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Obscure and beautiful
on 4 September 2001
Many readers will know Brian Eno from his work with global superstars U2. There are other, parallel sides to Brian's musical work, and 'Discreet Music' is the first example of a particular strand of experimentation. First released in Britain in 1975 on his own Obscure Records label, it was an attempt to set up a system by which the music would evolve itself over time, with relatively little compositional or instrumental input from the composer, other than to set the muscal and technical parameters of the piece and pressing 'Go'....
'Discreet Music' is a piece lasting about 25 minutes. Brian takes two complementary musical phrases, played on a synthesiser, and loops them through his tape delay lines. The two fragments then come and go against each other indefinitely, creating new and unexpected juxtapositions, like cloud formations, before fading slowly away. If this simply idea sounds boring, listen to the music. One reviewer at the time said that it sounded like the dreamwaves of a sleeping computer. And this captures the gentle, harmonious quality of the music perfectly. As soothing as water lapping gently at the shore, 'Discreet Music' has apparently become a great favourite for mothers-to-be while in labour.
While I haven't had that experience, I can say that this music, which I first bought as a teenager in the 70s, has travelled the world with me and even now is never far from a stereo of some kind. Despite the knowing jokiness of the 'Obscure' label, this is a piece of conceptual music which succeeds first and foremost as music. The idea is great: the music even better. The second side of the album, also included on the CD release, takes a slightly different approach to the same idea, where the 'input' in this case is described as fragments from Pachelbel's 'Canon' (you'll know it) and arranged for a string quartet. A strict compositional framework gives interesting - and always listenable - results.
Brian Eno has gone on to explore what he termed 'self generating' music on a number of other releases, including, 'On Land', 'Thursday Afternoon' and 'Neroli', and latterly via software-generated pieces using the KOAN programme. Although each is different, there is a coherence of texture and stylistic tone which affirms the strength of the original idea.
And if it's chill-out music you're after, there is none better.....