From Sound On Sound, Vol 4 Issue 4, February 1989, conducted by Mark Prendergast.
For easy access to particular areas of interest, click on the appropriate subject heading in this list.
One thing that will shatter the myth that Land Records is just another Ambient label is the release of Drum by Hugo Largo, an American music group featuring violin, two bass guitars, and the scary voice of Mimi Goese. The album is full of strange rhythms and Velvet Underground-like nuances but its strongest characteristic is a spine-tingling atmosphere. Michael Stipe, of trenchant American rock band REM, was so enamoured by the originality of the group's vision that he helped out on the record by contributing instrumentation, production, and a song. How does Anthea see their music in relation to Opal/Land?
Anthea: "They are definitely a performance art band, in that their stage presence is mainly Mimi. She's a theatrical person and very threatening. We have a friend who runs a radio station in Los Angeles, KLRW, which is one of the best American stations. Her name is Deirdre O'Donoghue and she's got this great programme that always features very unusual bands. Anyway, she sends us tapes of her programmes, and on one occasion a tape included a Hugo Largo session. Brian thought they were great, mainly because they don't use any percussion. He said: 'It's amazing that there is a rhythm in it without any drums.' He also thought that Mimi's voice was hauntingly beautiful. It was primarily Brian hearing a tape that wasn't sent to us with a view to getting signed up. It was a nice chance occurrence, in that they were at the time looking for a deal."
What is so exciting about Opal/Land is the diverse abilities of the artists it represents and channels. Responsible for design concepts and overall aesthetics, particularly in sleeve design, is Russell Mills. One of the most gifted fine artists in the country (with two first class honours degrees from Maidstone and The Royal College Of Art), he has often utilised his Dadaist inspired collages and objects in conjunction with popular music. In truth, his degree show at the RCA in 1977 was populated in part with work directly related to Eno's solo album material, and thus was born a creative relationship that continues to this day. (The first zenith of this was the book 'More Dark Than Shark', published by Faber & Faber in 1986 and revealing in detail two highly individual and creative minds from the inside out. Enophiles will note that it gives exhaustive accounts of Brian's education, thinking and experiments, all the way up to the Ambient recordings.)
Opal/Land also represents Jon Hassell, the Memphis-born trumpeter and inventor of Fourth World Music, who was has had a strong impact on Eno's own work.
Born in 1937, Hassell's first interest was the sound of '50s jazz, particularly that of Miles Davis. He then veered into serious academia, acquiring a PhD in musicology and even taking in the difficult Gregorian chant along the way. In 1965, he went off to Cologne to study electronic music with Stockhausen and there met Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt (who would later found Can, probably the most important group to ever come out of mainland Europe). After that hefty experience he returned to America and the minimilism of La Monte Young, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. The latter turned Hassell on to Indian music, specifically its strange vocalisations and meters.
In 1972, he journeyed to northern India with La Monte Young and others to study with a guru and turn his musical world upside down. Despite important American recordings with Riley and Young and numerous heavyweight installations, it was Possible Musics: Fourth World, Vol I (EG Records) with Eno that pushed him directly into the European limelight. Here was a man utilising the trumpet with digital delay, echo, and a bank of electronics to sound like nothing anybody had heard before. Raga, African, Arabic and more were all folded into the richest of rhythms and textures. This meeting was to directly influence Eno's overtly commercial translation of ethnic music on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (EG 1981) with Talking Heads' David Byrne - an unfortunate piece of work that borrowed willy-nilly from others and ended up sounding more pap than interesting. Hassell was so outraged that he went into print in Andy Warhol's Interview in a full-scale broadside against Eno's methods and lack of musical pedigree. Fortunately, the differences were ironed out, as Eno contributed to Hassell's next two albums, Dream Theory In Malaya (EG 1981) and Power Spot (EG 1986) both recorded in Grant Avenue studios, Ontario with the engineering/production benefits of Daniel Lanois. I enquired of Anthea about Hassell's critical stance and obvious desire for proper recognition in his own right.
