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.
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.