This year, an electronic-music anniversary passed with little fanfare. Two decades after the release of Brian Eno’s album Thursday Afternoon, it was made newly available in a remastered edition. The occasion provided an opportunity for something I’d wanted to do for a while: host an online discussion on a specific topic, and then post a lightly edited transcript of the back’n’forth. I invited four people, one of whom ultimately wasn’t able to join in.
Over the course of two weeks, three of them conversed with me: Robert Henke, the German musician better known as Monolake; Michael Jarrett, a professor of English at Penn State York, and author of several books, including Drifting on a Read: Jazz as a Model for Writing; and Richard Kadrey, the San Francisco-based author of such science fiction novels as Metrophage and Kamikaze L’Amour.
I knew them all to be familiar with the subject, and to have creative imaginations. I’d interviewed Henke the year prior for e/i magazine (“The Organization Musician”), and I had assigned articles to both Jarrett and Kadrey while I was an editor at Pulse!, the music magazine once published by Tower Records.
The subject, Thursday Afternoon, is a unique recording in Eno’s discography. An hour-long swath of amorphous, largely organic-sounding quietude, it arrived during an ebb in the popularity of ambient music. The year 1985 was well past the tail end of the proggy 1970s, when Eno’s experiments with the studio as a musical instrument first flourished, and close to a decade would pass before a new generation of musicians, raised in the wake of the personal computer, would revive electronic music. Still, the album looked ahead more than it looked back. It took full advantage of the then new medium of the compact disc, making use of sounds that would arguably have been swallowed up in the hiss and crackle of vinyl. Likewise, it played for longer than vinyl could have accommodated without requiring a flip of the LP, certainly at any comfortable level of audio fidelity. On the other hand, it was less an album than it was a document; it was the soundtrack to a piece of video art that Eno had released on VHS the year prior. (That footage was also released this year, on DVD.)
As I warned Henke, Jarrett and Kadrey, I’d never really done anything like this before, and accordingly any lapses in communication or cogency are entirely my fault. The trio had insights into what is, in fact, one of my favorite albums, and in the course of our discussion they helped me listen to it in new ways. I plan to do more of these in the future, having gotten one under my belt.
From: Marc Weidenbaum Subject: After Thursday Afternoon Message: 01/20 The clock has just passed midnight here in San Francisco, and I’m turning on the email list for our discussion. I’m excited to bring together three people (well, four, counting myself) who feel that the 20th anniversary of Brian Eno’s CD Thursday Afternoon is an occasion worth commemorating.
Needless to say, we all have lives and work, next to which this discussion is at best a diversion. I don’t want anyone involved to get the impression that he’s signed up for a marathon. I’m just hoping this list will be, for a brief time, a place you’ll check in to take a look at what has been submitted in your absence — an anecdote, a theory, an appreciation, a query — and to reply to that which most attracts your imagination. By simply replying to this email, or to any that follows, your message will be distributed to all the participants. Gathered here (virtually speaking) are musician Robert Henke, professor Michael Jarrett, and science-fiction novelist Richard Kadrey. I’ll moderate by participating as well.
I’ll begin with two thoughts: one observation, and one personal experience.
First, the observation. Unlike most albums released at that time, Thursday Afternoon was not made available simultaneously on several formats. It was not available as a vinyl LP, nor as a tape cassette. The continuous, hour-long soundtrack to a video artwork (available a year earlier on VHS), Thursday Afternoon was recorded with the CD, then a new technology, in mind. Between its quietude and its length, it could not have existed in any previously commercial recording format.
Now, the personal experience: Thursday Afternoon was the very first CD I ever purchased. I owned tons of LPs by 1985, when I was a sophomore in college, and I had accumulated quite a few tape cassettes as well. It’s hard to describe how new and special the CD was when it first became available, how odd it was to possess one of these circular mirrors held in its little plastic box. I didn’t even own a CD player at the time. I had to take my new purchase down the hall in my dorm to the room of a classmate who’d recently purchased a CD player for his stereo. I recall a small stack of CDs in his room, some Dire Straits and some Police. He went about his homework while I popped in the Eno CD and started listening on big, warm headphones. Everything about the experience was so new: the music, which appeared, on first listen, to be nearly silent, and the medium, which enhanced that quietude by eliminating the tacit surface noise of LPs and tape. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into that afternoon. The CD wasn’t divided into individual tracks, so I just had to begin at the beginning, and make my way through. I listened that day, and used other friends’ players to listen to it again, and again, until I finally bought my own machine the following summer; slowly I made sense of what I thought Eno was up to. Twenty years have passed, and I guess I’ve never really stopped listening to Thursday Afternoon.