Anthea: " He's critical towards everybody. But he never did pop music and Brian has always said to Jon that: 'I quite agree, you deserve all the acclaim you want, but Pop is called Pop because lots of people hear it, and you've never done anything which appeals to that number of people.' You see, what Brian did in 1972 with Roxy Music, and with Bowie and Talking Heads, was all very commercial."
Eno went into print in 1986 and described Hassell's music as " powerful, beautiful, exotic and crammed with new ideas." He described him as "more than a gifted composer but an inventor of new forms of music of new ideas of what music could be, and how it might be made ... What's really impressive is the naturalness of the work. Far too often 'intellectual' composers produce 'intellectual music' arid, cold and unsensual, as if avoiding the mysterious, the intuitive, and the passionate ... There is no such timidity in Hassell's music, it is drawn from his own being and, by implication, from his whole cultural experience without fear or prejudice. It is an optimistic, global vision that suggests not only possible musics but possible futures."
As well as such a great artist as Jon Hassell, Opal represents John Paul Jones, Michael Brook, and Laraaji. Jones, of course, was bass/ keyboards man with Led Zeppelin for years. After that group called it a day in 1980 (save for the 1985 Live Aid appearance), he went back to his Devonian homeland and built a 24 track studio for film and television projects. According to Opal Info No.8: "He has written music which has more accurately reflected his diverse tastes and skills - computer composition, digital sound sampling, exotic and folk musics and environmental sound."
Michael Brook is best known through his collaborative work with Eno/Lanois in Grant Avenue, Canada, on various albums. His first solo release, Hybrid (EG 1985), showed off his great understanding of rhythm and ethnic/trance effects. His biggest effect was on U2's The Edge, whose guitar style owes a lot to Brook's invention of the 'Infinite Guitar'.
Michael Brook: "The use of note bending and ornamentation in Indian and Arabic music has always been a fascinating and attractive thing to me. For quite a few years I had been trying to incorporate and augment these elements in my guitar playing by using a compressor and fuzz, both of which can increase sustain. This allowed me to play short melodies by bending or slurring between notes, rather than actually picking each individual note. In the early stages of making Hybrid, I heard about a device that could electronically increase sustain. I sent away for it, hoping that this would allow me to use more of these techniques. After a long wait and still no Gizmo, I thought that perhaps it would be possible to make something myself, and began experimenting. Surprisingly, there were some encouraging results quite quickly. And after a few 'Frankenstein' stages, in which my guitar looked like the aftermath of an accident in a junk shop, the cosmetically innocuous 'Infinite Guitar' evolved. By having infinite sustain, which is to say that as long as a finger holds the string down a note will sound, it was now possible to play arbitrarily long ornamented passages, and this became a prime element in my playing. There are longterm plans to market the 'Infinite Guitar' but, for the present, music projects have not allowed time to develop a manufacturable version, and only three models exist. Daniel Lanois and The Edge each have one - myself the other."
Brook has a special relationship with Roger Eno, in that they love performing together and do it often. In fact, Brook is the producer credited on Between Tides.
To many, the other artist mentioned above, Laraaji, is a complete mystery. Even in Eno discographies, many writers miss out on Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance (EG 1980), where Laraaji utilised his electronic zither to create a music that is both ancient, futuristic and mystical. Born Edward Gordon in Philadelphia in 1943, he was into every aspect of music when young, from the violin to choirs, from Chopin to Broadway. After studying music in Washington, he acted for a bit before joining the '70s jazz rock upsurge. All this time Laraaji was looking for a spiritual outlet and found it through the autoharp, Gamelan percussion, and the hypnotic music of Steve Reich. Acquiring his own outlet in New York, he released his first LP, Celestial Vibration , played his 'trance music' for all manner of serious groups, and one day was noticed in Washington Square Park by Eno, lost in a trance over his zither. Due to this chance meeting Laraaji has been an important element in Opal (the only black musician involved) and the performance evenings so popular in Spain last year and, more recently, in Berlin, Los Angeles and London.
