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"...I want to make a kind of music that had the Long Now and the Big Here..."
April 22, 2012 10:24 PM   Subscribe

Imaginary Landscapes (1989): a visually hypnotic and impressionistic portrait of musician Brian Eno, directed by Duncan Ward and Gabriella Cardazzo. (40 mins.)
posted by Neilopolis (20 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Only part way through the video, I found the first disagreement I've ever had with Eno's take on music (amusing, because he technically uttered the statement a couple of years before I knew who Brian Eno was). In his view, a synthesizer only "needs" five or six useful or amazing settings in place of its infinite options, whereas a guitar has five possible settings.

Infinite settings means as much opportunity for amazing sound combinations as it does allow for bad ones. I think Eno may have since recanted his statement, but it was surprising to hear him come down so hard on a tool he so heavily favors.
posted by Graygorey at 10:41 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Eno was reacting against modular synthesizers and how easy it is to get lost in the gear-nerdery of them.

Eno used the EMS VCS3 heavily, and then the Yamah DX7. Both instruments have more than five or six settings, but vastly fewer than a Moog modular or a modern Eurorack system.

The underlying problem may be the term "synthesizer" - there is more difference between a VCS3 and a DX7 than there is between a flute and a violin.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:59 PM on April 22, 2012


Thanks, good watch and listen... He is excellent and interesting. Too much so, he must be anhilliated.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:16 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed this film. He is an inspiring person.
He must be interesting to converse with. I think sitting down with
a cup of coffee and Brian Eno would be very enjoyable.
...A rainy day all to myself and a copy of Neroli have melted away
many of my problems.
posted by quazichimp at 12:33 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think of Brian Eno in the same way I think of that character in the Jorge Luis Borges story "The Utopia of A Tired Man"-- the character who gives the narrator a gift, a mostly yellow painting, painted in colors that his eyes can not yet see.
posted by at the crossroads at 1:34 AM on April 23, 2012


Previously: A previous Brian Eno documentary Metafilter post.

I actually met Eno once while riding an elevator. Between the first couple floors he was pretty wild; half-man, half-woman. Sometime around the third floor he began to experiment with the other people on the elevator. He asked us to imagine what it would be like to go to a floor we didn't pick. He asked us to push buttons for other people on the elevator. On the fourth floor Eno demanded that we all be quiet, and just listen to the sound of the elevator. Bono got on at the fifth floor. On the sixth floor, Eno seemed obsessed with aspects of the elevator I had never thought of before. He got off on the seventh floor.

Very much still a memorable elevator ride for me.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:45 AM on April 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


I actually met Eno once while riding an elevator.

Not surprising. Doesn't he write music for them?
posted by hal9k at 3:35 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Infinite settings means as much opportunity for amazing sound combinations as it does allow for bad ones.

I think his point is more about the paralyzing, novelty-fostering aspects of infinite settings, and how it's better to pick a few points of articulation and develop a virtuosity within those points than to have an unlimited set of options that one never learns to use in a way that allows for growth.

The guitar is inherently a horribly limited and sonically dull instrument that gets all of its lyrical, expressive qualities from manipulation and articulation, but synthesists too often just get mired in that desire to use every possible tool and every possible sound and end up producing dull, lifeless sound that functions more as a demo reel for their expensive synthesizers than a florid, living work of art. The guys who get it right are people like Charles Cohen, who use their modular as a tool to build a limited instrument that's tuned precisely to their instincts and abilities (including ones they have yet to discover). From there, it's all down to sincerity and play.
posted by sonascope at 4:25 AM on April 23, 2012


The guitar is inherently a horribly limited and sonically dull instrument

Yeah, right. And so is your toy piano.
posted by Wolof at 5:24 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I should have specified the electric guitar, which is primarily what I'm talking about.

