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XVII: 1982 Brian Eno - On Land

Brian Eno - On Land

People who have followed this series from the beginning on might be a little surprised by my 1982 choice. It is an album which didn’t feature in the poll. When creating the poll I didn’t think of On Land as I hadn’t seriously listened to it. Phil from one faint deluded smile mentioned it in the comments and after having realised that none of the ten records in the poll was exciting enough to be my album of the year I started relistening to On Land. When reading the liner notes with the music on the speakers it suddenly clicked. I was drawn in slowly like into a far away maelstrom in a sea which I had taken erroneously for totally calm. I have never cared a lot about Eno’s minmal and ambient music as put forward before on Discreet Music and Music for Airports. The kind of stuff to which Satie’s term furniture music fits quite well. It does not ask to be listened to. It flows along without any highs and lows. If it creates an atmosphere it is an atmosphere of void. Music with the aim of going nowhere, just turning around itself endlessly. Music which does not reward the listener.

On Land is different. It uses natural sounds to which the listener can cling to. They evoke memories. They tell stories of places. Brian Eno just forms those found sounds and weaves an electronic wrapping around them. He creates something highly unique and seamless by fusing the organic with technology. Eno recorded this album in New York. Like the city it is a melting pot.

A mysterious record which gives the listener the freedom to associate whatever his phantasy is able to come up with when exposed to this earth music. Exactly in between Tangerine Dream’s cosmic star track Zeit and Peter Gabriel’s tribal Passion soundtrack. In the past couple of years I got more and more attracted to simple environmental sounds like the waves hitting the coast (Jack Kerouac wrote a long poem on the Pacific ocean at Big Sur). Or wind chimes. There is a place near Big Sur where they have thousands of them which play a magnificent natural symphony when it is windy. Last summer in Norway we cycled to the end of an island where there were hundreds of screaming sea-gulls flying around. It was like the end of the world. You could forget about humanity when closing the eyes and taking in those rough bird screams.

Some track by track impressions:

1 Lizard Point
Enormous insects buzz around.

2 The Lost Day
Menacing sounds in the background. Like the rumbling of a far away thunder. Which does not come closer but stays there for the whole nine minutes of the track. Metal pieces hitting each other in the wind. Is there a boat passing by? A spooky atmosphere. Accentuated by the low symphonic soaring synthesizer sounds which give the piece an even more apocalyptic flair.

3 Tal Coat
It is dark. I am undergound in a cave or something. A humid place. Snakes are all around. They make these hellish sounds with their tongues. They move towards me.

4 Shadow
A hot summer evening in the steppe. Maybe in Australia. Crickets chirping. Someone hums. A warm enveloping guitar sound.

5 Lantern Marsh
It is cloudy. The sky is low. Nothing is happening.

6 Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills)
Birds flying around making noises. Sheep. Where are the frogs? A short animal sound symphony.

7 A Clearing
More animal sounds. In the water.

8 Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960
Piano echoes. Like played in the water. We are floating.

Some quotes from Eno and another contributor on the album:

On the origin of the music from the liner notes:

The choice of sonic elements in these places arose less from
listening to music than from listening to the world in a
musical way. When I was in Ghana, for instance, I took with
me a stereo microphone and a cassette recorder, ostensibly to
record indigenous music and speech patterns. What I sometimes
found myself doing instead was sitting out on the patio in the
evenings with the microphone placed to pick up the widest
possible catchment of ambient sounds from all directions, and
listening to the result on my headphones. The effect of this
simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate
sounds into one aural frame; they became music.

On the instrumentation and the sampled sounds (liner notes):

As I made these pieces, I began to take a different attitude
towards both the materials and the procedures I was using. I
found the synthesizer, for example, of limited usefulness
because its sound tended towards a diagrammatic rather than an
organic quality. My instrumentation shifted gradually through
electro-mechanical and acoustic instruments towards
non-instruments like pieces of chain and sticks and stones.
Coupled with this transition was an increasing interest in
found sound as a completely plastic and malleable material; I
never felt any sense of obligation about realism. I this
category I included not only recordings of rooks, frogs and
insects, but also the complete body of my own earlier work.
As a result, some earlier pieces I worked on became digested
by later ones, which in turn became digested again. The
technique is like composting: converting what would otherwise
have been waste into nourishment.

On the ideas behind and reverb:

I became interested in inventing places for sounds. I often listen to music and get a picture of a certain time of day, a certain type of light. I did that with On Land: for each piece I had an image of a time of day. On Land is specifically dedicated to the idea of creating places in music. It's a record that very much celebrates the special things you can do in a recording studio. Obviously, echoes are evocative because they remind you of places. But the echoes on On Land aren't like anything that could possibly exist. On some of these things I'm using 70-second reverbs. Nothing like that exists in nature or in artifact; even the Taj Mahal, which has very long reverberation, is only about 12 seconds. Nonetheless, [the 70-second decay] is evocative of a type of space. It's dramatized, just like Fellini amplifies the lady's breasts.

Bill Laswell who plays bass on Lizard Point on the featured sounds:

Laswell would later tell writer/composer David Toop of the experience helping Eno in the studio one summer in New York: “We would go to Canal Street and we’d buy junk—those hoses you twirl around—and gravel, put it in a box and put reverb on it. All these weird things to make sounds. We’d be in this bathroom with these overhead mikes, making sounds for days.”

Here is the overview of the series 40 years, 40 albums of which part XVII was this post.


alex! i am surprised... and delighted too. i'm really glad you found something of value in this work. i think it's easily his most fully realized ambient release, no matter what the ideas behind his version of ambient supposedly are. now, if only i could convince you about music for airports...

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