INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Capital New York JANUARY 10, 2012 - by Charles Petersen
A LITTLE BIT COUNTRY, A LITTLE BIT SPACEY AT TRIBUTE TO BRIAN ENO'S AMBIENT CURIOSITY 'APOLLO'
Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks isn't the most famous or the most popular of the many ambient albums Brian Eno made in the legendarily productive run between Another Green World (1975) and Music For Films III (1988). Yet the crowd gathered to hear a new interpretation of that album at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden series on Friday night seemed a bit perplexed when John Schaefer, host of WNYC's New Sounds, and the city's unofficial arbiter of all things musically out-there, casually referred to it as "Brian Eno's country album" in his introduction to the performance.
As the musicians, a low-key supergroup that included Mike Gordon, the bassist for Phish; Larry Campbell, the longtime bandleader for Bob Dylan; and Itsnotyouitsme, an up-and-coming Brooklyn ambient duo, filed in, Schaefer's preface took shape. (Jeff Parker, guitarist for Tortoise, David Torn, the legendary effects guitarist, and Noveller, Sarah Lipsate's one-woman ambient group, would later make appearances.) Was that a pedal steel guitar on stage? Did the program guide really refer to "raw virtuosic guitar" - in relation to an album that rarely rises above a foreboding hum? Was this the right concert?
Then Campbell, whose long brown hair makes him look like Boston guitarist Tom Scholz circa 1976, sat down at the pedal steel and plucked out the three ominous descending notes that anyone who's heard Apollo undoubtedly associates with the record. I was, at least momentarily, won over. Eno had created those notes, I always assumed, with some vintage synthesizer and about ten layers of studio trickery; to hear them produced live, by an instrument more associated with Merle Haggard than anyone in the electronic world, was a revelation.
After the concert I asked David Spelman, the impresario for the New York Guitar Festival, which this event kicked off, how he and the musicians had figured out that a guitar, much less a pedal steel, was behind those notes.
"Who knows," he said, laughing, "it may well not have been. But I didn't want these guys to recreate the album note-for-note." As for why he picked Apollo, which on most tracks sounds like it might not have involved any guitars at all, to kick off the Guitar Festival, he said, "It's fun to do the not so obvious thing. I think of it as such a guitar record, but not in a Van Halen kind of way."
As the performance went on, Mike Gordon 'played' his part by banging the back of his bass with his fists; after a moment's delay, you heard the odd background rumbling that, on the record, sounded like Eno had recorded in some broken down HVAC system. All of the musicians showed a similarly deep knowledge of the more obscure abilities of their instruments - Sarah Lipsate drawing a warm glow from her guitar with a violin bow, David Torn on full-time feedback duty, and Grey Mcmurray of itsnotyouitsme apparently playing above the fretboard. If not, thankfully, a note-for-note reproduction, and if Eno clearly got to his end results through rather different means, the concert proved that one can produce this music with guitars. And that seemed to be Spelman's basic point in choosing an ambient piece for the opening of the Guitar Festival: to demonstrate just how much a guitar can do - to take the most rock-identified instrument in the world, and show how it can be used to create the most un-rock music imaginable.
But while the opening blew me away, the rest of the concert was less sure-footed. Schaefer said in the introduction that this would be the first ever live performance of Apollo. That's not quite true - Apollo has been performed several times over the past few years in England and Ireland - but it's true that, ever since Bang On A Can did a live version of Music For Airports, Eno's best-known ambient record, in 2007 (they'd recorded a version ten years before), it's become something of a trend to try to perform his most stubbornly studio-based music live. Though this wasn't the first live outing for Apollo, it is still among the vanguard.
It's hard to see why this trend's taken root, though. There's a good reason these records were made in the studio - ambient is among the trickiest of genres, and certainly (as the very name suggests) the most likely to devolve into nothing more than pretty sounds or boring noise, the awful New Age music that most listeners assume anything going by the name of "ambient" must be.
In the 1980s, Eno remarked of Apollo, originally recorded as the soundtrack for a movie about NASA's moon landings, that it had "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." At its best, as in the early parts of the Winter Garden concert, a live performance of an ambient record lets you hear the reverberating tones of the melodic themes in the kind of cavernous space where they can mix together (and at volumes you can't achieve at home). At its worst, a live ambient perform sounds like the soup is somewhat underdone; the foreground flavors haven't mixed with the background, and just one or two come to the fore. That was certainly the case as the musicians waded into the album's later, more country-tinged tunes, Deep Blue Day and Weightless.
Schaefer was right that these tracks have a country influence, but on the record they've been run through enough equipment that it's easy to forget where the basic melodies come from. Maybe I'll be the first person in history to complain that an ambient performance focused too much on the melody, but that was the basic problem here. The effects guitarists who had dominated the beginning of the performance faded into the background, or simply joined in on the country-inflected jamming. As a result, instead of sounding like a strange country radio station heard from about ten million miles away, these tracks came off as the somewhat less inspired source material.
Back in the '80s, Eno himself had something to say about the country influences on Apollo: "What I find impressive about [country] is that it's very concerned with space in a funny way. Its sound is the sound of a mythical space, the mythical American frontier space that doesn't really exist anymore. That's why on Apollo I thought it very appropriate, because it's very much like 'space music.'"
Campbell, in an interview with Schaefer on WNYC on Thursday night, agreed: "As anyone who's ever played the pedal steel can tell you, you start learning this thing and you realize that you're only scratching the surface when you're learning all those great country licks. The possibilities inherent in this thing are limitless. It's mechanical, you're bending, raising, and lowering notes mechanically, while holding other notes. And 'space music' is crying out for that."
The pedal steel does seem inherently unlimited in creating tones that far outstrip its most common use as window-dressing on country tunes. Campbell himself showed the transcending capabilities of the instrument at the opening of this performance. Yet in Eno's hands, that country influence, though it's the through-line for all of Apollo, never manages to overwhelm the mood of the music, the space it creates between the earth and the heavens. It's a delicate balance, and its success is part of the reason we hold Eno in such high regard today. This performance reached heavenward, but mainly stayed rooted to terra firma.
Still, getting a large audience excited about a seminal album of a genre that doesn't always get its due - the Winter Garden was packed with people, many of them, apparently, Phish fans, since Gordon received by far the most cheers - is something that anyone who follows this hard-to-love but richly rewarding music can't really complain about.