Jones, Brook and Laraaji are all represented on Music For Films III, undoubtedly the most daring of the new Opal/Land releases. Given its huge range and interesting contents, below is set out a track listing and information with some appraisals:
NOTE: The CD version contains two extra tracks: Theme For 'Opera' by Brian and Roger Eno together, and Asian River by Brian Eno. Both produced by the latter in Suffolk, 1986/1987 respectively .
I think the most intriguing aspect of Music For Films III is the inclusion of the Russian piece, 'For Her Atoms'. In fact, Opal are at the moment spearheading the coming together of Russian and Western musics in a way that befits the current Soviet 'glasnost'. The recording came about as a response to a small article on the Theremin that appeared in Opal Information No 7 in December 1987. Moreover, Anthea Norman Taylor has worked hard at establishing a strong bond with Russian musicians, the authorities, and the media there.
In November 1986 Art Troitsky, the leading Soviet rock expert responsible for the definitive book 'Back In The USSR - The True Story Of Rock In Russia' (Omnibus Press), came to London and met Eno and the people at Opal. Through him and the relentless efforts of Anthea, a TV satellite link was put together in April of this year between rock musicians/ personalities in the West and those in Russia.
Chaired by Troitsky in Leningrad and Eno in London, the event was one of great cultural exchange. Opened by a film clip of Eno explaining differences to U2 guitarist, The Edge between the word 'rock' in Russia and 'rock' here, there followed a lively talk interspersed with recordings of mostly Soviet groups in action. The Western team of Eno, Paul McGuinness, Peter Gabriel, Chrissie Hynde and Mark Cox spoke to the pianist and founder of Pop Mechanics (an amorphous group of up to possibly 70 people which melds rock, folk, jazz classical and 'industrial' music) Sergei Kuryokhin, the poet/singer Boris Grebechikov (leader of famed 'underground' band Aquarium); Sasha Lipnisky (of art group Zvuki Mu); and Anton Adasinsky (musician/dancer/choreographer with constructivist outfit Avia). This strange amalgam directly stemmed from ordinary Russian peoples' liking for Eno's music and through Opal's persuasion of Gosteleradio (the Russian State TV organisation) to be involved. So how did it evolve?
Anthea: "Well, I've been there nine times. It started because I went on holiday to Russia like lots of people do, and just before I went I got this letter from an English girl who'd been living in Leningrad for ages, enclosing a present for Brian from some fans of his in Leningrad. I thought 'Wow! People have heard of Brian in Russia.' At the time I thought it was extraordinary but I've since discovered that they are really well educated, and those who are interested have discovered everything - the newest of bands and the smallest of scenes over here. Anyway, she gave me the numbers of a whole lot of people in Leningrad, and so when I got there about two years ago I phoned one of them up. At that time it was a very risky thing to do, because you weren't supposed to make contact - you weren't supposed to go out on your own or see somebody, least of all go around to their homes. So I phoned up the first person on my list and he said come around right away. I did and I managed to get a map, which was a lot of trouble, and found my way there. It was so exciting. There were a whole lot of people there and a real sort of scene going down. They talked quite a lot and through Misha Mahlin (who spoke English), l heard about the 'unofficial musicians' and what life was like there. It's a very hard life and what impressed me was that there was no complaint attached to it. They were really full of life and spirit and fully into their work. They have this great sense of community and people share themselves, their equipment and happily swap roles in each others' bands. And they painted, played music and acted at the same time. I was so excited I went back about two months later, spent more time and discovered more of the people. One of the musicians suggested a TV bridge, because Russians love TV bridges."
