The Wire SEPTEMBER 2008 - by Tom Recchion


The way Brian Eno's Obscure label rescued modern music from the dead hand of academia was a mind-altering experience for Tom Recchion.

In 1975 I was working at Poo-Bah Records in Pasadena, California. I was a clerk and the import buyer, bringing in records from all over the world - mostly Prog and Krautrock but also free improvised music and anything experimental. The store had been my home since 1973 and it was there that I connected with most of the people who are still in my life today.

It served, too, as the birthplace of The Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS). Meeting most of the Society's future members as customers, I organised regular late night improvisation sessions after the store had closed, which would develop into no-holds-barred free-form freak-outs. During the day I would talk people into buying all sorts of 'weird' music. I could sell thirty copies of the latest Derek bailey record no problem. Communication was key and we played the stuff in the store, which turned many heads and opened a lot of ears. There, too, I discovered all sorts of great music on my own.

One day I opened a shipment of records that would change everything I thought about music: the first four releases on Brian Eno's Obscure label The series, which would eventually run to ten LPs, showcased work by a number of mainly English experimental composers and musicians, most of whom I had never heard before, though I was vaguely aware of a few of the names and some of the players, most having been associated with Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra. And of course I knew about Eno.

In 1972, when Roxy Music played the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, my fellow LAFMS members and I went backstage, as we so often did, and introduced ourselves to the group's charismatic synth and tape operator. He was warm and open, promising to send us some music that, from our conversation, he thought we might be interested in (it never arrived). He seemed genuinely enthused to meet people who sensed the radicalism of his action of integrating avant-garde strategies into rock'n'roll.

Crucially, the Obscure releases were all curated and produced by Eno. Designed by John Bonis of CCS, they were housed in uniform sleeves that at first glance appeared plain black, with the name(s) of the artist and the album title rendered in sans serif type in the upper left hand corner. But on closer inspection, through the black one could see a mundane cityscape, printed in four colours, that was being exposed by a slight reveal in different shapes, sizes and position with each consecutive release.

The LPs contained recordings of sound art; that is, free improvisation, systems music, tape works, montage, invented instruments, home-made electronics, minimalism, new tonal compositions, field recordings and so on. To me it was all just a bit further on from the practice of Fluxus musicians and free jazz or even Prog rock. The Obscure releases were more conceptual.

Everything about the series was an inspiration, and as the years passed many of its featured composers and musicians become collaborators, acquaintances and friends. It was here that I heard the work of Hugh Davies for only the second time, performing in an ensemble on David Toop's piece, The Divination Of The Bowhead Whale. In it, Toop structured an improvisation in which the physical proclivities of Frank Perry's temple gongs would be the timekeeper for the length of the work. It was beautiful, as was Toop's exploration of tiny sounds and quietude. Davies was playing his grill harp and I was dying to know what the hell that was, having only previously heard him on The Music Improvisation Company's 1970 ECM LP, on which he played organ and electronics.

In those days artists and musicians were trying to create something original. Though the influence of Cage and Cardew were clearly in evidence here, each composer was charting their own way, with only slight nods to their precursors. There was, in fact, a John Cage release (Voices And Instruments), inventively interpreted by Richard Bernas with Robert Wyatt and Carla Bley. It was a surprise when I realised Cage was up for reinterpretation; here, his compositions almost became pop songs.

Gavin Bryars' Fluxus-type sonic situations were mutating into new tonalism and new opera. Harold Budd's post-free jazz minimalism was a foreshadowing of the whole Ambient movement. Toop's work was exploring silence in structured improvisations and humour in the post-doo-wop voice composition, Do The Bathosphere. Max Eastley's invented instruments now sound like an early pre-echo of much current 'sound art'. I was particularly impressed by his hydrophone, a harp submerged in a stream of water. A year later I would create my own river stick, a sound piece in which I 'tuned' the sound of water falling through the rocks of a local stream. Up until that point, most modern music was locked in stodgy academia and ignored so many other references and aesthetics. By contrast, this work seemed varied and open-ended, and Eno's endorsement made it part of new pop/rock language, a New Music language, even, though that term had yet to be invented.

It was the conceptual structures of each of these recordings that inspired me. They mixed classical, jazz, rock, musique concrète and more in a way I had never heard before. Most of the records seemed very English (and so to me, highly exotic) and had a gentility and civility that one didn't find in the work of Stockhausen, Kagel or even the American minimalists. They were melodic, yet modern, and strikingly original. It gave me a sense of relief to realise that one could mix humour with serious intent and that there were such possibilities available to me as a composer. I didn't study music at university. I had a background in visual art, and at this point I was looking to dispense with object-making altogether. Sound was the perfect medium and the Obscure series was my master class.

John Adams went on to find his way out of obscurity as did Michael Nyman, Bryars and Toop, but it's still tough to hear the work of Christopher Hobbs, Jan Steele and John White. I wonder what they're up to?

The Obscure series has never been given a proper reissue on CD. It needs to be redone, as the original vinyl pressings were very low grade. After this, Eno went on to start the Ambient and Fourth World series, collaborate with Bowie, curate and produce No New York, and on and on. But the Obscure series remains his crowning achievement, a dazzling map of a future that would become our present.