a plummy night club pianist, but the chords he used were completely strange. Over this sequence of soft discords he sang, again and again, in a trembling voice: “The belldog, where are you?” I have no idea what he meant by the belldog. For me it was (and is) an unidentified mythical character from some unfamiliar mythology…So the vague feeling I have about the belldog is that he is a herald; of what is not clear. Whatever it is, in the song he has either not yet appeared or has gone away…’

Spinning Away

This sense of falling into a mystical union with the world around us, particularly the sky, returned in one of Eno’s most popular songs, Spinning Away, from his 1990 collaboration with John Cale, Wrong Way Up. Again the lyrics stand up for themselves, echoing The Belldog and By This River:

Up on a hill, as the day dissolves
With my pencil turning moments into line
High above in the violet sky
A silent silver plane – it draws a golden chain
One by one, all the stars appear
As the great winds of the planet spiral in
Spinning away, like the night sky at Arles
In the million insect storm, the constellations form
On a hill, under a raven sky
I have no idea exactly what I’ve drawn
Some kind of change, some kind of spinning away
With every single line moving further out in time

And now as the pale moon rides (in the stars)
Her form in my pale blue lines (in the stars)
And there, as the world rolls round (in the stars)
I draw, but the lines move round (in the stars)
There, as the great wheels blaze (in the stars)
I draw, but my drawing fades (in the stars)
And now, as the old sun dies (in the stars)
I draw, and the four winds sigh (in the stars)

The music, a standard four-chord sequence you’ve heard in a million songs, builds beautifully from a sparse and slightly jerky rhythm to a glorious sunset of harmonies and strings.

Calm and ecstasy

I’m picking mainly on Eno’s lyrics here. But I think there’s some consistency with his approach to instrumental music too – a sense of calm and spaciousness reminiscent of meditation. Also an embrace of the ephemeral in his generative music pieces, where an algorithm will throw up a beautiful cluster of notes that won’t ever be repeated in the same form.

I don’t mean to overstate this aspect of Eno’s work – it’s a minor tributary to the river, and this may be all over-interpretation on my part. But this music of ecstasy and absorbtion has always been a fascination. For most of the history of rock it’s been associated with psychedelia and drugs but here it’s coming from a highly intelligent, analytical, drug-free composer and visual artist – that’s why I love it.

PS that four chord sequence

In the hope of rescuing this post from getting too po-faced, I have to note that those four chords used in Spinning Away have a pedigree as long as the history of music – see The Axis of Awesome:

 

Other inspirations on this site

Waveforms ambient looping (or Frippertronics 3)

Guitar and effects pedals

In my last couple of posts on Frippertronics I’ve shown how Robert Fripp started playing this form of wave-like looping soundscape, and I’ve demonstrated how I tried to copy it for my own enjoyment using various bits of equipment I’d accumulated over the years. That was very much derivative of Fripp’s music. In my own Waveforms I’ve added my own take on it, using a wider range of sounds on the synth. Each piece has a written structure although the notes and textures are different every time.

In this video I’m playing one of my own pieces, The End of the Road. The annotations on the video describe what I’m doing at each stage.

I hope you enjoy it and if you’d like me to post more like this, let me know.

Related

 

More on Waveforms – my soundscapes approach

How to play Frippertronics (2): into action

In my last post I described how I approach Frippertronics and ambient looping in general. I also talked about the equipment I use. But how do you approach it in a performance? Even if the performance is just for your own enjoyment? Over and over I’ve seen friends try the equipment and very quickly create the sonic equivalent of mud – a thick and unappealing mess. How do you avoid that?

In this video I build a short Frippertronics loop, using only one guitar sound. That means I’m emulating the original Frippertronics from the late 70s and early 80s. In the next video I’ll show my own development of it, Waveforms, but for now I’m firmly in ‘copy and try to get it right’ mode.

There’s not a lot to look at. If you’re lucky there may be paint drying somewhere – go watch that! But the beauty of this music is when less is more, and when you’re listening to what’s playing before you feed in the next note. So you’ll see me sitting doing nothing a lot.

