"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Time Out MARCH 15-18, 1975 - by Adrian Jack
I WANT TO BE A MAGNET FOR TAPES
Other industries have their special projects departments, why shouldn't rock? Adrian Jack talked to former Roxy musician Brian Eno about the new experimental label he's pioneering with Island Records.
The name might be commercial coquetry, but Island Records are not promoting their new Obscure label as mass appeal music, though a price of £1.99 should encourage people to take a chance. With low recording costs, and minimal promotion, the flexible project of ten to twelve records a year is not a major investment. The most amazing thing about the project is that a rock record company should be starting a series devoted to minority music at all. The next most amazing thing is that the idea came from one of their own recording artists, Brian Eno, late of Roxy Music.
"I presented this idea to Island by saying that they ought to be working towards the kind of research and development situation that you find in larger industries. This idea is to launch a few things out of the mainstream and watch their progress very closely. Most record companies do the opposite; put out a lot of mainstream projects, and the most successful is pursued in a big way, and the others quickly dropped. In business terms, this isn't a very healthy situation. Multi-national industries exploit a lot of different things at once, so that if the market takes a sudden turn in a different direction, they've already got a number of mutations that can cope with it. So it did have a business rationale. The first five Obscure albums will have cost much less than a single rock album. An ordinary rock album costs about £10,000. These will have cost about £6,000. I think a company of this size should be able to afford this kind of experiment.
"All the time I've been signed to Island, I've been very interested in their affairs. Most musicians aren't, and regard the record company as a kind of enemy, really. I don't regard it as that and always try to stimulate some kind of co-operation between us.
"I only started the thing on the assumption that Island would market and distribute them. As it is, I do everything, including the accounts, the pressing, and making a finished art-work for the cover. So I present them with a finished record, in fact."
Eno first came to rock in 1968. But before that, his interest in music had been encouraged at art school by Tom Phillips. Phillips introduced him to the kind of experimental musicians whose background is often neither classical nor popular, which hints at the kind of territory Obscure records have so far explored:
"My main reason for starting the venture was that I wanted to be in a position where I heard anything interesting that was going on. I wanted to be a magnet for tapes. Otherwise, it's a case of rooting through music history to find enough interesting pieces which can change sufficiently to justify a new recording. We're going to do a Cage percussion album well as those pieces we've already done, since a lot of his percussion music hasn't been recorded. Another interesting thing is to put older music through new recording techniques, not treating them as performances that happen to be in front of microphones, but making a record with a piece of music.
"With the early stages, the first twelve albums or so, I want to give the impression that the label is capable of taking a very wide range of material. But I'm not interested in releasing records of young rock groups. The main decision is whether I like a piece or not. I think the borderline area between rock and experimental is a very interesting one. The present stance is: Whatever happens, I'm not going to use my intellect. The experimental stance is: 'Whatever happens, I'm only going to use my intellect.'
"I must say that I'd always go for a sensuous sound when making a piece. In Discreet Music I was very concerned to make something that wasn't uncomfortable. It's intended as music you don't have to concentrate on. It's like adding to your ambience, changing the condition of the room a little bit. If you want to focus on another level, there's a set of ideas that are interesting in terms of systems working like Steve Reich's piece It's Gonna Rain. And to stop it being monotonous - and, I suppose, completely ignorable - I did make changes during the piece. This touching up is very much a philistine idea in the experimental composer's terms; it's wanting to entertain. But I think that borderline area is a very interesting one.
"My view of the history of music is that the things which seem to be at a tangent, to be peripheral, have in fact been the mainstream. You find this particularly in rock music. I'm trying to argue against the idea of a pure line. It's a mistake to think there is a logical progression from one condition to the next.
"I've been thinking recently about the transition from boom to slump, and how our views change in those periods. In a boom period, one's inclination is to see the world as a basically friendly and exploitable place. In a slump period, one's view is to see it as hostile, and to see one's main efforts being directed to self-defence. This explains the change that has taken place in rock music, because I think it reflects much more in the popular arts than in the so-called fine arts. In popular music, the move has been away from the homogenizing style of the late '60s, which was the idea that you take bits and pieces from everywhere in the world - Indian ragas, medieval church music - and then mash them all together and make a piece. The idea now is back to the cynical punk rock musician view."
In fact, the last three years have been, for Eno, a boom period, from the time he cut his first commercial disc with Roxy Music to shortly after they broke up. And if he had been cynical, he certainly wouldn't have started Obscure records.
"Quite frequently artists reach a point where they cant bear the lack of comprehension of what they're doing anymore. Whereas I think that the lack of comprehension is almost a prerequisite of doing anything. One doesn't work from a defensible position to a predetermined goal.
"Art is automatically subversive in some sense. I don't mean that art is going to lead to Marxism, or anything as distinct as that. But the function of art is to keep you ready to innovate.
