Perfect Sound Forever

Orchestrating Eno

From the Discreet to the Discretionary
by Daniel Barbiero
(October 2020)

It may be ironic, but in recent years, the work of self-professed non-musician Brian Eno has increasingly found itself adapted for performance by that most musicianly of institutions, the classical orchestra. Doubly ironic even, since Eno is on record as having misgivings about what he calls the "pyramidical hierarchy" of the traditional orchestra, and once half-jokingly claimed to be the secretary-treasurer of the anti-classical music Society to Melt Down Flutes. Nothing with Eno is entirely simple though; this is the same artist who played clarinet in an orchestra--albeit the deliberately anti-virtuosic Portsmouth Sinfonia--and praised a Russian orchestra for playing a forceful version of a contemporary Latvian composition. It would seem that Eno's complaint against Western art music didn't necessarily inhere in the music itself, but rather in what he thought was its culture of perfectionism. One's past being prologue and not predestination, Eno's former pronouncements haven't prevented composers such as Philip Glass, the Bang on a Can group, Timothy Andres, and Jerry Pergolesi from arranging various Eno pieces for orchestral instruments. These pieces range from the shorter rock songs to the Berlin-era collaborations with David Bowie, to the longer ambient and proto-ambient works.

Adapting Eno's work to an ensemble of orchestral instruments has its challenges. For the rock songs, there is the matter of eliminating and recasting vocal lines, finding the appropriate substitutions of acoustic instruments for electronic instruments, recasting rock rhythms into classical rhythms and so on. The ambient works also pose challenges in relation to the practical matter of voice substitution, but they carry a salient conceptual challenge as well. Two of the most notable ambient works, "Music for Airports" (1978) and "Discreet Music" (1975), are essentially generative works in which a closed system of specific inputs and defined operations more or less autonomously generates music. How does one adapt a virtually mechanical process to the environment of an orchestra in which music is produced by the intentional gestures of live performers?

Pergolesi's arrangement of "Discreet Music" for the Canadian new music ensemble Contact, for which he is artistic director and percussionist, exemplifies one creative way of translating a virtually self-governing process work into a performance piece dependent on choices made by live musicians in real time. Call it a translation from the discreet to the discretionary. Before looking at Pergolesi's work of translation, a consideration of "Discreet Music's" structure and its foundation in the systems aesthetic of the 1960's is in order.

Describing "Discreet Music" is very simple. In essence it is a work made up of two brief, asymmetrical but harmonically compatible musical phrases repeated and layered through the ongoing operation of a simple tape loop/delay system. Once set in motion, the system automatically combines the phrases in ever-changing and unpredictable patterns. Because the two phrases are harmonically compatible, any given combination will produce music that is euphonious. In theory, the system can generate consonant music indefinitely or until brought to a stop by outside intervention. The important point here though isn't necessarily the music's harmoniousness, but its systematicity: "Discreet Music" is a more-or-less textbook case of a work produced in accordance with the principles of a systems aesthetic.

Eno has been consistently explicit in acknowledging his attraction to systems works. As he wrote in the liner note to the Discreet Music album, "[s]ince I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set in motion, could create music with little or no intervention on my part."

Eno's stated preference for systems works may have represented something new in the context of rock music--the context in which Discreet Music was initially received--but it was of a piece with the advanced art trends of the time. In fact, systems thinking in the arts was a significant force beginning in the mid-to-late 1960;s, a period which coincided with Eno's formative years in art school. The paradigmatic statement of systems thinking in the arts was American artist/critic Jack Burnham's essay "Systems Esthetics," which was published in the journal Artforum in September, 1968. As Burnham outlined it, the systems aesthetic rejected the principled separation of art from non-art; was not predicated on restricting the artwork to a fixed, autonomous object; understood the artwork to be a totality in which individual components have value only to the extent that they are part of the whole; and deemed the processes involved as being of equal importance to the resulting work or situation. More generally, a systems aesthetic can be defined as:

An aesthetic in which a work is conceived of as a set of regularly interacting or related elements in which the initial conditions or inputs and the combinatorial rules or operations performed on them are defined, but the final output is not. Additionally, a minimal amount of discretion is left to the composer or performer once inputs are chosen and the process is put into motion.
The systems aesthetic Burnham describes is a variety of process aesthetic in which the process is deliberately made as autonomous as possible in regard to any moment-by-moment decision-making or activity on the part of the artist. It is also an aesthetic whose focus is on rules, operations, and generative procedures--the structures underlying the process--rather than on a unique object of fixed makeup. Material matters to the extent that it supplies the inputs to be processed, but it is precisely in the process that the heart of the work, and ultimately its meaning, lies.

Burnham's essay was very much a product of the time it was written, and served to articulate a key set of ideas that were influential when Eno's own sensibility was being formed. As art historian Francis Halsall pointed out in his 2008 book Systems of Art: Art, History and Systems Theory, the 1960's were a time of general interest in systems, whether because of the then-burgeoning use of systems analysis in military, business and social applications, or the rapid development of electronic communications technologies and networks, or the salience of systemic thinking in biological research. It was natural to expect that the arts would be affected by such a pervasive intellectual trend, and indeed they were. The contemporary avant-garde experimented with serial organization of geometric figures in painting, iterative modular structures in sculpture, and an early use of computer algorithms to generate graphic art. Composers too were in the forefront of integrating a systems aesthetic into their own thinking as well as into their practical compositional procedures. There already existed the precedent of postwar integral serialism, which subjected not only pitches, but dynamics, rhythms and other musical parameters to combinatorial operations. Even the music of a composer like John Cage relied on the systematic use of chance operations to produce work that, paradoxically perhaps, represented the composer's systematically ceding control over musical materials and outcomes. Other composers, such as Lejaren Hiller and Iannis Xenakis, explored the use of computer algorithms in creating electronic works.

Systems thinking, sometimes in the guise of its subdiscipline of cybernetics, was just something that was in the air in the mid- to late 1960's, and it made its influence felt at Ipswich School of Art, which Eno attended during that period. The head of the school at the time, Roy Ascott, particularly inspired Eno with his advocacy of cybernetics. Following his time at Ispwich, Eno went to Winchester Art School, where in 1968 he wrote and published "Music for Non-Musicians," an essay printed in an edition of twenty-five copies by the school. Eno biographer David Sheppard describes the essay as a "manifesto" based on the idea "'create parameters, set it off, see what happens.'"

The type of systems works Eno was drawn to consisted of simple or limited inputs and generative structures that were reasonably easy to perceive from the works' surfaces. This was in contrast to, for example, the compositions of the integral serialists, whose underlying structures were the product of the multifactorial inputs of dodecaphonic sets and the complex quasi-mathematical operations applied to them, none of which could be heard readily, if at all, in the works' knotty, fragmented sonic surfaces. The paradigmatic example of a simple systems work, and one that had a direct influence on "Discreet Music," is Steve Reich's 1965 tape piece "It's Gonna Rain." Eno described Reich's piece to interviewer Rob Tannenbaum as having showed "how variety can be generated by very, very simple systems." And Reich's system was very simple, taking a recorded three word phrase and playing it back on two tape recorders running at slightly different speeds. The two taped phrases gradually diverge and become increasingly out of phase with each other, causing them to overlap in constantly changing patterns. Like "It's Gonna Rain," "Discreet Music" is made up of a simple system with limited inputs and a single operation. Because the operation consists in a feedback loop, its output is complex. Although the system generates overlapping musical phrases in a determinate operation, how those phrases intersect and how they will sound in aggregated form at any given point is unpredictable.