Honestly, plug an electric guitar straight into an uncolored amp and see what you hear. This is why guitarists spend lifetimes seeking out the perfect vintage germanium transistor for distortion and the perfect strings, and the perfect pickup, and the perfect amp, and the ideal chain of effects, strung together in the ideal way. The sound of an electric guitar is an oscillator with a great system for articulating notes, but it's what happens to the sound once its picked up that's interesting. It's also why the electric guitar is really the first synthesizer, because it's used as an element in a musical system that works as a gestalt instrument, as opposed. Even when we're presented with what's meant to be a plain, uncolored guitar sound, there's EQ, there's filtering, there's amp selection and pickup tuning.

This is why the guitar is brilliant, not why it's bad. It's an extremely limited waveform source with an intimate form of articulation, which is why effects chains and guitars are invariably tied together. Pair simplicity with convolution and get a lush, complex sound that is eminently under the control of a sincere player.
posted by sonascope at 6:34 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like to put on Music for Airports while I'm working and you can count me as a fan. But I still laugh at the time I told a colleague who it was and he asked if that's the guy who wrote Ambien music.
posted by hal9k at 7:27 AM on April 23, 2012


Where you're coming from is fine, and I admit I took a pretty cheap whack at you there. But you come at these things from your end, and I come from mine. I'm an electric bass player, and my basic sound is a clean one, which I modify with (some) effects. When I use these effects, the instrument is like a trigger — the ordinary sound of the bass is more or less subsumed into an electronic representation of same. If the strings are old, or strings are bad, it doesn't much matter. The pedal puts it out. When I don't run effects, the string goes through the pickup (and the body, bridge, etc.), into the amp and into the speakers. 90% of the time, this is what I am doing. The effected sound is fun, but the major part of what I do comes from the fingers and the strings.

To me, a keyboard synth input lacks the organic quality I'm trying to describe. A piano synth input, no, but so much more complex, yes?
posted by Wolof at 7:31 AM on April 23, 2012


Wolof, I also play the electric bass. I'm still stuck on the sounds my instrument makes of itself and it's amp. I love it when I can find something new that my bass does. Or the fact that each bass has a different feel and tone. I know some day I'll get around to trying effects, after all, I DO so love '60's psychedelia, and the sounds from an echoplex. Right now, however, I'm still discovering this one bit. And that's the feel I get from some of Eno's music. I will admit to loving his pop albums more than his ambient ones, however.
posted by evilDoug at 8:44 AM on April 23, 2012


The idea of using a piano keyboard as a controller for synthesis was a sort of traditional conceit going down the Moog line of design theory, but the Buchla line of thinking almost always avoided basing their controls on those of another, unrelated instrument. It's a conceit to traditionalism that hamstrung synthesis for a number of years, but that's really no longer the case. The Animoog, for instance, uses a positional ribbon interface that allows control that traditional means did not, as does a controller like the Continuum surface or an evolving interface like Orphion.

The guitar, on the other hand, gives you superior control over pitch articulation, basic volume by velocity of the pluck, but virtually no control over waveform, with the exception of a bit of high frequency damping that can be pulled off by a good player and a little burst of inharmonic partials in the pluck. There's an inherent limitation in the degrees of articulation that are available, but Eno's point would be that this is what makes the guitar a great instrument, because the limitations form a sort of liberating constraint—with less to control, you can concentrate on refining your articulation. Until the more recent advances in synthesizer control technologies, you had the opposite issue, which was superior access to timbre, but without a physical tie to that timbre, so people would just get buried in paramenters, even moreso once the DX7 and its ilk discarded knobs as controls, and make music that had a rich palette of timbre, but not much in the way of lyrical expression.
posted by sonascope at 9:14 AM on April 23, 2012


Back in the late 80's when I was a teenager, I went to see an art installation he did called "Latest Flames" at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. You watched the slowly color-changing shapes in the dark and some of the rooms had chairs or couches. I was sitting in the dark watching one of the pieces when this man came and sat next to me. We started a conversation and he asked me what I thought. I said some negative things and some positive things, of this I'm sure, but I don't remember the entire conversation. We ended up having a pretty neat back and forth and I was impressed this person wasn't treating me like a child; rather seemed truly interested in exploring my thoughts on the subject at hand. It was pretty dark, I never got a good look at him. He moved on. I moved on. That was that.

