Impetus APRIL/MAY 1976 - by Kenneth Ansell


One of the most encouraging events of the past couple of years has been the way in which one man was able to convince a major commercial record label to underwrite a label promoting entirely avant garde (and mostly classical) music. This is what Brian Eno managed to convince Island records to do. And the result was Obscure Records which he looks after single-handedly. The next most encouraging sign-post was that Obscure Records sold more copies than Island expected and has thus 'established' itself in that company's eyes.

I spent an afternoon recently chatting with Eno about the label, and about the state of the music his label caters for and many interesting points about the label were brought to light. These are the results of that conversation.

Why did you decide to set up Obscure Records?

Brian Eno: The first thing was hearing Gavin Bryars' piece Jesus' Blood. I was very impressed by both that and The Sinking Of The Titanic although at that time I hadn't heard Titanic, I just knew what it was about. This was nearly three years ago (probably more), and I took Jesus' Blood to island Records with Gavin and we tried to persuade them to release it. I thought that not only was it a very nice piece of music and a very interesting one, it was also a commercial one, so I thought that it would be possible to interest them. However, (happily, in a sense, as it turned out) they weren't particularly interested in releasing it. It wasn't the kind of thing that they had any means of promoting. It wasn't at all like anything else they were releasing at the time so the project kind of slipped by the board.

As time went on I became aware of the fact that I could find very few records that I was actually interested in listening to. I used to enjoy listening to records but I would walk into record shops and not actually find any that I was interested in buying. So as this problem became more and more apparent, and as it seemed to me that there was a more important area that still wasn't being catered for commercially. I re-suggested the idea to Island and they gave me a trial budget. This was for a year and to cover the first five albums, in fact, and I made seven albums with that money so they were quite pleased from that point of view. On top of that they sold quite well, better than Island expected them to and they covered or just about covered their costs as a whole unit. Island were surprised at that I think because they didn't consider the music very commercial at all. I thought that although it wasn't commercial now, it could be in the future and this, from their point of view, was a good reason for backing it.

Another of the arguments I used with them was to try and convince them that there were different kinds of sales graphs. People involved in the Rock business are used to a graph that has a pretty sharp peak and a pretty sharp decline. Jazz records, for example, aren't normally like this; they have maybe a little peak at the beginning, which is when all the cognoscenti buy them, but then they have quite a long tail. Often that tail, in the case of Miles Davis records, can last fifteen years or something like that. I said to Island that they ought to think in terms of records that don't ever make a big splash but that sell by word of mouth (which is primarily the way that kind of stuff will sell) and which they wouldn't have to delete for ten or fifteen years, which could become catalogue material which would look after itself - you don't have to promote it particularly, it just goes on selling itself. This is certainly what I think will happen to Gavin's record. It's one of those classic records like A Rainbow In Curved Air and I think one or two of the albums that are due have that same quality.

Really, it was an attempt to exploit an area (and the word 'exploit' has very bad connotations, unfortunately, but I'm using the word in the more generous sense of 'to make use of it') so that instead of having this area quite isolated and sitting out on the boundaries, I was trying to draw it into the mainstream of commercial activity; which as far as I'm concerned can only be good for the so-called mainstream. I suppose there was also a selfish reason as well in that I was beginning to investigate, or reinvestigate, an area of music that I didn't feel I could release on island in line with the ordinary records I was releasing - the solo albums. The choice of the name 'Obscure' was quite deliberate. Since I was associated with the project, I knew that a lot of young people were going to go out and buy the records because my name was on it. So I chose 'Obscure' as a means of saying "Listen before you buy, just in case". There's nothing worse than getting letters saying, "I bought your so-and-so album and I don't understand it"; it's not a good feeling. Starting Obscure Records must be very much like you starting Impetus where you don't go into it deciding you're going to compete with Melody Maker or NME just as I didn't go into this thinking that I was going to compete with EMI . One is quite conscious of the fact that one is working in a restricted field. That's part of the attraction I think: I don't want to be involved in anything bigger then this. It already has quite enough worries for me.

