The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at barbican.org.uk
The latest content and news from the Barbican. Book tickets at barbican.org.uk

Brian Eno on Discreet Music

I feel very privileged that one of my pieces of music is being revisited by such a talented and adventurous group of players as this is.

I made Discreet Music using (by today’s standards) the primitive tools of early electronic music: an AMS synthesizer, with a simple sequencer, a graphic equaliser (this allows you to modify the timbre of the synthesizer’s output), a Gibson Echoplex and 2 Revox tape recorders. All of those tools were quite fallible. The synthesizer tended to slide gradually out of tune as it warmed up and anyway the keyboard was not a standard ‘equal temperament’ keyboard such as you’d find on any commercial synthesizer now: you began work with it by tuning the octaves, which, along with the sliding pitch, left some leeway for variation. The Graphic Equaliser was slightly the worse for wear and some of its faders crackled, so I didn’t use those frequency bands during the recording of the piece. The Echoplex used a loop of magnetic tape which rather erratically circled round a series of playback heads. The tape was old and didn’t reproduce high frequencies; the ‘wow and flutter’ produced by the slippage of the tape created a gentle and sporadic chorusing effect on the echoes it delivered.

The sonic character of the piece results as much from these technical inadequacies as anything else. All of these deviations from perfection made for a result that sounds much more ‘human’ than the system which produced it.

This idea interests me a lot: how we design machines that do things humans couldn’t do, and then humans understand and learn to do those things, and do them with a new passion and feeling.

It’s therefore an interesting step to imagine what it will be like if played by actual humans attempting to work from something that was made by a machine in the first place. This idea interests me a lot: how we design machines that do things humans couldn’t do, and then humans understand and learn to do those things, and do them with a new passion and feeling. I’m thinking for example of the great drummer Jojo Mayer, who based his style of playing on drum and bass recordings that had originally been made entirely by machines. The results are not only astonishing but also very powerful emotionally. It’s different when humans do it, because there’s effort involved, and because humans can’t help but make human decisions.

And I suppose that’s the added value: humans can’t help investing things with experience and feelings and values. When the American group Bang on a Can did their version of my Music for Airports piece they tried hard to make a facsimile of the original. What made it special was that they failed: they humanised it, and that was a lovely result.

Book tickets to Discreet + Oblique: The Music of Brian Eno (26 Sept).