Editor’s Note: Brian Eno was a longtime friend and collaborator of the late David Bowie, who died this weekend after an 18-month battle with cancer. As we mourn the loss of this talented artist and creative visionary, we find comfort in knowing that his bold vision, fierce courage, and revolutionary music live on in the lives and art of his family, friends, fans, and collaborators. Bowie’s immeasurable contributions to the world of music extend far past the confines of rock, glam, pop, or classical genres, reminding us that when it comes to art, the sky is the limit—and a creative spirit like his belongs right up alongside the stars. Rest in peace, David Bowie.
In this day and age, we tend to take music for granted. It’s always playing in the background, whether it’s in on the radio, in the car, around the house, in a movie, or—if you’re really old-school—on your vintage record player. But before technology made it possible for us to stream music wherever we are at all hours of the day and night, the notion of “background music” as we now know it simply didn’t exist.
It wasn’t until 1917 when the French composer and iconoclast Erik Satie first coined the term “furniture music”—that is, music played in the background while listeners engaged in other activities. He wrote many pieces which were meant to be just another piece of furniture in the room—each comprised of interesting colors and textures, pleasing to the ear but not intended to capture one’s full attention.
And in 1975, the British ambient music composer Brian Eno took this notion of furniture music one step further, creating something even more ambient, ethereal and—well, discreet.
Thus was born “Discreet Music,” Eno’s 30-minute ambient music masterpiece: a gentle immersion into the slow, warm sound waves of an EMS synthesizer. The inspiration for the piece came to him when he was left bedridden in the hospital by a car accident. An album of 18th-century harp music was playing in his hospital room with the volume turned down toward the threshold of inaudibility—but he lacked the strength to get out of bed and turn it up.
“This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music,” Eno said, “As part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.”
And now, another 40 years later, Toronto’s classical Contact ensemble has created a modern arrangement of Eno’s original “Discreet Music” for acoustic and electric instruments. Arranged by Contact’s artistic director and percussionist Jerry Pergolesi, the new recording is scored for violin, cello, soprano saxophone, guitar, double bass, vibraphone, piano, flute, and gongs.
Aside from the expansion of musical instruments, Contact’s version of “Discreet Music” also expands the length of the piece. Contact’s performance is one hour long, so as to fill an entire CD—just as Eno’s original was 30 minutes long, so as to fill one side of a vinyl album.
And no, Contact did not just place a giant repeat sign at the end of Eno’s original score. “Discreet Music” was originally written as an experiment into generative composition: a type of self-organizing music created within compositional parameters predetermined by the composer. Such systems create pieces that could theoretically go on forever—static, ongoing musical material which never repeats exactly the same way twice.
In other words, it is music of process, not product.
In Eno’s original, he wrote two simple melodic lines and then hooked his synth up to a tape delay system that allowed the melodies to transform and evolve with very little input on his part. In Contact’s version, the band itself is the looping apparatus.
It may sound complicated, but the result is really quite simple: ambient, meditative music that’s best listened to while doing something else.
Contact’s recording was completed in one take, in keeping with the spirit of the original—allowing the music to organize itself. The recording is divided into seven parts which blend seamlessly into one another, with the textural details blossoming and transforming ever so slowly across the full 60 minutes.
The result is a mild and melancholy meditation into the process of music-making—a willingness to sit quietly and listen to one’s own surroundings as they merge and coalesce in ever-changing ways.
“We concluded that music didn’t have to have rhythms, melodies, harmonies, structures, even notes, that it didn’t have to involve instruments, musicians and special venues,” Eno once wrote of the mid-20th century movement toward more experimental ways of writing music. “It was accepted that music was not something intrinsic to certain arrangements of things—to certain ways of organizing sounds—but was actually a process of apprehending that we, as listeners, could choose to conduct.”
And in that regard, Contact offers a fresh reinterpretation of the work, following the systems set in place by Eno while also expanding the music melodically, texturally, and timbrally.
“If there is a lasting message from experimental music,” Eno wrote, “It’s this: music is something your mind does.”
As performers, Contact makes the music their own—and as listeners, so do we. With precision, patience, and the utmost reverence, Contact recreates Eno’s ambient masterwork as an echo chamber of circling motives and mismatched musical textures. Each ripple of the repetitious melody is a perfectly crafted piece of the larger pattern, a discreet but unique little gem in and of itself.
So in the end, maybe “Discreet Music” really is just another piece of furniture in the room—but wow, what an incredible piece of furniture.