I'm quite surprised actually that you managed to convince Island of this 'no initial sales peak' philosophy because I would have thought that was the kind of thing that a lot of their Help label was trying to achieve, the Basil Kirchin album for instance, and yet they've deleted that record.

The Help label suffered really because there was nobody looking after it. It wasn't anybody's label in particular, and nobody had a special concern about the Help label being successful. It was a very ambitious thing on Island's part, and I think produced some good records as well. If you look through the catalogue of any record label you'd find that there was about 2% of their records that you'd want to listen to, and Help had about a 15% success rate. If Help had worked efficiently then Obscure Records would have been redundant because Help would have been doing what Obscure is doing. The only reason Obscure works to the extent it does is because I keep pushing it a little bit and it's my project, it doesn't get diffused amongst a lot of other people. By the same token it isn't very efficient, it's rather dependant on when I have time to look after it.

I would hare thought that the Fripp and Eno material would probably be more at home on Obscure than Help especially in the case of Evening Star, released at the same time as the series.

If Obscure had started when the first one was released then that is where they would have been I think, but as the first one was on Help we decided to keep doing them on Help. Hopefully, I think Robert (Fripp) and I can do some other experiments that we can put out on Obscure. I really try and reserve Obscure though for things that won't get released anywhere else, so in a way it's a waste of the label to release things like that on it. In a sense though it's quite a difficult situation because putting my album out on Obscure was a deliberate ploy to draw attention to the label, and I know perfectly well the way I buy records: If I see four records in similar covers and I like one of them, or I like one of the artists on them a lot, then I tend to look Into the others as well. This was the reason for keeping tho covers similar: so that the records would then hopefully sell each other. So somebody who had only heard of Gavin would then look at the Michael Nyman one, and mine too, and so on. Apart from that it was a money-saving idea as well. There' a tremendous objection, among jazz musicians particularly, to thinking in term of making money on things. There's a feeling about that if you have than you've somehow copped out and done something slightly naughty. But having that kind of constraint, or objective, on an operation like this is quite a useful one; not to think "I won't release this record because it's not going to make money", you don't think of it that way; you think, "I want to release this record, how can I make it make money after I release it." So you don't use it as a means of censoring your activity but you use it as a means of giving some kind of impetus to the things your activity has thrown up as it were. I get the impression with quite a lot of jazz musicians that they are actively shy of the idea of becoming popular in any way at all and progressively censor that part of their activity that looks as though it's falling into the popular domain in favour of the ones that remain in the esoteric domain.

Could you tell us a little about the music released on the first four albums as many readers probably won't have heard them.

I've spoken a little about Gavin's. The second one was called Ensemble Pieces which features the work of three composers. Christopher Hobbs who wrote two pieces which are both very, strictly systems pieces. In fact the label got a reputation, on the basis of those first four releases, of being a systems label which I didn't really particularly want. I'm very fond of that kind of music but I didn't want the label to only concentrate on that area; it just happened that three of those first four releases were systems albums. The Christopher Hobbs pieces are systems music applied to peculiar instrumentation and to ideas borrowed from other cultures. One of them is a Balinese based piece and the other is a Pibroch, a Scottish based piece. Then there's a composition by John Adams called American Standard which is a vary attractive small orchestra piece. The other is one of Gavin's pieces called 1,2, 1-2-3-4 which again exploits a phase shift possibility happening between a group of live performers. Most of the phase shift things have been done in terms of tape; this is a live version of a phase shift where a number of people are playing through a system without being able to hear each other.