From: Michael Jarrett Subject: When Confronting Message: 02/20 Marc, Robert, Richard,
In certain situations I have a tendency to hang back. Particularly in electronic space, I tend to lurk. For example, I routinely fail to send thank-you notes to my friends. I wait and wait for the perfect words; they are glimpsed, dimly, on some distant horizon. Instead of scribbling a short note, I imagine a time, always imminent, that never actually arrives -Â a time that will grant me the clarity to express myself fully, definitively. Wanting to say just the right thing, I fail to say anything.
I make this admission for two reasons. First, because I am not going to let my tendencies win out in this discussion. And second, because my admission sets up an understanding of Thursday Afternoon.
In the mid-’80s, the compact disc emerges as medium of choice (the technology that imposes itself as de rigueur). In an analogous situation Â- the advent of the long-playing record Â- what did the Beatles, what did the Beach Boys do? They labored to create the grand expression: that statement so complete, so perfect, so full, that it would realize in one blinding flash everything the medium could possibly be. The Beatles made Sgt. Pepper’s, and if that LP did not deplete their artistic resources, it certainly left them nowhere to go. Hell, that chord on “A Day in the Life” left them nowhere to go (though if the Beatles had worked with it and it alone, they might have made something akin to Thursday Afternoon). For their part, the Beach Boys tried to make Smile, and it about killed them, pushing Brian Wilson into madness. Indulgence spread like a plague.
Confronted with a new medium (the CD but also music television with its Eisensteinian editing), Eno took another route. (So far as I know, the making of Thursday Afternoon prompts no tales of Sturm und Drang.) The music is tentative. It is no grand statement exemplifying (and, thereby, exhausting) all the possibilities of a medium. Long by pop standards, Thursday Afternoon is not Mahler or Wagner — not by a long shot. It is a small gesture writ large (calligraphy on a banner?). It seems almost offhand. There’s no attempt to erect a monument to an emerging technology. (The music, therefore, is not phallic; it is a matrix: womblike.) In a word, Thursday Afternoon is simple. Instead of waiting around, hanging back, trying to comprehend (to grasp it all) and, then, to express the potential of a new medium in a definitive work, Eno composed a note worth celebrating.
From: Marc Weidenbaum Subject: Re: When Confronting Message: 03/20 — In [email protected], Michael Jarrett wrote:
> In an analogous situation Â- the advent of the > long-playing record Â- what did the Beatles, > what did the Beach Boys do?
It’s an interesting comparison, Mike, and I agree. It’s true that so many of the outings that sought to celebrate a specific recording medium ended up with some attendant, if not inherent, richness that veered toward the garish. That’s probably why concept albums got such a bad rap for so long.
Eno definitely succeeded with Thursday Afternoon in drawing attention to the powers of the CD without drawing self-conscious attention to what he was up to. Limited liner notes; a particularly non-representational cover, even by Tom Phillips’ standards; that mysterious image of what appears to be the “score,” such as it is — that’s all we, the listeners, have to go by, beyond the music, which itself sets a new standard of understatement.
Of course, you could say that the quietude that is Thursday Afternoon‘s defining characteristic is simply the flipside, the mirror, of the kind of envelope-pushing that most musicians pursue in their medium-specific endeavors. Eno recognized that one of the CD’s gifts was its dynamic range — but rather than go wide and deep and loud, he headed in the other direction. He took the tabula rasa of digital playback, and added to it without forsaking its defining clarity and pureness.
> Long by pop standards, Thursday Afternoon > is not Mahler or Wagner
I would say, though, that this Eno album does have one thing in common with Mahler, specifically with the opening of his First Symphony, how those held strings eke out as much ambience as they possibly can before the requisite rhythmic material arrives and breaks the spell. Thursday Afternoon is those opening 20 seconds or so, sustained for an hour, with the sounds of the world seeping in.
From: Michael Jarrett Subject: Re: When Confronting Message: 04/20 — In [email protected], Marc Weidenbaum wrote:
> He took the tabula rasa of digital playback, > and added to it without forsaking its > defining clarity and pureness.
