In a talk at the Barbican, Brian Eno tackled the idea of space in music. Over 90 minutes he freewheeled from early recording techniques to Dolby Atmos, to the addition and removal of reverb in music, and ended with a request…
On a rainy London night at the Barbican, Brian Eno insisted that he hates artists giving promo talks, and successfully avoided mentioning his new album, ‘FOREVERANDEVERMORE’, an album which centres singing rather than ambient instrumentals. This focus on voice eventually took the spotlight in his talk, but in the meantime Eno delivered his thoughts on what he called Space Music in a lecture divided into several chapters, in which he pondered the meaning of space in music.
His talk took us back to the 1920s, as he described the various almost comical techniques that were employed to get music onto disc. An orchestra would crowd around one microphone in a recording studio. In order to achieve a usable mix loud instruments would be placed further away from the microphone, quieter ones would be nearer. Vocalists had to belt it out to be heard. This would all be captured on acetates. One mistake and they had to start again. “A lot of acetates were thrown away,” Eno observed.
Rudimentary overdubbing was attempted by recording the orchestra onto one acetate, which would then be played back into the room as a singer contributed their voice at the same time. “And the whole mess would be recorded onto another acetate,” Eno said.
As microphones became more sophisticated, Eno told us, the idea developed that you could use more of them to pick up individual instruments. This in turn enabled singers to change their techniques, which saw the rise of crooners in the 1950s.
By the 1960s close microphone recording techniques meant that room ambience was lost, and so reverb and echo technologies were developed to compensate. From plate reverbs, made from huge table-sized slabs of metal, to reverb chambers built beneath studios, or emergency exit stairwells pressed into reverb action by the early King of Reverb Phil Spector, the race was on in recording to “smear” sound in this way, and effectively time itself, using ever-more sophisticated technology to do so.
Soon stereo was added to the mix. Spector, and his super-fan Brian Wilson, were both dismayed by stereo. The idea that the music would change depending on where the listeners positioned themselves was anathema to them.
But stereo won the day, and now we have Dolby Atmos and its various competing immersive sound platforms, and the idea of space in music is becoming ever more sophisticated.
Eno described part of the appeal of reverb, and the relatively recent digital ability to create a literally endless reverb, as a desire to create an endless sonic present, by pulling the past into it.
Further examples of space in music took in Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s dub excursions in the early 1970s. Eno recounted how he played an early Lee Perry dub cut to a handful of NME journalists of his acquaintance. “What the fuck is this shit?” he paraphrased their response. “Two years later they’re all smoking Kingston carrots and listening to dub,” he chuckled.
From this audio space idea to outer space, Eno took a diversion to explore ideas in music floating in eternal radiance of our ideas of the infinite, which gave him an opportunity to play an excerpt of ‘Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks’ (the title of which he couldn’t quite remember accurately), and to strum his Omnichord for us.
It all ended with Eno confessing the real reason for why he had gathered us all here on a Sunday night. As a high profile member of a potentially massive global public movement to force governments to take climate change more seriously, he’s aware that the movement needs a song. From his own Tuesday night singing club, he knows how cleansing and invigorating singing with other people is, and how it binds people and communities together. He exampled this by citing Fred Again, whose ‘Actual Life’ albums are created in the messy fun of a social gathering. So what could the song be for the climate change movement? “Any ideas?” he asked. They came thick and fast. ‘“Heroes”’, ‘Sweet Caroline’, ‘Sound And Vision’ (“That wouldn’t work…” Eno responded), ‘Come Together’, something by Primal Scream… he scribbled each one down then implored people to make their suggestions on his Facebook page.