"Now most ideas of art have been that it is a means of distilling order from the chaos of life. Morse Peckham, an American writer I've been reading a lot of during the last year, says this is quite the opposite of what happens. Art, he says, is the mechanism which enables one to face chaos and uncertainty.
"When you look at or listen to a piece of work you have a lot of expectations which are based on your personal experience of other work in that category. The piece of work is stimulating when it foils those expectations. Suddenly there's something which your code doesn't allow for, and doesn't describe. Peckham says that the art experience constantly rehearses you in being able to endure the uncertainty that arises when your codes aren't adequate to deal with a situation.
"If you were driving a car towards a set of traffic lights and the light turned green, you would think nothing of it and go on - there would be almost no information because it's expected. If the light turned blue, a considerable dilemma would arise. A mental procedure would take place which would force you to revise your whole view about traffic lights. If the traffic light moved towards you and tapped the side of the car, I think you might reject the information. There's a certain threshold where you're absolutely incapable of classifying what's going on and so you make no attempt to. It's important that the information appear to use a language you understand, but in a way, perhaps, that you don't understand. But if the language changes entirely, like the traffic light starts walking, then the tendency is to reject it entirely. So my view of music is that the interesting things are the ones that are on or very close to the threshold. The ones that go right over don't really act as the trigger they hope music can be."
Obscure records are the best thing to have happened in the British industry since LPs. If the four records issued so far have anything in common, it's that they make you listen (whatever Eno says about his own). Listen more, because less is happening, so that you have to drop the old listening habits which take a lot of padding for granted. To turn out ten or twelve records a year (not that he's committed to any number), Eno will be hard put to find enough new music as fresh, interesting, or even as agreeable as most of this. But he needn't confine the label to music as new or as similar in style as the first four issues. The only marketing as far as Island are concerned is that they'd like one well known name in each batch to attract interest in the rest. To start with, they only pressed two thousand copies of Eno's, which sold out in two weeks; when they pressed more, as many were sold in ten days. None of this music requires the listener to grasp the complexity, say, of Stockhausen, and most of it is less elaborate than progressive rock. There's no reason why the Gavin Bryars record, for instance, shouldn't be taken on a relax-and-enjoy-it level. Here's a subjective guide to the four already available with a postscript on the next three releases scheduled for April as well as what's planned beyond. (Obscure records are stocked by adventurous record shops and may be ordered through any dealer).
Obscure No.1: The Sinking Of The Titanic by Gavin Bryars - An intriguing documentary reconstruction of the musical events of the disaster, based on the supposition that the band continued playing hymn tunes under water. As performed here, the piece reproduces the effect of hearing hymns played by a string ensemble through several meters of water and other sounds associated with the event. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet - a tape loop of the recorded voice of a tramp singing a sentimental religious song to which is added very gradually and sympathetically an instrumental accompaniment. This rivets the attention because the gradual filling in of the backing underlines different aspects (like implied harmony or rhythmic shaping) of the tramp's exquisite though unselfconscious rendering.
Obscure No.2: Ensemble Pieces by Christopher Hobbs, John Adams, and Gavin Bryars - Hobbs' dryly humorous and playful pieces manipulate modest patterns with teasing unpredictability. John Adams is a young American whose pieces here refer to popular traditions (from Sousa marches to Duke Ellington) with twists of eerie or even sinister humour.
Obscure No.3: Discreet Music by Brian Eno - Two day-dreaming melodic wisps repeated against themselves (like a round) echoing and chiming on in easy-going changes of pattern. Sounds produced by synthesizer, stored on a digital recall system, put through echo unit and manipulated by tape delay. Three Variations on the Canon in D major by Johann Pachelbel - The first two variations take a fragment of the Baroque composer's piece, played by a string group, and permutate the players' parts to produce mesmerising changes in the web of sound. In the third the player's parts are of different lengths, so that as they're repeated, the total sound changes.
Obscure No.4: New And Rediscovered Musical Pieces by David Toop and Max Eastley - Which means, in Eastley's case, the simple demonstration of what sounds his sculptures / instruments make when left to their own devices; mostly they are beautiful, though the record leaves me dissatisfied with not seeing them or having more information on the cover. In Toop's pieces, the homemade instruments, mainly flutes and strings, are played in ghostly, wistfully repetitive compositions by himself.
Scheduled for April release:
Obscure No.5: Voices And Instruments by John Cage and Jan Steele. Rock musicians Robert Wyatt and Carla Bley together with Richard Bernas perform Cage's coolly beautiful early pieces. Jan Steele's music was one of Eno's inspirations for the series.
Obscure No.6: Decay Music by Michael Nyman - Bell Set No.1 for thirty-plus percussion instruments. 1-100 for four pianos.
Obscure No.7: Machine Music by John White - Autumn Countdown Machine, Son Of Gothic Chord Machine, Drinking And Hooting Machine, Jew's Harp Machine, Cello And Tuba Machine.
John Cage: early percussion music; fifty one-minute pieces specially written by fifty composers for Obscure records; Music From The Penguin Cafe; a secret project.