A few points about what how I do this:

  • As I described before, I have two pedals looping independently of each other. One decays and fades, the other doesn’t.  I start by feeding two notes into both of them. Because they’re independent, they go out of sync quite quickly, creating a feeling of waves and floating right from the beginning.
  • I then listen for a bit before adding more. When Fripp plays he tends to set a lot more going at the beginning, but he has a better ear for what’s working and strategies to deal with unintended stuff. Plus he loves the ‘pointed stick’ created by something unintentional that keeps coming back at you. I’m less skilled, so more cautious.
  • I leave only a few notes looping on the Jam Man (the non-decaying loop) to allow space to focus on the more transient stuff.
  • I feed in a maximum of two consecutive notes at a time. I never play chords.
  • I give attention to the whole range, from the bottom of the fretboard to the top. Too many notes in the same octave tend to sound muddy.
  • A figure of two notes, maybe a tone, or a third apart, give a nice movement to the piece when they loop.
  • Back to being cautious. The only aspect of this where I think I’ve improved over the years is in stopping to listen before I play. Often I’ll kick the decaying loop off ‘record’ to try out a note or figure before kicking it back on to commit it. Call me chicken. At around 4:17 you’ll see where I was glad of that.
  • After building a loop Fripp would solo over that. I do sometimes but not for public consumption!

I’ve never really articulated my approach to this, it’s just something that’s developed as a result of hearing this type of music in the 80s and really REALLY wanting to play it. If you love it as much as I do, then I hope this article will inspire you to give it a try.

In the next post I’ll demonstrate my Waveforms approach, using the same equipment but not trying to sound like Fripp.

Related:

And if you don’t want to play it on guitar – play it on my site with my Waveforms Soundtoy!

More on Waveforms – my soundscapes approach

How to play Frippertronics (1)

What’s Frippertronics?

Robert Fripp’s typically mock-academic definition of Frippertronics is

the musical experience resulting at the interstice of Robert Fripp and a small, mobile and appropriate level of technology….

The origin of Frippertronics

The origin of Frippertronics is well documented. Brian Eno introduced Fripp to the recycling delay effect of playing into a set of two tape recorders with the tape running from one to another. The note played returns again and again, slightly decayed each time, as you layer more notes on top, each one returning. The results of their first afternoon’s experimentation became the first Fripp and Eno album No Pussyfooting (1973). Fripp subsequently took the system on the road, playing non-concert venues such as building lobbies and pizzerias where the audience, having not paid money, were free to listen or ignore and Fripp was free to improvise without the audience expectation of hearing the hits of King Crimson. (The origins of the system before Fripp and Eno are recounted here )

Apart from these ‘pure’ Frippertronics performances he used the sound to beautiful effect behind songs like Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes The Flood .

… and with a sense of humour in Under Heavy Manners with David Byrne. (“I asked David to sing ‘I am resplendent in divergence’ as he would imagine a country singer would sing those words.”)

 

Later Fripp developed the system into Soundscapes, using digital loops rather than tapes, and guitar synths to create lush orchestral sounds.

I fell in love with Frippertronics when I first heard it. I was a new guitarist and folkie when I heard No Pussyfooting, so although I loved it, it was a bewildering other world that I couldn’t conceived of playing. In 1979, however when Fripp put out the first ‘pure’ Frippertronics tracks I could hear it being built up from single notes to the enrapturing fadeouts and I began to imagine that given the right technology I might one day be able to play it.

Once I had assembled the equipment, I found my own way to play this style of music but not without months of just trying to sound like the man himself.

How I play

Simple Frippertronics

This involves playing only single long notes, on one instrument – either the distorted guitar tone, approximating the sound of the original Frippertronics, or a synth tone. A typical improv would involve feeding into the delay or the looper:

  • Note 1: this becomes the root note of the key of the piece, so for example if the first note is A, the natural tendency is to follow it with other notes in the key of either A or A minor. Of course this doesn’t have to be the case, you could go into any key depending on ..
  • Note 2: often either the fifth, or the third. A lot of early Frippertronics improvs began with the root followed by a minor third.
  • Note 3: I usually try to make this something less obvious – a higher octave, a second or a major seventh for example. Or a slide from one note to anotherAt this point I will usually hit the delay off so I leave the three notes looping but can then play other notes, often quite rapidly, layering on top but not recording. Sometimes I just don’t play – I sit and listen to the three looping notes until I have an idea what I feel like adding. It’s this moment that tends to set the emotional feeling of the improv. Adding too much to the loop at this point creates the sonic equivalent of mud, and it’s all going round all the time, so there’s not much to get a purchase on as a listener.