I didn't give it a second thought until later that night we went to the talk he gave at the theatre and at some point he mentioned speaking to me in the dark. I had no idea!

In retrospect I'm glad I didn't know or I would have acted like a complete idiot.
posted by trixare4kids at 10:21 AM on April 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Graygorey: “Only part way through the video, I found the first disagreement I've ever had with Eno's take on music (amusing, because he technically uttered the statement a couple of years before I knew who Brian Eno was). In his view, a synthesizer only "needs" five or six useful or amazing settings in place of its infinite options, whereas a guitar has five possible settings. Infinite settings means as much opportunity for amazing sound combinations as it does allow for bad ones. I think Eno may have since recanted his statement, but it was surprising to hear him come down so hard on a tool he so heavily favors.”

I have to say, as someone who plays piano and organ and sometimes various synth settings, I think I see where he's coming from. Synthesizers aren't actually perfect yet, really. They can sythesize sound, but they can't sythesize feel – I'm looking forward to the next few years, when I'm hoping variable weighting of keys will be possible (if it isn't already, I'm not sure.)

In any case, there are colorations that are so perfect that it's worth spending a lot of time with them. The number of bad or unnecessary sounds is almost infinite, but I've only found a few dozen of those colorations so far, and that's with many years of fiddling with synthesizers (although of course someone who has done it more probably knows a few more.) I mean, take for instance the sound of a Fender Rhodes, which is a whole ambience in itself, a feeling and a tone that admits of all kinds of pleasant manipulation. If you just had five or six synthesized instruments of the quality of the Fender Rhodes inside a synthesizer, it would be plenty to do a whole lot with.
posted by koeselitz at 10:57 AM on April 23, 2012


Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, you have an instrument like the B3, which gives zero feedback and has zero articulation for the notes themselves, where the keys are basically just on/off switches. You can adjust the overall volume with the swell pedal, and you can adjust the harmonic content of the notes with the drawbars, but all notes sound at the same volume as all other notes. The musicianship of a B3, then, is tied to its limitations, but within those constraints, you make some decent music. Hell, you can even do it in periwinkle pumps. Constraints make for good music.
posted by sonascope at 11:43 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


They can sythesize sound, but they can't sythesize feel – I'm looking forward to the next few years, when I'm hoping variable weighting of keys will be possible (if it isn't already, I'm not sure.)
Roland, Yamaha and Korg all have graded hamer-action keyboards. Casio even has some models that feel decent. The bass keys are heavier than the treble keys. I don't think anyone has made a keyboard that is dynamically weighted (that is, controllable real-time like any of the synthesis parameters). But it wouldn't be too hard to construct a force-feedback keybed with a few key and linear motors or hand-wound electromagnets.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:08 PM on April 23, 2012


Yeah, I've met a few of those graded-action keyboards – and they are getting closer to really replicating piano feel.

What I'm interested in is the dynamic thing. I agree, it should be possible; I guess there hasn't been much demand for it, but I feel like there ought to be if people knew it was possible. Adjusting action would be a fine thing to be able to do.

My dream is really to be able to sit down at a keyboard and push a button and have it sound and feel like playing a Fender Rhodes or a Hammond B3 or whatever I want it to. That would be exceedingly cool. And I feel like we're pretty close to making that happen.

Until then, though, I'm sticking with my old Gulbransen player piano. I've got a Hammond in the corner, and it is fun, but for some reason I can't get into it. Guess it's just not my thing. (Also, it's not a B3, so it's not quite as incredible an instrument as the ones you see in those nice videos sonascope posted.)
posted by koeselitz at 2:44 PM on April 23, 2012


A pretty good digital keyboard emulator almost sounds like the real thing with your eyes closed, if you're not a purist...
posted by ovvl at 5:59 PM on April 23, 2012


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