And so it happened, an historic occurrence that will have obvious repercussions for years to come. In fact, the next Land release is an album of Armenian folk music that Eno chose from a bundle of records given to him as a gift. It will be titled Music From Armenia by Djivan Gasparyan. Opal have strengthened links with Russia by organising a facility for more Russian underground groups to perform there, as well as giving the opportunity to British bands of experiencing Soviet culture at first hand. Whatever the upshot, Eno will most definitely be going there to produce an album by Zvuki Mu in the near future. Plans are also afoot to arrange an exhibition of his sound and light sculptures in an appropriate venue.
The success of Opal and the endless creativity of its artists reflects Eno's primary role as a late 20th century artist. He has always been better as a 'behind the scenes' man, carefully adding and guiding those with more talent to the best possible outcome. His own non-musicality in the rigorous sense has led to necessary eclecticism, one that is amply demonstrated by the diversity in output, artistic personality and involvement that is implied by Opal. By avoiding the trap of 'fame for fame's sake' and relegating his own personality to the sidelines, he has side-stepped the illusion of feeding off one's past, no matter how glorious it might be. With the days of Roxy Music long behind him, Eno can breathe comfortably in the light of his friends. Both Michael Brook and Daniel Lanois are soon to release albums. Roger Eno is now interested in the country music of Texas, which should generate some unexpected results. Jon Hassell has a new record available on Intuition with African group Farafina, entitled Flash Of The Spirit. And so it goes on.
Eno's main interest is still audio-visual/light exhibits like 'Latest Flames' (recently in Santa Monica) and 'Relics, Charms and Living Rooms' (recently in Berlin). Surprisingly, one thing that Eno has done of late is to return to the vocal arena (he was last heard singing on After The Heat (Sky 1978), through his recording of The Byrds song 'You Don't Miss Your Water' for the new Jonathan Demme film 'Married To The Mob' which, of course, is also available on soundtrack album.
Back in August, Eno was busy launching Land Records in America, giving talks and lectures and generally enjoying a healthy response to his ideas and art. Below is a selection of some interesting points he raised during a radio interview with Gail Eichental of Radio KUSC, Los Angeles.
On Harold Budd: Eno: "What I took from Harold was his improvising style of what he was doing. I was never interested in improvisation really before, but I liked very much his approach to starting with a very small set of possibilities and then improvising around them. I like the way he does that, you know. He works within a kind of restricted palette but then he tries all the combinations of it. That was certainly an influence on me. I suppose my influence on him was saying 'sound is the thing' as well, you know. That when you're making records you're creating places; you're creating musical places for people to go to. When we were working together those two roles were quite well established. By and large he made the music, I the sound. There was a little bit of overlap: sometimes I would suggest editing something or repeating a passage, and sometimes he would suggest some aspect of sound."
On the effect of childhood: Eno: "As a child I developed certain games for myself and they were personal games, things I did on my own. Many of the characteristics of those games are identical really to what I'm interested in now. One of the games was the 'making special places' game, where I think the first creative or imaginative thing I can remember doing is designing the house I was going to live in when I grew up. My houses always had certain characteristics, like they always somehow interfaced with nature they would have a waterfall going through the middle, or they would straddle a gorge, or there would be a tree growing up through the middle of them, or they were built onto rocks and the rocks would protrude into the house. The other thing about the houses was that they had lots of secret passages ... I used to do what I recall as being fairly detailed drawings of these things ... Well, this idea of making special places, of course, is something that I think I'm quite consciously trying to do when I make music, and one of the reasons I don't release records very often I haven't released one now for a couple of years or more is because I feel I don't want to release the same place again. It would be very easy to do that ... I guess it would be different if I were making individual paintings, where you make one thing that is therefore not available to other people. If you're making records, it's not true in fact. In theory, they are always available."