To the extent that its output is unpredictable, "Discreet Music" is a work that uses a determinate process within a fixed system to generate a seemingly indeterminate musical result. The indeterminacy of the system's result is only apparent though. The system's output is entirely determined by the input and by the operation the input undergoes. The seeming randomness of the melodies' aggregations is just a function of the complex and irregular patterns the system generates. The music is entirely determinate, if unpredictable; without outside intervention, it simply runs on its own according to preestablished rules. The musical product is the effect of an invariant causal process.

The apparent indeterminacy of "Discreet Music" was one of the features that attracted Pergolesi to the piece as something Contact could perform. He was inspired in part by the Bang on a Can composers' arrangements of the similarly simple, process-based Music for Airports. Unlike many other orchestral adaptations of rock music, which attempt somehow to reproduce the originals, Bang on a Can's Music for Airports, for Pergolesi, represented an attempt to approach the piece on its own terms as a composition rather than simply as a recording to be covered. Accordingly, with his realization of "Discreet Music" Pergolesi set out not to reproduce Eno's recording but rather to work from the compositional process that made the recording possible in the first place--to discover, in other words, the possibilities inherent in the process and to explore, in concrete musical terms, what forms these possibilities might take in the context of a chamber orchestra. One was the encoding of a dynamic unpredictability into the piece--a true, as opposed to an apparent, indeterminacy. Pergolesi realized this possibility through an interpretive arrangement of Eno's system.

The problem that Pergolesi faced consisted in finding a way of translating the inputs and operations of Eno's original simple-melodies-and-looping mechanism into specific, scored gestures for Contact's musicians. The means Pergolesi chose for doing so involved constructing an ingenious, open-ended and genuinely indeterminate system that worked through a set of rules that would allow the individual musicians a significant degree of choice over what they could play at any given time. First, though, he had to specify the musical inputs for his system. He did this by transcribing the recording of "Discreet Music" by ear and then adding other, supplementary melody lines that he felt were implied in the recording by virtue of having been generated by Eno's looping operation. Once he had this basic melodic material in hand, he broke it up into cells, or melodic kernels, to which he assigned numbers in a series; these submelodies were then written out in a common odd time signature that he felt followed the natural periodicity of the melodies' phrasing.

With the melodic input having been selected, divided up and serialized, Pergolesi then went on to assign given groups of cells to each instrument (although he arranged the piece in this instance for his ensemble, he left the instrumentation potentially open in order to lend his arrangement a degree of adaptability). The individual instrumentalists would in turn take their assigned cells and create phrases by taking each cell and repeating it a number of times of their own choosing; once they'd done that, they arranged the phrases in a sequence. The combinatorial rules Pergolesi set out allowed for individual musicians to improvise loops out of their phrases by choosing and potentially varying the number of repeats to play.

By allowing the musicians to construct their own phrases from his kernel melodies, and by instituting flexible rules for looping the melodies, Pergolesi introduced a high degree of real indeterminacy into the piece, while still having it retain its identity as a systems work. In discussing the work, he emphasizes that a successful performance requires the musicians to maintain the form even as they choose the details with which to fill it out. Pergolesi's system may afford each player a significant amount of latitude, but it is a latitude that nevertheless occurs within limits.

Even within those limits, the salient structural characteristic of Pergolesi's system is its relative formal openness. Whereas the original "Discreet Music" was produced by an autonomous process that at least in theory could run without benefit of outside intervention or decision-making once set in motion, Pergolesi's arrangement is driven instead by an internal motor powered by the individual choices of the performers. The musicians are encouraged to follow their ears as they play and thus are given the option of changing the number of iterations for their phrases, as the overall logic of the unfolding piece may suggest. For this reason, no two performances of the piece can be alike, choices naturally differing from occasion to occasion.