This is just one strategy; of course there are many things you can do while remaining within the spirit of pure Frippertronics. Short notes rather than long give a more playful effect. (The ‘beeping’ in Fripp’s original description of ‘beeping and droning’). Sometimes I pick out a note or couple of notes I like and hit the delay to On, doubling them in a higher or lower octave to emphasise them. It’s a bit like a sculptor trying to feel his way into what shape is hidden in his block.

Simple Soundscapes

The operation is much as above except that I’ll use a synth or strings patch at the beginning, only bringing in the distorted guitar tone to emphasise something I’ve heard in the shifting waves of sound. It can be nice to use it to lend a bit of menace to a swirl of strings. I’ve learned in doing this for years to leave as much space as possible, so keeping string notes well apart from each other in time and in pitch, using all the octaves on the guitar and the higher octave the guitar synth gives you by changing the pitch with the pedal. Too many close sounds gives you sonic mud, particularly as the sounds in the GR20 aren’t as good as those Fripp uses. Once I have a pleasing set of waves going, I’ll sometimes improvise over them in a subtle undistorted guitar voice.

Structured pieces

This is where I’m using the techniques but not trying to emulate Fripp. I’ve created quite a few structured sequences using many more of the guitar synth voices – marimba, koto, tabla – in a set sequence and key.

So for each I have a written plan that goes, for example:

  1. Set up organ drone in D
  2. Sprinkle some high glockenspiel notes randomly in the loop
  3. Guitar improv in Dm
  4. When organ drone has faded change chord to A or Em, let it cycle
  5. Return organ drone to D
  6. Guitar improv in D major but fed into looper so very few notes

So each time I play it, it follows the sequence but sounds different – the notes, speed of playing, character are all different. It removes the need for decisionmaking about voices and loops and allows me to focus on the musicality of it. I have about eight of these sequences, each one tending to last around 7-8 minutes. Some use the Jamman, with its non-decaying loop, to set up a rhythmic base on something like marimba or tabla. The tracks Jodrell and The Necklace Smile on my Waveforms album are based on two of these structured improvs.

Here’s a video of a performance, annotated with what I’m doing at each stage.

Do I really need all this kit?

No! Fripp was playing infinite sustain on ordinary guitars for years before Sustainers were invented. He achieved it with a couple of standard pedals, classical vibrato, controlling his proximity to the amp, and – yes – hours and hours of dedicated practice. The Boss Giga Delay, or any single looper that gives you a long, decaying delay, will suffice. So I’d say the minimum kit is:

  • any electric guitar
  • distortion FX
  • volume pedal
  • long, decaying delay.

And if you don’t want to play it on guitar – play it on my site with my Waveforms Soundtoy!

More on my Waveforms

‘Waveforms’ is now on Bandcamp

Waveforms album cover

Waveforms album coverHaving been unavailable for a while the Waveforms album of ambient instrumentals is now up on Bandcamp, with a couple of extra bonus tracks.

It’s priced at £4.00 rather than free. Why? Because I think music is worth something. It’s not much and you’re welcome to pay more if you want. The first track is a free download.

 

 

The sleevenotes say:

Each track is the first and only take of an improvisation using using Fernandes Sustainer guitar, Roland GR20 guitar synth, Zoom G2 guitar effects, Boss GigaDelay DD20 and Digitech JamMan looper.

All were recorded in February 2010 except Kyle, which was recorded late in 2007 for a friend whose son was missing. While intended as a message of hope, it now stands as a memorial.

The influence and inspiration of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno are obvious and the album is respectfully dedicated to them.

Waveforms in August

I'll be playing a short set of Waveforms at Sacred Space in St John's Church (corner of Princes St and Lothian Road) on three dates in August. Unlike previous years this'll be in daytime, which will lend a different dynamic.

I'll be playing on Wed 10th, Wed 17th and Wed 24th at 12:15.  There's no admission charge and people are free to come and go at any time during the performance.  The aim is just to create a space of stillness and contemplation. More info and similar performances.

Waveforms is the name I give to the music I make with a guitar, a guitar synthesiser and two loop pedals. It's 90% improvised, playing in the moment, and is like building up an abstract painting by layering colours on top of each other. I've said more about Waveforms here and you can hear some here  (click the album title).

Hope to see some friendly faces there!