Hear Brian Eno Reinvent Pachelbel’s Canon (1975)

Dis­creet Music came out in 1975, when most of its first lis­ten­ers had nev­er heard any­thing quite like it; there must have been some debate as to whether to call it “music” at all. Bri­an Eno’s fourth solo album, released on his own label Obscure Records, rep­re­sent­ed a depar­ture from his own pre­vi­ous work, and even more so from that of his for­mer band, the art-rock out­fit Roxy Music. The record­ing that occu­pies the entire A side of Dis­creet Music fea­tures no vocals, and indeed no lyrics; no per­cus­sion, and no beat. Those qual­i­ties, of course, had plen­ty of prece­dent in music his­to­ry, but the same can’t be said for its near-acci­den­tal com­po­si­tion­al method, which involved a syn­the­siz­er, a tape-delay sys­tem, a graph­ic equal­iz­er, an echo unit, and a cou­ple of tape recorders, all con­nect­ed in a loop: a series of devices, left to their own devices.

Some cite Dis­creet Music, which pre­ced­ed Eno’s well-known Music for Air­ports by three years, as the ori­gin point of ambi­ent music as we know it today. Its inspi­ra­tion goes a few years fur­ther back, as Eno him­self tells it, to a peri­od around about 1970 when he was con­va­lesc­ing after a car wreck. “A friend of mine came over to see me. I was con­fined to bed; I could­n’t move. But as she left she said, ‘Shall I put a record on?’ ”

The music “was much too qui­et but I could­n’t reach to turn it up, and it was rain­ing out­side. It was a record of 18th-cen­tu­ry harp music, I remem­ber. I lay there at first kind of frus­trat­ed by this sit­u­a­tion, but then I start­ed lis­ten­ing to the rain and lis­ten­ing to these odd notes of the harp that were just loud enough to be heard above the rain.”

Today Eno counts this “a great musi­cal expe­ri­ence for me, and I sud­den­ly thought of this idea of mak­ing music that did­n’t impose itself on your space in the same way, but cre­at­ed a sort of land­scape you could belong to.” His sto­ry illu­mi­nates the emer­gence of not just a new music, but a new way of hear­ing old music. Dis­creet Music’s B side per­forms a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of its own with vari­a­tions on Johann Pachel­bel’s Canon in D, “Full­ness of Wind,” “French Cat­a­logues,” and “Bru­tal Ardour.” On Eno’s instruc­tions, the Cock­pit Ensem­ble repeat­ed parts of the score while grad­u­al­ly alter­ing it, imbu­ing this famil­iar (not least from wed­dings) 17th-cen­tu­ry piece with an oth­er­world­ly grandeur. Like their mis­trans­lat­ed-from-the French titles, these vari­a­tions may in some sense be “man­gled,” but they become all the more ambigu­ous­ly evoca­tive for it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Decon­struct­ing Bri­an Eno’s Music for Air­ports: Explore the Tape Loops That Make Up His Ground­break­ing Ambi­ent Music

Expe­ri­ence a Video Paint­ing of Bri­an Eno’s Thurs­day After­noon That Has Soothed & Relaxed Mil­lions of Peo­ple

Hear Albums from Bri­an Eno’s 1970s Label, Obscure Records

The “True” Sto­ry Of How Bri­an Eno Invent­ed Ambi­ent Music

The Authen­tic Pachelbel’s Canon: Watch a Per­for­mance Based on the Orig­i­nal Man­u­script & Played with Orig­i­nal 17th-Cen­tu­ry Instru­ments

Pachelbel’s Canon Played by Train Horns

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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