Author: Ben Farrell
To kick off the monthly throwback album review series here at WSUM, we’ve chosen a record whose minimalism is its defining feature. Brian Eno’s 1975 LP Discreet Music garnered critical acclaim, and got him in the studio with people like David Bowie, and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields.
The music begins from nothing. You gradually become aware of soft tones drifting slowly into existence. Cyclically, patiently, Brian Eno’s synthesizers find their way into your consciousness. Rather than staking its claim over sonic space, Discreet Music, the opening track on the groundbreaking 1975 LP of the same name by British composer Brian Eno, begins in silence and fades into nothingness a full minute before the track is over.
This musical approach has its roots in a series of compositions by the early 20th century French composer Erik Satie. Satie called the pieces furniture music and thought of them as an addition or accessory to the overall atmosphere of the world, rather than pieces in and of themselves.
Satie’s “musique d’ameublement” (the French term for this idea) was performed more literally as background music, accompanying pieces of art or during the intermission of a theater production. The origin of Eno’s discreet music is more organic. After a close brush with death, Eno remained bedridden for weeks, unable to move. His girlfriend at the time, aware of his musical preferences, brought him a record of harp music. She put it on for him, but left the volume on his amplifier at a low level. Because of the injuries he had sustained in the accident in which he had been involved, he was unable to raise it. This left Eno to experience the music not as a product in and of itself, but as just on piece of the soundscape in which he existed. Rain pattering against his window, the sound of his own breath, the sheets rustling, and the soft plucking the harps created a soundscape, an environment in which he could exist peacefully.
Eno has said this experience was at the front of his mind when composing Discreet Music. Using tape delay to create an echo on his synthesizers, Eno created a soundscape in and of itself. Discreet Music, while nominally an exercise in ambient furniture music, seems to exist in its own sonic universe. The ever-changing nature of this 30-minute piece seemingly feeds into itself, recreating itself in slight variations over and over. Though the simplicity of the music is undeniable, it seems to exist on a plane larger than that of simply “music.”.
Following the conclusion of the album’s 30-minute title track, Eno’s ambient journey approaches the same musical philosophy with a different method. The second half of the album is titled Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel. Using the ultra-famous piece by Pachelbel, a German baroque composer, Eno instructed a small ensemble composed of cellists and violinists to improvise and augment on a few specific passages that he had chosen. The outcome is stunning.
Those three pieces, titled Fullness of Wind, French Catalogues, and Brutal Ardour are almost unimaginably poignant. Fullness of Wind, a song that begins in a traditionally classical manner, moves slowly into a more chaotic form. A solo violin dances above an ever changing landscape of violin and cello, harkening back to the classical origins of the music while producing something entirely different. This piece flows directly into French Catalogues, whose form moves in the opposite direction. Beginning in almost complete chaos, Eno takes a relatively dissonant piece back into the realm of musical convention. The third and final piece on the LP stands alone. Titled Brutal Ardour, this piece shares its form with Fullness of wind, oscillating in and out of musicality, dissonance, and harmony.
This album stands as a musical signpost, blazing a path for many contemporary avant-garde composers working today, including Caroline Shaw. Its brave and at the time unique approach to music as something extra-melodic was an important progression that changed the landscape of music forever.
The real triumph of the 1975 release comes in its first half. The sounds of the echoing synthesizers in Discreet Music are, while inhuman, emotionally evocative. Eno’s music provides a space in which the listener can exist, separate from themselves.
Whether you’re studying and need something to calm your brainwaves, trying to fall asleep, or simply in pursuit of musical fulfillment, Discreet Music should be next on your list. For music of its genre and renown, its remarkably accessible. So, next time you find yourself staring out your bedroom window, watching the snow fall over Madison, sit back, relax, and let the universe of Eno wash over you.