Good point and one I’d like to develop a bit later, once I’ve collected my thoughts. May be nothing more than fancy, but I’ve thought that the sound of Thursday Afternoon is the sound of CD transduction (though that sound is pure sonic metaphor, since the CD represents the elimination of transduction noise). My idea is that the sound banished or purged always returns (but like the repressed) as a metaphor.
> Thursday Afternoon is those opening 20 seconds > or so, sustained for an hour, with the sounds of > the world seeping in.
To sustain decay: pretty great idea.
From: Michael Jarrett Subject: another strategy Message: 05/20 Looking back at material I’ve written about Eno and his music, I ran across this thumbnail:
THURSDAY AFTERNOON (E’G). How to keep the attention of listeners for the duration of a full-length CD? Eno’s solution: make music so unobtrusive that it renders the problem irrelevant. The single piece on this 61-minute disc is scintillating in a slow-motion sort of way.I’m beginning to ponder other problemsÂ — other binary oppositions that have conventionally structured popular musicÂ — that this recording confounds or displaces. And I’m beginning to think about music that renders long-held musical problems irrelevant. Oblique Strategy for today: When stymied by a problem you can’t solve, throw a monkey wrench, a spanner, into the works. Create something that renders pressing problems obsolete (because it poses new, more interesting problems).
Take an old problem: How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? In the late Middle Ages (give or take a few hundred years) this question seemed a matter worthy of speculation and conjecture. Hard to imagine, but it once felt relevant. The question presumably sparked the imaginations of Europe’s greatest thinkers. It didn’t go away, however, when a satisfactory answer was finally posed: “St Thomas forever settled the matter of pins and angels when he ventured (pi)r (with “r” being the radius of the pin) as the most likely and reasonable solution.” But rather, the question vanished into history when it was supplanted by questions perceived as more interesting and relevant.
Maybe, it’s not about being the only band that matters (about getting it right), but about being the band that incidentally makes other bands not matter.
From: Robert Henke Subject: about time Message: 06/20 The Thursday Afternoon CD contains one track, one single ID at the beginning. Even this marker is questionable since there is no real start and there is no real end. At some point the music fades in and one hour later it fades out. The fade is a rather radical concept, unparalleled in music created with acoustic instruments. A longer fade over a whole piece is a potential indicator of infinity. The fade symbolizes that there is no end, there is no beginning. The duration of Thursday Afternoon is not one hour, it is eternal, and this makes it special. The concept of ambient music is avoiding drama, avoiding musical process. Erik Satie coined the term of “musique d’ameublement,” music as furniture, but it needed the invention of electricity to finally realize it. The chord in the background of Thursday Afternoon is not changing. It has been set up at some point. I would assume that what we hear on the CD is just an excerpt of something that had been set up at Brian Eno’s studio for a long time. He created a sonic sculpture, and once it was done he made a picture: the final product. If I remember correctly, he referred to this process as “I print it on tape.” The way such a sonic sculpture is realized is quite different from the way one would compose drama. The endless repetition creates a mood in which both the composer and the listener, later, dive in, are surrounded with, live with. The most striking change happens when the music stops, another indicator for its potential eternal duration. Being unobtrusive is an important factor, both for the composer and for the listener. In order to stand such music during the period of its creation it needs to be unobtrusive. You would at some point simply turn it off before it is finished if it would be annoying in any way. The process of creating is evolutionary, has once again to do with sculpturing. Not much happens all the time, but what happens needs to be placed carefully in time, which is equivalent to space, and needs to be sculptured. The background color, texture, volume, diffusion, the piano notes, the lush washes which show up occasionally; they are the building elements of that sculpture and listening to them is like touching it. Every shape has to feel good finally. A rough part would need to be polished, too much detail would diminish the impact of the whole work.
…more to come, I need to go to work now ;-)
From: Marc Weidenbaum Subject: Re: When Confronting Message: 07/20 — In [email protected], Michael Jarrett wrote:
> May be nothing more than fancy, but I’ve thought that the sound > of Thursday Afternoon is the sound of CD transduction (though > that sound is pure sonic metaphor since the CD represents the > elimination of transduction noise).
Definitely something that sits with me. Perhaps because of when it arrived, it has been sort of like a base line of CD ambience in my imagination, to the extent to which it is, in my mind, the “sound” of the CD. This is overstating things, of course, because there is so much going on in the music — in fact, each time I listen to Thursday Afternoon, it sounds louder than the previous listen.
