Listening to ambient music can be like entering an altered state. My best experiences with the form have been lying down in the dark, immersing myself in the sound. Therefore, surreal as it was, it did make sense to have a bed on the stage during a live recreation of a Brian Eno record. The seminal Discreet Music was recently reworked by a collective of nine virtuoso musicians, on instruments as dreamlike and whimsical as the musical saw and vibraphone.
Brian Eno first appeared on the scene with pop rockers Roxy Music in the seventies. Five years later, he was exploring new, deeper musical territories all of his own. 1975s Discreet Music saw Eno pioneer long and subtle, multi-layered compositions. He intended his experimental electronic sound to be “as ignorable as it is interesting”.
A man positioned in the middle of the stage was surrounded by wires and what looked like computer towers. He reminded me of a switchboard operator in a hotel. A screen showed a slowly changing image of a skyline, which reflected the slow, almost imperceptible changes in the music. This foray into performing sounds largely conceived during the recording process in a live capacity was no mean feat. The drummer had to play his instrument arrhythmically. The players had to be conscientious of the organic nature of Eno’s vision and not overwhelm each other.
So what of the ‘+ Oblique’ part of the show’s name? Well, accompanying the action on stage were video screens offering words of mystical and conventional wisdom, from Oblique Strategies – an art project Eno did with Peter Schmidt. The deep thought provoking proverbs ranged from the practical; ‘take a break’, to curve balls like ‘use an old idea’. They are intended to resolve dilemmas. For me, they highlighted the fact that often when dealing with problems, any insight will do. The final slide to appear was funny and showed a lack of pretentiousness on the part of the concert’s directors. ‘How would you have done it?’
Technology and instruments have evolved enormously since the release of Discreet Music. This is apparent in the fact that the Barbican’s interpretation featured an iPhone. Modern day apps can achieve with ease effects that were once only attainable through a complicated process involving synths and tape machines. But does better technology mean better music? Eno himself states that when infallible pieces, originally created by machines, are reproduced by humans, the effect is powerfully emotional.