On working on the edge of art and music: Eno: "Well, that's how I get my thrills. I really like somehow plunging myself into a dilemma of some kind that demands a lot of senses to be working at once: a sense of balance, a sense of longterm picture of the thing, what's going to happen next, and then after that and after that. A sense of place, you know, of where does this fit in the world of things? Does it fit? Maybe it makes a new space for itself. Another sense that's very important is: what am I doing now that I could never do before? What is special about this moment that I can bring to bear on this piece of work? I mean, people are always talking about loss of innocence ... Well, you only lose your innocence if you keep doing the same thing. If you're doing something that you don't understand, then you're still innocent ... It's a sort of frontier mentality I suppose."
While Eno was in America recently, I addressed some written questions pertinent to this feature. An extract from this correspondence is printed below. Firstly, I enquired as to whether Land Records was an optimum extension of the ideas Eno had when he set up the Obscure label through Island Records, and the Ambient series with EG Records later that decade?
Eno: "First of all, I have to say that the formation of the two record labels, Land Records for the UK and Opal Records for the rest of the world, was not my idea, it was Anthea's. Secondly, there is no connection with Obscure or Ambient - Obscure was a label I formed with a set objective, i.e. to release records that would not otherwise have been released in the pre-indie climate of 1975. Ambient was not so much a label as a term I coined for my exploring music that was as 'ignorable as it was interesting'. Both these identities had finite lives. Opal does not have a fixed objective or image in either of the above senses."
The inevitable question of New Age music came up, Eno being credited or otherwise by many as paving the way for the present deluge of aural wallpaper. It elicited the most interesting of responses.
Eno: "I had an awful experience of New Age music the other day. I was being driven to Montrose Airport (Colorado) early in the morning. It was a two-and-ahalf hour drive and the man driving was someone who just would not stop talking to me, despite my polite attempts to make him see that I preferred quiet. After about an hour and a half of New Age babble (crystals, homeopathy, sacred geometry, etc) without me responding, he eventually put on a Private Music sampler. The remainder of the journey was a similar torture. I never met a man more terrified by silence. Maybe 'New Age' is a response to this modern condition. Usually, I have New Age forced on me in some way or another, i.e. as just stated, and generally I find it spineless and too 'secure'. There is no thrill for the listener. However, like any other category of music, eg. 'classical', 'jazz', 'pop' or whatever, of course there is good and bad. In the New Age case, however, there is more bad than good because of the mindless use of electronics that current technology has given birth to - it has become very easy for anyone to produce a tape of blurring noises mixed with 'pretty' sounds and call it New Age. I realise I am partly responsible for this and regret the misunderstanding. Still, it is not the category that matters (New Age, World Music, etc) but the spirit in which it is made."
"One last point on this subject - it is not generally the artist but the critic/ journalist who finds it necessary to pigeon-hole. This may be why few reviews are given of my installations - the newspaper editor has no section under which to place the review. He is lost if he has no 'label', and therefore ignores it."
Did he enjoy the Opal-Link Leningrad?
Eno: "Yes, I enjoyed it, although it was a petrifying experience - how do you make an interesting conversation between a group of 12 people? However, it worked mainly thanks to the Russians, who have not yet seemingly adopted our idea that conversation is only good when everyone agrees with each other. I mainly felt that they have something different going on there which (with our wont for categories) is being called 'Rock'. But it is, in fact, a far broader-reaching thing than that; it is a complex and fascinating attitude to life."
Given the turbulent circumstances under which Eno was writing these answers, no scope was readily available for more elucidation. He admitted to wanting to investigate the orchestral side of music further. He also negated the whole idea that Land Records was for music that was technology-based. In fact, his dismissive attitude towards technology was neatly summarised by "I am not interested in this 'per se'. I like the fax machine a lot."
As to the future of Opal/Land and implicitly his own creativity, the following sentence says it all.
Eno: "There is absolutely no intention of developing in any given way. I am the spider who has made this web and I just wait and see what it attracts."