From: Marc Weidenbaum Subject: Re: about time Message 08/20 — In [email protected], Robert Henke wrote:
> In order to stand such music during the period of its > creation it needs to be unobtrusive. You would at some > point simply turn it off before it is finished if > it would be annoying in any way.
This really sticks with me, in part because I simply hadn’t thought about it before — that is, anything as immersive as a 60-minute piece like this would be draining to the composer after a while if it weren’t inherently pleasurable. But also because, as I’d hoped, Robert, that you’d provide some insight from your own work as a musician, as you have here.
I often think about ambient music requiring a different kind of listening, but the opposite is true as well, that it requires a different kind of composing. Not simply different in terms of the skills and impulses and technology required on the part of the music-maker, but also the means by which the composer tests the work throughout its creation.
I like, now, thinking of Thursday Afternoon as, in your words, a sculpture, and by extension as a kind of architecture — a sonic space that Eno built, spent time in, came to approve of, and then felt was worth sharing with the world.
From: Marc Weidenbaum Subject: Re: another strategy Message: 09/20 — In [email protected], Michael Jarrett wrote:
> And I’m beginning to think about music that renders > long-held musical problems irrelevant. Oblique > Strategy for today: When stymied by a problem you > can’t solve, throw a monkey wrench, a spanner, into > the works. Create something that renders pressing > problems obsolete (because it poses new, more > interesting problems).
Let me know if my habit of responding to particular parts of posts is troublesome. It helps me to whittle something to its core, and then go on from there. I had just made note today of a review in the New York Times of an electronic music concert held this past Friday at the Japan Society — a show of Japanese musicians that also included the composer Carl Stone, who splits his time between the U.S. and Japan.
The newspaper sent one of its classical/opera critics to a show of laptop music. I wasn’t certain if this was a nod to the compositional roots of avant-garde electronic music, or just a curious excursion on the part of the critic, or an act of an editor “assigning against type.” In any case, the result was not surprising, and it encompassed the paradigm shift, or generation gap, that Mike described.
This is the close of the review: “Whether loud or soft, noisy or soothing, an onkyo improvisation is more like a sound environment than a musical composition. You can’t complain when a sound environment runs on or seems aimless. Such concerns are not the point.”
I’m not sure if this is a criticism, but it sounds at best like a backhanded compliment.
From: Robert Henke Subject: several degrees of attention Message: 10/20 — In [email protected], Marc Weidenbaum wrote:
> ” You can’t complain when a sound environment > runs on or seems aimless. Such concerns are not > the point.” I’m not sure if this is a criticism, but it > sounds at best like a backhanded compliment.
It seems to be the typical case where the expectation of the listener has not been met. A situation I also sometimes experience, since my work spans a range from more textural sound art to pretty much dance-floor-compatible music. Music, as all art, cannot be reviewed without context. There is always some functional aspect in it, and it has been composed with a specific emotion and for a specific context. Even avoiding context leads to context. Eno’s work is intended to fill a space, and has much to do with the intentional absence of drama, which makes it suspect for the classical-trained critic. Interesting enough — even in classical music there are parts that work the same way, creating a space without drama. The big difference is that the function of these parts in classical music is to provide contrast to the rest of the work. In ambient music, there is nothing but that space. Obviously in both cases it is not essential to pay full attention. The critic fails since he assumes he has to find drama instead of letting go. No wonder that this kind of musical thinking is way more compatible with Buddhism then with our western culture.
I my own experience I am always surprised how much context defines my appreciation for music. At home I often more enjoy complexity and richness in detail. If I go dancing I need much fewer elements and I am in particular disturbed by the wrong element at the wrong place. I explicitly mention dance music, and especially the genre of more minimalistic techno, since I do not see much of a difference in the way both genres, minimal techno and ambient, deal with drama. It is all about creating a state of emotion and keeping it for as long as possible. While the classic song is about changing the emotion from track to track and therefore is much closer to symphonic music. In both genres it is often more important to avoid the wrong note than to add more notes. An experience that from time to time drives me nuts, when playing new Monolake tracks for the first time in a club and realizing i did, once again, way to much and therefore missed the point. Thanx to modern technology I am afterwards able to get rid of the problem.
