More Obscure Musics

LIGHTNESS: Music for the Marble Palace

By Malcolm Humes

In a year when Eno has already had a couple of unusual releases with his international release The Drop and the limited edition gallery CD for the White Cube installation, this new Eno CD, "Lightness: Music for the Marble Palace, The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg" comes as a bit of a surprise. No else I know even knows it exists or has seen or heard a copy. My copy was a gift, purchased for me at the exhibit in St. Petersburg.

This may already be one of Eno's rarest works. Apparently it was only sold at the exhibition, which was only slated to run from November through mid-December 1997, and presumably is limited in numbers. Like the White Cube CD this is not a numbered limited edition. It has scarcely any liner notes. The only possible leads on sourcing a copy of this is to write to the Opal UK or Opal-Bravo addresses on the back of the CD. Or to send a friend to the museum in St. Petersburg in hopes of finding a copy there. [Tom Boon butts in: See our news page for ordering information].

Lightness front

Musically it has been an interesting year for Eno. Despite his claims in recent years that he's hesitatant to contribute to the "already obscene piles of CDs" out there in the marketplace he's managed to release three CDs this year that are all quite different, yet which could be seen as a trilogy of exploration of his recent obsessions with generative music systems. It's hard to say whether Opal or Eno considers the gallery installation CDs to be official releases. The White Cube CD didn't appear on the press release CV that was produced for the Drop promotions. The rarity and difficulty in obtaining the White Cube CD caused the price to shoot from 30 pounds UK to over 50 pounds.

Opal and Eno don't seem to be talking about this new CD at all, so I assume it's merely intended as a footnote. It's a gallery souvenir that's perhaps not intended to be taken in a context of its own as a music CD, but rather as a snapshot of the exhibit, to provoke memories of it. It's a shame, because clearly there's a hungry audience for Eno's work. Even if he doesn't want to deal with low volume sales via a label and standard distribution it's obvious that Opal could sell a lot more of these if they wanted. One can only wonder why Opal doesn't do direct mail-order of limited CD pressings, or offer a subscription service of a couple of CDs a year of works in progress. Apparently Eno doesn't want to dilute the market, doesn't want to offer too many choices of his music to his audience, or something like that. Consequently two of his best ambient works in years have seen only limited release as collectors' items, not even marketed in a way that makes them particularly available to collectors.

So what does Lightness sound like? There are two pieces, 32 and 25 minutes long. The liner notes say the music on the CD " a 1-hour selection of a hypothetically endless piece." The music for the exhibition was apparently generated by three CD players, presumably jumpling random tracks to produce a layered justaposition of the content of those three discs. This is similar to the concept used for the White Cube installation, but the content is quite different. For the White Cube the source material was raw tones made from manipulated street recordings of Brian's voice. The source material here appears to be all synthesizers, and is presumably created with Koan Pro from SSEYO. The White Cube and Lightness both explore taking the generative concepts in Koan Pro to another level by layering more than two stereo pairs of sound sources, via multiple CD players. The techniques are not new to Eno -- as early as 1988 he was doing sound sculptures for his video installations by using multiple cassette players looping and layering. For this sort of additive synthesis Eno relies on the cycling of repetitive elements that are complementary, but cycling them in random juxtapositions that create seemingly infinite and ever-changing variations. You can hear many of the elements that repeat, but the juxtapositions of some of those elements may occur very infrequently, creating a piece of music that never really begins or ends but which has clearly identifiable elements that make it a recognizable "piece" of music.

Lightness is a more glistening and pretty work than White Cube or The Drop. It's optimistic. It has a slightly uneasy quality. It sounds a lot like Eno has come full circle, doing Fripp&Eno-like ambience again, but he and Fripp are at other ends of the spectrum, creating very similar musics -- this and some of Fripp's Soundscapes would be almost undistinguishable to someone who'd never heard either before, but Eno is finding his inspiration in randomness and machine generated music and Fripp via his precision, musicianship and effects boxes.

Mal, December 1997

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