My own record in that series: I think the first side of it is just about my favourite of all my pieces I've recorded but I don't like the second side of it. That was a real experiment for me, and normally an experiment like that would be done at home, and then be re-done somewhere else. With that particular piece as it required a number of musicians, I couldn't really do it here (at home) because I work in the little room next door. It was also when we were getting pretty near the release date of the four albums and so I released it rather faster than I would normally have done. I usually have things sitting around for two or three months to listen to them again and re-assess them. Nearly always in that period my assessment changes, often quite dramatically. But that's made up for by my enjoyment of the first side which has about it the feeling of some of the Michael Nyman pieces.

The main criteria in choosing a piece is not whether I think it's important or not; it's whether I like it or not. It's really quite subjective because, if you remember, one of the reasons the label started was to record some pieces that I would like to buy on the assumption that there are sufficient other people like me to justify the existence at that label. This now seems to be the case. So stating a viewpoint on the pieces is difficult; my viewpoint is that I like them all.

Another consideration about recording is that as most of the pieces are performance pieces, written for concert situations and not recording situations. Sometimes there has been a re-assessment of the piece to make it a recording piece and not just a memory of a performance.

You mentioned earlier that you'd managed to record seven albums; four have already been released. What plans are afoot for the other three?

They'll be out In about three weeks. There's an album by Michael Nyman, who wrote the book Experimental Music, and his album has a really beautiful piece on it. One side is my favourite record at the moment, I listen to it quite a lot. It's a piano piece; very slow, I suppose it's a direct child of Morton Feldman mated with Steve Reich. It's a hundred piano chords that start at an arbitrary point 2/3 of the way up the keyboard and end 1/3 of the way up. The chord is played and sustained until it can't be heard any more and then the next chord is played and so on and so on... He overdubbed it three times so that there are four pianos on it. Each time they get slightly out of sync, so that after a while what you hear is not one chord played on four pianos but four separate chords quite close to each other. Eventually you get little runs and little chord changes that are very delicate and quite attractive and quite long silences as the notes die away. It's terrifically easy listening actually.

This is one of my points, that experimental music is very good easy listening as well, very much better than anything else that is being made for that purpose at the moment. The Nyman piece, and my own piece (Discreet Music) are good examples of that. I suppose it allows you a lot of different focal points on the music. You can sit and listen to the piece very closely because, apart from being a very pleasant sound, it has a systemic interest but it's not obtrusive in the way that most German avant garde music is; it doesn't have that assault quality to do it.

Another album has, on one side, songs by John Cage (which were sung by Robert Wyatt and Carla Bley) and the other side has some pieces by Jan Steele who was at the University of York some time ago.

Tho third one is called Music From The Penguin Café which was written by a guy called Simon Jeffes. That's the three that are coming out soon.

I also have recorded tome other piece a of Gavin's. I've got a whole album of Jon White ready to come out. I'm about to record Annette Peacock, to do an album of her. I'm also about to do an album of all vocal pieces. I try to keep one of two things going, either they're the work of one person or they're a set of ideas about one subject, and the vocal album is going to feature work by six different composers with the limitation that only voices can be used in whatever form, slowed down, solo, or whatever you want to do with them. There's quite a lot of things coming up actually. I've got some work by a guy called Pete Challis which I shall release at some stage. I've got a tape I received recently by a person I don't know called Miles Doubleday, a very nice tape of extremely delicate little songs made on a very bad tape recorder. The tape recorder is so bad that it generates an incredible amount of hiss so he calls the songs In A Rainforest because the hiss is so overpowering it sounds like rain, which is a very nice way to deal with the problem because most people write in apologising for their equipment. But I've got a lot of letters I haven't answered yet because I get a lot of tapes sent to me that I can't use; I'm not very good at answering letters at all.

Another album that is coming out is by an American composer called Harold Budd. This is going to be a very fine record; I can see this record being highly successful. Unfortunately he lives in California so it'a a bit difficult to keep in contact with him.

Island have now renewed my budget incidentally - they've given me a yearly budget for which I reckon I can release ten albums a year; provided ten worthwhile things occur, or come up, each year.