And then I figure out that stripping a track down to the essence does not at all make it more boring, just the opposite. The fewer elements, the more you pay attention to detail. And at this point we are back to Thursday Afternoon. The sculptural quality of the work lies in the way its details are made. Eno is a master of the creation of lush mellow atmospheres and his taste and sense of time and space is what made Thursday Afternoon a great record. It could have been a very boring CD. Just imagine a cover version of it with different sounds…
From: Richard Kadrey Subject: Re: another strategy Message: 11/20 — In [email protected], Marc Weidenbaum wrote:
> that it requires a different kind of composing.
Marc’s note about ambient music requiring a different type of composing and listening made me think of Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures, where the materials he’s working with on any individual piece dictate both its shape and duration. You have to come to Goldsworthy’s work with the understanding that it’s probably going to be temporary. You can approach a lot of ambient music, certainly Thursday Afternoon, with the idea that any individual work might be endless.
Before this project, I hadn’t listened to Thursday Afternoon in years (I’d been mostly listening to Eno’s more recent work such as Lightness, Nile, etc.). Hearing TA again brought back a lot of memories of listening to it for the first time. I remember wondering if it was, at least in part, a kind of musical joke. For a long time I was sure that Eno had simply taken an unknown Harold Budd recording, removed half the tracks, slowed it down to half speed and used pitch-correcting software (or one of those little pitch boxes, since the software probably didn’t exist back when TA was recorded) to bring the frequencies back up again. I seemed like the kind of elaborate joke he might pull, but mostly I think I was just trying to put the piece into some category that I could understand. TA went so much deeper into the idea of eternalness of sound that his other ambient recordings at the time.
Hearing TA with relatively fresh ears brings up a lot of thoughts to me. The timing and meter is odd. Notes blend into one another and then crash into each other as if one or more just fell from the sky. To my present day ear TA sounds like it could be an improvised duet where the players have agreed on a key and nothing else. The slowest and most sonorous free jazz recording in history.
I can also hear TA as a new kind of court music, slow and stately, gentle, but not fragile. Even in this context it feels like a duet, but an unintentional one. We can imagine ourselves as kids in a royal palace, hiding behind a tapestry in a wing we’re not supposed to enter. There are musicians playing at either end of a long corridor. In fact, they might even be playing the same piece, but they’ve started at different times, perhaps at different points in the composition so their playing, while melodically complimentary, never quite synchs up. What we hear in our hiding place are the echoes of their playing. A kind John Cage chance approach applied to court music.
I also wonder about the CD itself. It implies mysteries and a kind of suspended tension. That’s inherent in the music, but could some of it exist because what we’re experiencing with the CD is an incomplete work of art? If the music was intended to accompany a video, then we’re not getting the full work, just a portion, like an exquisite black and white rendering of the Mona Lisa. I don’t pretend that the video will reveal any answers to the nature of the piece, but it will definitely shift its meaning to imply different mysteries and alternate tensions (though time suspension is the one element that seems essential to any version of TA).
From: Marc Weidenbaum Subject: Re: several degrees of attention Message: 12/20 — In [email protected], Robert Henke wrote:
> It seems to be the typical case where > the expectation of the listener has not > been met.
Indeed, I think the writer of that review was both aware of the different listening strategy required, but also dismissive of the difference. What fascinates me in particular about that cultural divide is that much of the shopworn critical descriptive terminology employed in reviews of classical music often applies much more effectively to ambient music — issues of epiphanies, transcendence, timelessness. Of course, those are generally lazy terms in either context, but they’re much more factually accurate in ambient music than in, say, Strauss, or Beethoven, or even Debussy.
Deeply ambient music like Thursday Afternoon reminds me of how I listen to improvised music. The first time around, especially in a live setting, the result of live improvisation has a formlessness to it, because it’s unclear where it’s going. But when you revisit it, you can’t help impose some sort of narrative onto it, or into it — well, you can try not to, and that’s a receptive state one might aspire to, but I think there generally is some sort of internal logic, something map-able, about the decisions the musicians made as the piece went along. So, when revisiting a recorded improvisation, you know what’s coming up, and that makes the earlier sections seem more like premonitions, instead of something entirely “other” from what follows. This might have simply to do with the fact that much ambient music is built from a set of samples, and one hears those raw materials in different settings over the course of the work. It might have something to do with the fact that decisions having been made on the part of the musicians, consciously or not, they’re decisions the listener can investigate after the fact.
