Brian Eno is MORE DARK THAN SHARK
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The Telegraph OCTOBER 22, 2023 - by Ivan Hewett

BRIAN ENO'S 'SHIPS' AT THE VENICE BIENNALE: OLD-FASHIONED SOUNDS FROM A DIGITAL GURU

The prophet of ambient music found his voice when he set aside fog-bound melancholy for a straightforward pop ballad

La Fenice (Phoenix) in Venice has a claim to be the loveliest theatre in the world. The Graces and Muses on that glowing turquoise ceiling (meticulously restored after a catastrophic fire in 1996) have gazed down on many a Bellini and Verdi heroine.

They must have been puzzled by Saturday night's world premiere, presented by the Venice Music Biennale. Onto a black-box stage, orchestral musicians emerged one by one amidst clouds of dry ice. Soft low sounds of flutes and clarinets broke the silence, swelled eventually by oceanic sounds and keening high notes - mostly electronic but tinged with piercing high trumpets or rough scrubbing cello sounds. Eventually the bald head of a singer appeared in a spotlight, singing words in a gravelly, sad bass that were frustratingly hard to discern, but seemed to be about loss, ships and the sea.

This was Brian Eno, who was also the composer of the piece we were listening to: a recreation of his 2016 album The Ship for electronics and musicians of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. As well as Eno we heard the rather more focused, creamy-voiced singer Melanie Pappenheim and the old-school BBC-style speaking voice of Peter Serafinowicz. Eno is renowned as a pioneer of those drifting electronic soundscapes known as "ambient music", and in recent decades has established a reputation as an all-round guru and futurologist. This year he receives the Venice Biennale's Golden Lion award for his "research into the quality, beauty and diffusion of digital sound."

And yet for all Eno's reputation as a pioneer this event had a surprisingly old-fashioned feel. The fog-bound sounds seemed like an evocation of the Suffolk coast where Eno was raised, and the songs themselves had a repetitive, folk-like feel. The evening's overall melancholy tone was compromised by the wilful obscurity of the words, some of which were created by a computer algorithm. And it was hard not to feel that the orchestral musicians, reduced to playing the kind of simple harmonic washes that can be committed to memory, were sorely underused.

Still it was a moving event in its own way. In the evening's second half, sea-fog and sadness were finally pushed aside by a good old-fashioned pop ballad, in the form of The Velvet Underground's I'm Set Free. For a moment the prophet of "ambient music" became a straightforward pop star, and the intellectual, contemporary-art crowd cheered and whooped as if they too had just recaptured their youth.

Brian Eno's Ships is at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, on Octpber 30.


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