If the original "Discreet Music" was constructed to run independently of real-time intervention, Pergolesi's "Discreet Music" instead has intervention built into the piece as an essential, and constant, internal feature. Yet it is still a systems work. The inputs are members of a closed set, and what is applied to them is unmistakably an operation in the guise of an iterative, defined action. The difference is that the process embodied in Pergolesi's system defies the conventional notion of a systems-based process as inhering in automatically applied, mechanical and mechanistic rules. Instead, it consists of a series of actions embodying the intentions, judgments and imaginings of the performers--by virtue of all of which it reconfigures an originally autonomous systems work into a collective project. Call it a semi-open form system, or a flexible system shaped by the freely-chosen actions of performer-introduced chance. Either way, Pergolesi's "Discreet Music" is an instance of an essentially indeterminate work reverse-engineered from a determinate, fixed model.

The second possibility a chamber orchestra setting offers to "Discreet Music" is a vibrant enhancement of instrumental color.

The melodies for the original recording of "Discreet Music" were created on an EMS Synthi AKS, a small monophonic, modular analogue synthesizer. The synthesizer was then run through a graphic equalizer so that its timbre and tone could be varied but even with this basic processing, the range of color it produced was restricted. The timbre of the synthesized melodies is soothing but artificial nevertheless; if it lacks the aggressive iciness of some synthesizer timbres, it lacks as well the warmth and perceptibly human touch conveyed by an acoustic instrument. The tones we hear on the original recording announce themselves as unmistakably electronic, even if their "wobbliness"--as Eno has described it-- induced by the relatively primitive technologies used to create them, mimics something of the micro-level imprecision and fluctuation of hand- or breath-produced musical tones. On its own terms, "Discreet Music" certainly is a beautiful recording, but translating the music into the multi-timbred voices of orchestral instruments opens up previously unheard, multiply faceted worlds of sonority.

Contact's recorded version of "Discreet Music" was done with a nine piece ensemble consisting of strings (violin, cello, double bass and electric guitar), winds (flute and soprano saxophone), and percussion (piano, vibraphone and gongs). The timbral combinations available to such a mixed group are obviously many, and many-dimensional. Contact's version of "Discreet Music" is consequently notable for a restrained yet richly sensuous and constantly changing surface--a sensuousness that sets it apart from the original just in terms of its basic aural salience. Given the variety and dynamism of its instrumental colors, it just is not as ignorable (or background 'ambient') as the original recording.

In addition to enhancing the purely aesthetic experience of listening to the music's surface, Pergolesi's arrangement also serves to render the underlying processes transparent and easily perceived by the ear. This is a consequence of Pergolesi's method of dividing up the melodic material and distributing it among individual, largely independently moving voices rather than scoring melodies for aggregated voices moving in unison. As these different voices enter, repeat and exit, causing melodic elements to circulate and intersect at irregular intervals, we can clearly hear Pergolesi's looping mechanism at work. Individual instrumental timbres isolate and highlight the content and trajectories of individual lines, making them easy to follow as they're introduced, reiterated, and ultimately dropped. Color clarifies as much as it adds shading; the differences in individual timbres and in the iterative paths they trace reveal the structure of the work as consisting in a dynamic set of interactive--and interactively chosen--interdependencies. That Pergolesi's compositional elements and operations--his system--are legible from the surface of the music is well in keeping with Eno's own ideas about composing with simple, perceptible processes.

To be sure, Pergolesi's introduction of real-time, choice-based indeterminacy into "Discreet Music" represents something of a technical violation. It goes against the letter of Eno's own systems aesthetic, with its presumption in favor of "systems that, once set in motion, could create music with little or no intervention." And yet at the same time, it conserves the spirit of the original piece in all of its simplicity-fostered unpredictability. If "Discreet Music" began as an autonomous music system, with Pergolesi's arrangement, it realizes its potential to become something else. It is something paradoxical but fruitful nevertheless: a system as a field of discretionary action.

Contact's Brian Eno: Discreet Music is available from Bang on a Can

Also see: Eno in the '70's
Eno misconceptions
Lester Bangs on Eno

Also see Daniel Barbiero's blog

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