But I suppose what I’m getting at, is that having listened to Thursday Afternoon hundreds of times, I think of it as having a structure, albeit one that defines itself over time in ways quite differently from the forms of music that preceded ambient music. First of all, it is incredibly slow, and thus can appear utterly formless during the act of listening. Second of all, and this is a more recent realization on my part: it can take months if not decades to really begin to grasp it fully.
> Just imagine a cover version of it with different sounds.
Have you heard the cover versions of Music for Airports, which the Bang on a Can ensemble in New York released? They managed to map, notate and then reproduce much of the album. Different composers tackled the challenge, and they all handled it differently.
From: Marc Weidenbaum Subject: Re: another strategy Message: 13/20 — In [email protected], Richard Kadrey wrote:
> Before this project, I hadn’t listened to Thursday > Afternoon in years
Can you recall the circumstance of the first time you heard the record — actually, this is a question I’d like to pose to everyone. Can you describe the initial context in which you heard the record (when it was first released, or when someone introduced it to you later on)? Can you describe what your initial response was, along the lines of Richard’s initial suspicions?
> To my present day ear TA sounds like > it could be an improvised duet where the > players have agreed on a key and nothing else.
I had this suggestion of yours in mind when I made my last post, a few minutes ago, about the way that TA reminds me of improvised music, jazz or otherwise. This is true, as well, that for all its quietude, given the contrasting elements it contains, how they come up against each other out of time, TA is arguably anything but patient or inactive. It may be glacial, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t in its own way abrasive, tactile and present.
> I can also hear TA as a new kind of court music, slow > and stately, gentle, but not fragile.
Definitely. Eno speaks a lot about the commonality between ambient music (to Robert’s point, this applies to music in general — that is, give the functional aspect of all music) and perfume, both serving as a context in which actions occur, things that can coax along a certain environment, a certain aura or feel for the space they infiltrate.
From: Marc Weidenbaum Subject: more questions Message: 14/20 Two more I’m thinking about: Can you recall the responses of people you introduced to Thursday Afternoon — and can you summarize their responses to the music, and how you described the album to them. Have you had a opportunity to hear the remastered version of the CD, which came out a few weeks ago, and can you hear differences between it and the original CD?
From: Michael Jarrett Subject: answers Message: 15/20 I was over at a magazine editor’s house. “What have you gotten recently?” I asked him. I can’t remember what he showed me, but Thursday Afternoon — the video — was one item. I borrowed it, and read the press kit (I guess) or some accompanying materials. I bought Eno’s theory hook, line and sinker. (Still do.) The fast-cut montage style of MTV created homogeny at the level of structure, and led music video to something of an impasse. Why not video paintings, then?
Viewing the video was a disappointment, though I like it better now than I did back then. (Bought a used copy about five years ago.) First off, I considered Eno’s decision to employ a “vertical format” (and his suggestion that I turn my monitor on its side) as silly to a fault. It failed to accommodate my everyday reality: the way people really use monitors. Was Eno serious about providing an alternative to music television, about rethinking video in homes? Or had he merely figured out how to sell an art installation for home use? I dismissed the video as interesting on paper but in practice about as engaging as a bowl of wax fruit. Kaleidoscopic images of a model? Ho hum.
I loved the music, though. And I bought the CD soon after seeing the video. (I’d previously bartered with the magazine editor, trading record reviews for my first compact-disc player.) I didn’t do a lot of evangelizing because, at the time, I was traveling with Eno converts. I recall that, at the time, I was listening a lot to The Pearl. While I didn’t think hoax or possible hoax when I re-listened to Thursday Afternoon, I did think, “Man, I’d like to make something like this.”
One Saturday, I brought one of my kid’s bicycles into the house. On the spokes of the bike’s wheels were hard-plastic snap-on beads called spokey dokies. When the wheel turned, the beads slid up and down the spokes, making delicate trinkling sounds (gamelan music on tiny bells). I made several recordings — using a four-track reel-to-reel tape deck — with different configurations of spokey dokies. Mostly, I recorded at a fast speed and played back slowly. I then bounced down these tracks to a cassette tape. Primitive stuff, but a fun experiment. I really enjoy the work of art that makes me want to make art–or to write.
From: Michael Jarrett Subject: amateurism Message: 16/20 I think a lot of my writing is motivated by a desire to introduce people to music that I’ve found pleasurable. Below is a piece on Eno that I wrote for Pulse! It’s for a general reader. So don’t be insulted. It does, however, raise some issues that we’ve been discussing, but it broaches one we haven’t engaged all that fully: namely amateurism.
