28 January 2009

Listening Diary: Discreet Music: Brian Eno (1975)

Amidst the sturm und drang that is my daily life, I have an end-of-the-day ritual that hasn't failed me. A hot cup of tea, a fine book and a copacetic bit of music. There are a lot of true believers out there who think that music must be consciously listened to AT ALL TIMES. But some good music is actually meant to be background noise.

Brian Eno is enough of a modern music legend that it is almost difficult to see around him. One can choose any number of legacies, starting with Roxy Music, the art rock band of which he was a member in the group's earliest days. You might consider his solo rock albums (Another Green World, Before and After Science, Here Come the Warm Jets, etc.) which are legendary in their own way. Or is he the David Bowie collaborator who helped forge the sound of the "Berlin Trilogy" of Low, Lodger and Heroes? Then you have the minor matter of his production and co-production credits for others, most notably U2 and Talking Heads, two of the most influential bands of the 1980s and 90s.

But I believe he will be remembered most for his contributions to ambient and generative music. Discreet Music is not Eno's first foray into the ambient sound, but it is a very early one, and it would help to plant the seed of generative music, which is software-generated from an assemblage of notes and phrases. In 1975 the tools were more limited, and Eno used synthesizers and tape delays to create a form of a generative system.

The title track is 30:35 minutes of two short phrases, with echoes and variations of the resulting theme that combine in myriad ways. If you are familiar with Eno's later ventures such as Music for Airports and On Land, you have the idea. It must sound a bit boring to the uninitiated, but for someone who listens to a great deal of music it acts almost as a sonic palate-cleanser. The three tracks that follow (and constituted Side 2 of the original LP) are variations on Pachelbel's Canon in D Major, which is now so ubiquitous as wedding march music. The pieces are played by a small ensemble who are each playing separate fragments and varying tempi or, more precisely, varying degrees of change of tempi. Again, if it all sounds very bland and watery to you, let me assure you the results are anything but--these are new ways of hearing a piece of music that has become commonplace through overexposure.

It was a novel concept to produce a record like this in 1975--a record the artist suggests "listening to... at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility". (At the time I was probably stretching the upper decibel limits of my father's Kenwood receiver and Advent speakers with Blood on the Tracks and Born to Run.) The oft-repeated legend of its origins are contained in Eno's liner notes:

"In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music - as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience."

Maybe it's just me, but I don't think it likely that many recuperating rock musicians of the day would be even listening to 18th century harp music, let alone drawing inspiration from it. In Brian Eno's case, the inspiration resulted in one of the touchstones of ambient music.

Track listing via Wikipedia:

Side one

  1. "Discreet Music" – 30:35

Side two

Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel

  1. "Fullness of Wind" – 9:57
  2. "French Catalogues" – 5:18
  3. "Brutal Ardour" – 8:17

27 January 2009

"I didn't know he was even sick": Updike, Angstrom and procrastination

I can't claim to be a big John Updike fan, I've only read a couple of his books, but I do feel somewhat perturbed to learn of his death today. For a California boy he represented the leather-patch-on-the-tweed-jacket kind of writer--the WASPy, New England fellow who snapped away on his Underwood and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Anyone who made their living writing was, for me, someone to emulate. But all of the iconic imagery that surrounds writers pretty much blows away like so much fog (or cigarette smoke) as one gets older, and you are left with whatever you can glean from the work. This is as it should be, of course, if you've actually read some.

While I've read a few of Updike's novels and own some of the critical essays and poetry, the book that sticks most to my ribs is Rabbit, Run, which I read a few years back. In his introduction to the Everyman's Library collection of the four Rabbit Angstrom novels, Updike says the books became a sort of "running report on the state of my hero and his nation". I don't know about that, but I do remember loving the first one. Rabbit became a kind of touchstone for American men that find themselves battered and buffeted by modern life (read: most of us). And the approximate 10-year span in real and fictional time between the books appealed to the procrastinator in me: my plan was to read the books in the same time sequence--one every ten years. Checking the copyright page, however, I appear to be about four years overdue in reading the second book.

I'm also delinquent in reading the second book of Angstrom's literary descendant Frank Bascomb, hero of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter and Independence Day. I did enjoy Sportswriter finally, though Bascomb's wishy-washy, ambivalent moodiness nearly made me put the book down prematurely.

So now it will be back to the Everyman collection, after I've finished Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Maybe Independence Day after that. You can only put things off for so long, you know: before you know your time will be up.

26 January 2009

Fetish: Stationery Products

There are people of a certain bent, and you will know if you are one. Do you linger around the few remaining stationery retailers or specialty paper shops? Do you spend inordinate amounts of time haunting the pen and pencil aisle at Target? Do you forage Goodwill and thrift stores for reams of vintage paper? If these behaviors sound familiar, you probably already know about the pen, pencil and notebook renaissance(s). All of these apply to yours truly, by the way, but I'm just not always able to follow through. Scrupulous journal-keeping is appealing in theory but difficult in practice.

As with so many other subcultures that formerly hid in the shadows, the paper people are crawling all over the interwebs. There are scads of sites and blogs devoted to the analog retro-lution, and of course some are better than others. One of the more dedicated notebook blogs is BlackCover, dedicated to finding the perfect little black book. A more eclectic approach is on display at Strikethru.net. The intrepid blogger there indulges in typecasts, pencasts, pen and typewriter reviews and musings on the vintage paper life. There is also a great collection of links in the sidebar. Moleskinerie is devoted to (what else) the ubiquitous Moleskine brand of journal. From what I can tell, the site was initially begun by an aficianado but has since been acquired by Moleskine, the brand (something for bloggers everywhere to aspire to, I guess). Notebookstories is a bit more homespun and personal, while
RhodiaDrive is dedicated to the Rhodia brand. There are dozens if not hundreds more. There are entire subcultures devoted to Moleskine and Rhodia "hacks" at places like Lifehack.org and 43folders. There's a dedicated flickr group, for God's sake!

You can sense a bit of a backlash in all of this, or perhaps just a nostalgia for handcraft. I recently ran across a book titled The Art of the Handwritten Note. For me, it is more along the lines of wishful thinking: when I'm rolled along to my grave it would be nice for some grieving relative to discover a cache of notebooks ala Emily Dickinson, full of unpublished masterpieces. Or I could just sell my blog.

(image of Guillermo delToro's notebook via blogs.sun.com or go to panslabyrinth.com)

25 January 2009

Good advice from a drug addict

I've been listening to Bill Evans a lot lately and am just beginning to poke around the video stuff on the web. Though an undisputed genius, Evans had serious drug dependency problems at different points in his career and left Earth at the age of 51. We are fortunate to have a large body of work (though some of the really juicy box sets are currently out of print and fetching enormous amounts of dough). I look forward to exploring more of Evans' work.

24 January 2009

Benjamin Busch on NPR

An interesting interview with Benjamin Busch on today's Weekend Edition Saturday. Scott Simon is his usual self when discussing "difficult" subjects (his hushed tone seems to imply--what, restrained, delicate disapproval? polite disdain?) but Busch is interesting and unapologetic, discussing life in combat with candor. He also provides a window on his upbringing and his father specifically (the novelist Frederick Busch--Benjamin has a lot to live up to, apparently). (Photo via weblo.com)