12 O'Clock Track: Spend the weekend with side A of Eno's Discreet Music | Bleader

12 O'Clock Track: Spend the weekend with side A of Eno's Discreet Music



The story behind Brian Eno's Discreet Music is as rich and incidental as the music itself. Left bedridden by a car accident, Eno struggled to put a record of 19th-century harp music on the turntable. By the time he returned to his bed, he grew frustrated when he realized the volume was too low, and was in such a state of pain and exhaustion that he refused to get up again to change the setting. But in that moment of forced restraint Eno began to listen to the music in a new setting. His words:

"This was what was for me a new way of hearing music—as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the lights and the sound of the rain were parts of that environment."

What most interests me about this statement is not so much Eno's notion of music as an element of an environment, but rather the implication that the sound and mood of rainfall are as much an instrument as any component that goes into the recording of a piece of music. Furthermore, the moment in which you listen to it is as important, or as much of an instrument, as any of the elements that go into the "finished product."

Here's Wikipedia's summary, taken from a diagram in the liner notes, of Side A of Discreet Music:

It was originally intended as a background for Robert Fripp to play against in a series of concerts. The liner notes contain a diagram of how this piece was created. It begins with two melodic phrases of different lengths played back from a synthesizer's digital recall system (the equipment used in this case was an EMS Synthi AKS, which had a then-exotic, built-in digital sequencer). This signal is then run through a graphic equalizer to occasionally change its timbre. It is then run through an echo unit before being recorded onto a tape machine. The tape runs to the take-up reel of a second machine. The output of that machine is fed back into the first tape machine [sic] which records the overlapped signals.

I'm not entirely clear on exactly how those machines created the music you hear on Discreet Music. To me, it's just two faint synthesizer lines playing over each other, one pin-sized, celestial, and uplifting, the other yawnlike, purple-hued, and melancholy. But in juxtaposition, they produce a poignant emotional response, one that fluctuates in resonance over the piece's 31-minute duration.

There are times—more frequent than others, unfortunately—where stress and the world feel like too much to take, and my head will get this brain-boiling feeling, as if the pressure of my skull is somehow heating up my head. When times like that happen, I'll put on Discreet Music and just kind of zone out. But other times I'll sit in a somewhat tranquil state and just kind of zone in on side A, swathed in the music's stirring inertia.

So use this music to calm down, or do what I suggest: When you wake up on Saturday or Sunday, put on this song and just experience the start of the day with this music on. Think about how the moment and music are working in harmony, and whether the environment you're in is producing the mood, or the music is. Are you experiencing Discreet Music, routine, or both? As David Byrne sings, on a song Eno himself coproduced, "How did I get here? / Letting the days go by."