BRIAN ENO Ambient’s highest-ranking amateurBest,
God may have created ambient sounds — the rustle and murmur of the world cupping its hands around our ears. But in our own time, it was avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992), recalling the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who recommended hearing ambience as music or, more democratically, hearing all sounds as sounds. Don’t buy the idea? You have a hard time hearing the ubiquitous murmur of traffic as music? The quiet hum of that refrigerator compressor isn’t your idea of sonorous? Cage didn’t mind. Call the sounds of automobiles, airplanes, and photocopiers anything you want, but listen anyway. For it is in the listening — not so much in the making — that music is created.
Like Cage, with whom he’s often identified, Brian Eno is a conceptualist. With every finished musical work, there’s a corresponding, compelling idea. And like Cage, Eno has paid particular attention to ambient sound. But there the similarities pretty much cease. Born in 1948, Eno grew up in Suffolk, England, close to two U.S. air bases. Records from the PX stores, purchased by his sister, introduced Eno to American music. All accounts reveal, he was especially captivated by their sonic textures, by the way records imply physical spaces.
Not long after graduating from Winchester Art School in 1969, Eno joined Roxy Music. On the band’s first two albums, he played synthesizer. Which is accurate by half. Eno didn’t approach the instrument from a pianistic orientation, but rather as a modernist painter. To him, synthesizers were electronic palettes; they could fabricate colors beyond the imaginations of their users. Eno maintained (still does) that he was not a musician. Hardly an insignificant claim, it defined an aesthetic absolutely crucial to the work he would accomplish after leaving Roxy Music: Vitality lies, not in professionalism, in the twin persona of composer and virtuoso, but in amateurism. The amateur is, above all, “a lover” (from the Latin, amator — “lover, devotee, enthusiastic pursuer of an objective”).
Eno left Roxy Music because he’d lost enthusiasm. Or as he put it, “[I]f you want to make a lot of money in rock music you have one good idea and then you do it again and again” (quoted in Eric Tamm’s Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound). Eno has had lots of ideas. As much as anyone in popular music, he has sought to explore Â- to make manifest — possibilities latent in recording studios. It’s a motivation evident in his career-defining productions for Talking Heads, David Bowie, Devo, U2, James and other bands. And it’s unmistakable in the “ambient music” he has been creating — and inspiring — for going on 30 years.
An oxymoron, “ambient music” is Eno’s term for decorative sounds that teeter on “the cusp between melody and texture.” It develops French composer Erik Satie’s notion of a functional music that, instead of striving with ambient sounds, would “furnish” environments, making them more livable. Its ambitions are utopian. Ambient music is designed to be ignored or to sustain attention — as listeners choose. More often than not, it establishes and maintains a single mood by initiating a series of musical events that seem self-generating. Typically, it’s simple in the way that a painting by Mark Rothko or prose by Raymond Carver is simple. It’s likely to prompt listeners to think or even to say, “I could do this!” Which is, of course, the ultimate compliment one can give pop art.
From: Michael Jarrett Subject: boredom Message: 17/20 — In [email protected], Robert Henke wrote:
> And then I figure out that stripping a > track down to the essence does not > at all make it more boring, just the opposite. > The less elements, the more you pay > attention to detail.
Robert also wrote: “The critic fails since he assumes he has to find drama instead of letting go. No wonder that this kind of musical thinking is way more compatible with Buddhism then with our western culture.”
Robert’s observations prompted me to recall an anecdote that Cage uses in Silence and Indeterminacy:
“In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”
Eno, on this and many other matters, has to my tastes realized what Cage was calling for.
I find lots of moments in Thursday Afternoon arresting. (It’s as if I anticipate the ambient equivalent of melodic hooks — or recognize them when they pass: timbres rubbing against each other, tumbling.) But I most enjoy the five minutes or so toward the end of Thursday Afternoon. That enjoyment, I realize, is predicated on the 50-plus minutes that precede it. If as Richard so nicely points out, we can hear TA as “the slowest and most sonorous free jazz recording in history,” then its final minutes play like a “break,” focusing my attention to appreciate the wash of sonic color that concludes the piece.
From: Michael Jarrett Subject: train refrain Message: 18/20 — In [email protected], Marc Weidenbaum wrote:
> Indeed, I think the writer of that review was > both aware of the different listening strategy > required, but also dismissive of the difference.