Eno's interest in electronics and technology has always been idiosyncratic. Never one to utilise a new piece of machinery when an old one will do, his interest has always been the perspective of the user rather than what's being used. For Eno it's always the intention that defines the outcome. 'Invention being the mother of necessity' being a favourite maxim of his. In September 1987, Opal Information published a letter from Eno to an interested music student on the use of electronics in his work. It opened with this stimulating paragraph:
Eno: "The first thing to say about my work is that I've almost always preferred a mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments over pure electronics. When I have used just electronic sources, I've always undermined their simplicity and purity by sending them through all sorts of treatments - out through loudspeakers, recorded through curious archaic microphones, then on into echo device, and time-modulation treatments. It wasn't just perversity that led me to construct such labyrinthine signal paths for those poor sounds: it was an attempt to introduce some of the complexity of character that real instruments naturally have without necessarily copying real instruments."
From there he goes on to describe the predictability of synthesisers compared to the complexity of the piano. "That complexity is exactly what makes it possible for me to sit at the instrument for half an hour just playing the same note - because it isn't making the same noise, and the evolution of sound in time is of great interest to me." Humorously, he goes on to elucidate on how he uses synths.
Eno: "If you're using electronics there are two ways to approach this type of complexity. One is to use extremely sophisticated synthesizers, which was never a course open to me because I can't stand reading handbooks and I don't like spending money on ugly great heaps of integrated circuits. The second is to use unreliable equipment, which is much cheaper and more enjoyable. In the category of 'unreliable equipment' I would include all the conventional musical instruments. In my case (with synthesizers and electronics) what this meant was making complex signal paths within which many of the components were in a condition of continuous variability, ie. were nearly broken or were programmed to vary around a certain value."
Discreet Music (Obscure 1975) has recently been re-issued with a lovely still from Eno's Manhattan video series. Its soothing organic music, as if one were listening to classical music in a fog, has improved by leagues with age. Today, it sounds better than ever. A cornerstone record in so many ways, Eno considers his attitude towards electronics in relation to its creation:
Eno: "The diagram on the album cover doesn't tell you that the synthesizer itself had a few interesting quirks - the tuning was not stable, for example. Also, I was continually varying the waveform mix of the synthesizer: the old EMS synths offered two or three waveforms from each oscillator, so l was making a moving mix between square, triangle and sine waves. This resulted in a continuous timbral shift from the instruments, which I exaggerated by altering the filter frequency a little every now and then. From the EMS, I went into a graphic equaliser for more sound-shaping. I suppose a graphic is really a way of introducing something like a formant into a sound - a very important area of acoustics that synthesizer manufacturers have generally overlooked. After the graphic, the sound went into a shakey old Gibson echo unit, the type with a continuous ribbon of tape being driven around five rather dirty, worn playback heads. Tape echoes are very important devices, because the type of degradation they introduce into a sound is quite organic - typically, they introduce a characteristic emphasis or de-emphasis to the repetitions of the sound in exactly the type of fashion that a real reverberant location might. It takes a lot of electronics to simulate a dirty tape head. Anyway, after these several types of distortion, the signal was subjected to one more form of echo - the long delay echo on two Revoxes. This process also introduces a frequency bias which is certainly partly responsible for the sense of great distance that is somehow applied in the acoustic of that record."
It is well known that Eno still has hundreds of hours of unused tape in his private library and, as outlined in the book 'More Dark Than Shark', the making of records such as On Land (EG 1982) involved feeding unheard tape into the mix, constant feeding and remixing, subtracting and "composting". In reality no-one will ever fully understand Eno's methods of working in the studio and how they produce results. As he says himself in the letter with regard to 1983's Apollo: Soundtracks (EG): "...so many processings and reprocessings - it's a bit like making soup from the leftovers of the day before, which in turn was made from leftovers..." In the end, he concluded his own thoughts on the subject with: "It is more important that I tell you the overall approach - that of creating and capitalising on situations of continual variation - than give precise details."
© Mark Prendergast 1989. Interview included in our archive with Mark's kind permission. His excellent encyclopaedic book The Ambient Century is now available find out more here.