Brian ENO (b. 1948)
Discreet Music (1975)
rec. dates and location not given.

If you know the original Discreet Music, originally on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label and now available through Virgin Records, you will recall a rich and gentle carpet of sound generated by the layering of simple musical phrases and complementary notes that loop constantly, but also emerge at different speeds and in different octaves. This is a concept or process kind of composition that creates its own atmosphere, and also has a strangely compelling kind of endless cadence that means it is not merely a static sound-object. In other words it works as music, having the feeling or illusion of development and shape over time.

This original was just over half an hour but this had to do with the limitations of an LP side. Discreet Music need not have a fixed duration of any kind, and in this performance by ensemble Contact the piece has been divided into seven sections, which would seem to be an unnecessary division but may have something to do with the “seven mutually compatible melodies” of the piece as a whole. In his brief booklet note Jerry Pergolesi tackles the issue of the big question for such a project, the challenge of which is “whether to attempt to recreate it or give it your own spin.”

Made ‘live’ or in one take – in fact “the last of three takes in as many years”, this performance very much does both – quite remarkably keeping the spirit and atmosphere of the original, while adding the contrast and different energies of different instruments. The sound of each instrument is processed so that, for instance, repeated phrases on a flute or saxophone don’t become annoying. They are softened by the sense of distance given by added resonance, the entire nine-person ensemble transformed into a fairly homogenous unit through this processing and mixing of the sound. Eno’s original synthesizers also had a degree of contrast in timbre, so this is very much in sympathy with Discreet Music as we already know it.

If you already have Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, love what it does for you and want more of the same or similar, then you will want this version. Like all good music this work can very much stand performance in different arrangements, and if you don’t see the point of having more than just the original version then you probably also don’t see the point in having more than one recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, to pick out another iconic masterpiece more or less at random. I will always have a soft spot for Brian Eno’s own Discreet Music for its unique and strangely surreal and disembodied character, but I am delighted to see it being taken up as a seriously viable repertoire experience.

Dominy Clements

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