I ask myself, what trained me to hear Thursday Afternoon? I am being only a little bit facile and simplistic and reductive when I answer, “trains.” Trains trained me. They constructed a new kind of listener. Who told me so? The evidence is widespread. But you’ll recall that the first piece of musique concrete, by Pierre Schaeffer, “Etude aux Chemins de Fer” [“Study of Trains”] declares as much. As does Eno’s “Chemin de Fer.” I understand these pieces as artistic distillations — snapshots (or holograms) — of the railroad refrain. (Hey, and trains are one reason I knew Robert’s work and liked Monolake long before the beginning of this discussion. Mood informed by momentum.)
I realized a few years ago that, while I could in no way identify with literal trainspotters, my love for the sound of trains was pretty much boundless. All types. In any context. From any position (close up or distant; on or off). Trains are my favorite sonic sculpture (fade in/fade out). They’re my idea of industrial gamelan music (a new kind of court music). Or rather, gamelan music as “readymade” (a la Duchamp or Lou Reed’s, “I want to be a machine”). Trains pass behind my house, on average, a couple of times a day. Because I live in a city, the trains that I typically hear are moving slowly, picking up and delivering freight.
I’ve spent a good deal of time theorizing how trains invented modern ears (shaped our sonic or auditory consciousness). I won’t hold forth on the topic, except to repeat a hypothesis: trains worked in a fashion that was the inverse of the symphony hall. In the great concert halls of Europe and North America, erected in the middle part of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie learned to sit down and shut up and listen attentively. They learned to focus. (The same with paintings, too.) At exactly the same time, the railroad fostered another kind of listening subject: decentered, distracted, dreamy (just the listener that Theodor Adorno would later deplore). Just as the train led travelers to see the world panoramically, it also forced people (whether on or off the railroad) to hear differently.
Onto the sound of the railroad, one cannot help but impose a narrative (as Marc reminded me). That sound speaks of the most basic narrative: leaving town or coming home. But as we’ve been noticing, the urge to tell stories — to generate drama — is sublimated in order to enhance atmosphere or mood. It seems to me that Eno — whether directly or indirectly (consciously or not) — has thoroughly learned the lesson of the railroad.
From: Michael Jarrett Subject: context Message: 19/20
My last pass through TA prompted me to recall Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar.”
I placed a jar in Tennessee, And round it was, upon a hill. It made the slovenly wilderness Surround that hill.Play TA and the music can be heard as more or less fitting into (and filling) the space — the context — in which it is played. But as Stevens reminds me, TA also orders the environment. More profoundly, it shapes chaos into an environment, orders space into environment. (It might also suggest what space sounds like before it is ordered as environment.) My point is, environments do not necessarily “exist” prior to music. (The voice of God orders chaos, creating worlds.) To lift a phrase from Giles Deleuze, music has the power to reterritorialize, to reconfigure the spaces that it fills. Film scholars speak of diegetic and nondiegetic music. Diegetic music has its source (implied or revealed) in the film’s story space (its diegesis). Nondiegetic music supplements the story space: e.g., strings underscoring a romantic encounter, creating mood; a bowed bass motif that says there’s a shark lurking underwater. Anahid Kassabian, in her book on film music, argues that these terms are misleading; giving short shrift to sound. She points out that music is not added — or applied — to an already created diegesis. Imaginary spaces do not “exist” prior to music. Rather music is instrumental in constructing spaces, imaginary or real spaces.
The wilderness rose up to it, And sprawled around, no longer wild. The jar was round upon the ground And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where. The jar was gray and bare. It did not give of bird or bush, Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Would it be fair to say that the effect (and the function) of ambient music is less to fit into particular contexts, than to elicit (to make into instances) the very contexts into which it will fit?
From: Marc Weidenbaum Subject: after “after ‘thursday'” Message: 20/20 Like the album itself, we faded in, and we fade out. Thanks, everyone, for having participated. This is the first time I’ve tried to do one of these virtual discussions, and I hope to do more in the future. I appreciate your having been my guinea pigs, and for taking the time to share your enthusiasm for Eno’s Thursday Afternoon CD, on the 20th anniversary of its release.
Related links: Monolake/Robert Henke’s website, monolake.de. Read Richard Kadrey’s 64-story Viper Wire series, for free (infinitematrix.net).