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’ 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.

Inspirations: Desert Island Discs

Some months ago, a discussion on the Out of the Bedroom board invited readers to choose their Desert Island Discs – the albums they would take with them if they were to be marooned on a desert island with the best sound system available (so that’s plausible, eh?). It’s a fun exercise, so I picked albums that aren’t necessarily favourites or most influential, but ones that I could live with and come back to for an extended time. For some reason, classical music, compilations and live albums were not to be included.

Revisiting the exercise now (November 2004) I’ve only changed one of my original list. Most of them have Amazon links where you can listen to snippets and – if you want – buy them!

Smiling Men with Bad Reputations Mike Heron
Innervisions Stevie Wonder
Catch Bull at Four Cat Stevens
U The Incredible String Band
Ten New Songs Leonard Cohen
Bel Gabriel Yacoub
Abbey Road The Beatles
The Equatorial Stars Fripp and Eno
Rhythm of the Saints Paul Simon
Time out of Mind Bob Dylan

 

Smiling Men with Bad Reputations: Mike Heron

Smiling Men cover.

I’ve said enough about this album elsewhere. An early 70s superstar session featuring John Cale, Richard Thompson, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon among others, plus the some of the best material Heron has committed to album. Smiling Men on Amazon

 

Innervisions: Stevie Wonder

Innervisions cover.

From the initial charge into Higher Ground through the gruff choirs of Living for the City to the sublime title track, the whole album proclaims the sheer joy of singing. The friend who introduced me to it, however, said at the time, ‘Never mind the singing, feel the rhythm!’ It’s all there. Innervisions on Amazon

 

Catch Bull at Four: Cat Stevens

Catch Bull at Four cover.

This was the album in which Stevens began to leave behind his more innocent-sounding acoustic ditties and get into some more complex arrangements. His voice also got harder and more soulful. Even listening to it now I find new touches of percussion or backing vocal I hadn’t noticed before. I never fail to get a thrill from the surging arrangement of Eighteenth Avenue. Catch Bull on Amazon

 

U: the Incredible String Band

U cover.

With my lifelong association with the ISB it’s hard to pick an album but I have to pick one. The trouble is I know most of them so well, there’s little left to hear in them. This is the one I think I could listen to for a few years more. It has two of Robin Williamson’s finest songs Queen of Love and Invocation plus the feel of all the different periods of the ISB’s development up to that time, with sitars, shanais, comedy songs, challenging poetry and Mike Heron just beginning to explore his ‘rock’ voice. U on Amazon

 

Ten New Songs: Leonard Cohen

Ten New Songs cover.

I select this over other favourite Cohen albums for the obvious Zen influence, the unified and consistent mood and the wonderfully-recorded deep voice. It’s a long way from his early stuff, which I also love, but it conveys more than its explicit message, and seems to change the atmosphere of the room in which it’s played. Ten New Songs o n Amazon.

 

Bel: Gabriel Yacoub

Bel cover.

An album of traditional-influenced original songs by a French folk-rock pioneer of the 70s (with his band Malicorne). Biting acoustic guitar complemented here and there by pipes or a string quartet. This came out in the early 90s, followed by a couple of albums which I found bombastic and over-arranged. This simple collection of short, emotional songs leaves you wanting more. Bel on Amazon. ( There are no audio samples on Amazon but you can hear Bel here. )

 

Abbey Road: the Beatles

Abbey Road cover.

I wanted some moptop in my collection but it was a tough one to call between this, Revolver and McCartney’s Ram. In the end I picked this as the final flowering of the partnership with such wonders as I Want You, Something and the ‘side two medley’. Abbey Road on Amazon

 

The Equatorial Stars: Fripp and Eno

equatorial stars cover.

This is the only one I’ve changed since my first list, reluctantly bumping the Handsome Family’s Twilight. This came out in the summer of 2004 and is a series of tentative, exploratory guitar solos against crystalline backdrops. Sounds cold? It isn’t – Fripp’s phrasing has a yearning quality that reaches to the heart. This album is  available from EnoShop where you can hear a couple of samples.

 

Rhythm of the Saints: Paul Simon

Rhythm of the Saints cover.

Simon’s follow-up to Graceland, working with African and Brazilian musicians to make what must be his most musically and lyrically complex work. It would take years of satisfying listening to tease out all the strands of The Coast, Further to Fly or the title track. A masterpiece. Rhythm of the Saints on Amazon

 

Time Out of Mind: Bob Dylan

Time Out of Mind cover.

Sure, it’s not as well-written as Blood on the Tracks or as exultant as Desire, but again I’ve almost drained them dry from listening, and this album, while flawed, has the advantage of those crepuscular arrangements and a great grumbling-old-man vocal. Plus it’s got Highlands! And the cover picture sums up the music perfectly. Time Out of Mind on Amazon

© Norman Lamont 2004

 

Thursday the 13th

Slow start, alarm at 6.30 but didn’t drag the corpse from the bed till 7.30. Sat for breakfast on the floor, back against the warm radiator, which is another guaranteed way to avoid doing anything active. In fact I became engrossed in Brian Eno’s A Year With Swollen Appendices, which is a not uncommon occurence. One of the books I keep returning to year in, year out, for its combination of stimulating thought, stretching my meagre intellect, and pure joie de vivre.

Not much joie de vivre when I went aloft to the office and tried out the new cordless headphones I received yesterday, necessitating much repositioning of power cables for the transmitter, which in turn seemed to destroy my hifi, so there’s not much point in having headphones after all. Grump.