Option NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1985 - by Greg Taylor


The Obscure music label was founded by Brian Eno in 1974 as an outlet for experimental artists. The entire catalog consists of ten records, all of which Eno produced and which include the work of thirteen different artists. Some of the Obscure catalog (Brian Eno's own Discreet Music, the first Penguin Cafe orchestra album, and Harold Budd's The Pavilion Of Dreams) has remained very popular. A few of the original Obscure artists (John Adams, Michael Nyman, and Harold Budd) have become well-known names in the new music community, and others (like David Toop) appear less frequently on various compilation recordings. A few of these ten albums have become as legendary as they were unavailable, and still more of them are positively... uh... obscure. Taken together, they comprise a relatively unknown aspect of Eno's career - an effort on his part to make the approaches to making music that influenced him available. In retrospect, they comprise a kind of snapshot of the avant-garde in the middle '70s, and are still a lively source of ideas for the adventurous listener.

Obscure Music was a pretty apt title for these records for quite a while, too. It used to be that you had to haunt used record stores for weeks to find a loose copy of one of these. But no longer - Editions EG reissued the entire Obscure Music catalog in Britain in the spring of this year, and they're a lot easier to find. So here's a listing of the Obscure catalog, together with a very brief capsule summary of what you'll find on each album. Here they are in (more or less) alphabetical order:

GAVIN BRYARS The Sinking Of The Titanic - Gavin Bryars is the conceptual daddy of a lot of the Obscure series. His music shows up on three separate recordings, and he arranged both the flip side to Discreet Music and Tom Philips' opera IRMA. You've probably heard of this, if only for the famous Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a simple tape loop of an old hobo singing a simple gospel song with good pitch and eccentric timing while an orchestral ensemble enters one at a time and gamely tries to follow his idiosyncratic pacing. One of those recordings that packs much more of an emotional wallop than description allows for. The flip side is more typically like Bryars' other work: a dense set of historical events, coincidences, and found recordings that Bryars maps onto a set of spare, almost Satie-like arrangements for strings, the sound of which - like the Titanic itself - gently glides into an echoey, watery murk.

HAROLD BUDD The Pavilion Of Dreams - Although his Ambient collaborations with Brian Eno first brought him wide attention, there's pretty ample evidence here that Budd had his stuff down long before he got interested in what the inside of a piano sounded like with a delay line on it. The earlier music on this album is built around lush chordal washes of sound from a piano, a celeste, and a flock of marimbas wrapped around a simple, sustained melody carried by either a wordless vocal or a saxophone. This is one of the Obscure releases that came back into print when his work with Eno became well-known, and has remained popular.

JOHN CAGE / JAN STEELE Voices And Instruments - This record is an interesting set of very early Cage pieces, performed by a very unlikely group of singers - Carla Bley (!?) and Robert Wyatt. The beauty of Robert Wyatt's a cappella rendition of Cage's music for the poetry of e.e.cummings is really a surprise here, and worth the price of the album alone. Jan Steele's music is a kind of marriage of the instruments and improvisational forms of rock music with a very quiet, almost minimalist ensemble.

BRIAN ENO Discreet Music - It's hard now to remember that this album first appeared while Eno was still as close to a pop star as he ever got. It's the definitive record which uses the simplest of source materials (in this case, a couple of simple pentatonic fragments and two tape recorders) to produce a piece of music that grows and breathes with a life of its own. The flip side is Eno at his most frugally rigorous: he's disfigured that old wedding favourite Pachelbel's Canon In D Major by slowing it down to a quarter the original tempo and giving the players a set of instructions on how to alter their parts based on the duration or pitch range. The result is a pleasant mass of Romantic strings which harmonically recombine in some interesting ways.

CHRISTOPHER HOBBS / JOHN ADAMS / GAVIN BRYARS Ensemble Pieces - This is easily the most varied of the whole catalog. John Adams makes an appearance here, and his early work has a lot of the slow throb of his current Minimalist compositions hidden in there. What you come away remembering is the juxtaposition of the slow unfolding of the music with the found radio broadcast that dominates the middle section of his American Standard. Christopher Hobbs has drastically altered the tempos of some Scottish bagpipe music, and favours ensembles composed of reed organs and/or toy pianos. While Aran sounds like a nightmare in the clock factory, MacCrimmon Will Never Return (for four organs) has a real stately kind of melancholy about it. Gavin Bryars makes his second appearance by taking a snippet of jazz and giving it to each of the players in looped form on their own little private tape recorders. Of course, the tape loops gradually start to go out of sync almost immediately, and the fun begins. It sounds like the most tentative lounge band in the universe.

MICHAEL NYMAN Decay Music - This is really the first ambient album. The rules are simple; 1-100 is a sequence of a hundred chords played by four pianos. Each piano player plays the next chord in the series when they can no longer hear the sound of the previous one. Although the rules are individual, the pianos are played together, and some harmonic overlaps and interactions occur that are unplanned. In addition, this recording is played at half speed, like the piano in Music For Airports, giving it that peculiar, watery sound. The flip side is a permutative piece for bells, gongs and cymbals that is as noisy as the first side is delicate.

THE PENGUIN CAFE ORCHESTRA - It doesn't seem as if anyone can write about Simon Jeffes' small group without using the words eclectic or whimsical - not even the New York Times. Problem is, those are the only words that ever come to mind. A gentle bunch of ukuleles, strings, electric pianos and various objects that produce the lounge music of the PostModern Age.

TOM PHILIPS IRMA (An Opera): Tom Philips is the painter who did the cover of Another Green World and King Crimson's Starless And Bible Black. He's also played in Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra (composed of musicians and non-musicians of varying skills), and for most of his artistic career he's been working with the text of an old Victorian novel called A Human Document that he paints over, tears up, collages and partially obscures to produce his own work, called A Humument. The libretto for this opera comes from that, and Gavin Bryars helped with the arranging. This is for people who thought they didn't like opera.

JOHN WHITE / GAVIN BRYARS Machine Music - The title refers to a common method for each of the pieces: a kind of machine or process that is set up and turned loose while the tapes roll. What's interesting about this recording is how different the outcomes can be for such similar processes. John White sets up a piece for beer drinkers (takes a swig, and so on) that produces a choir of mournful owls. A similar technique applied to a simple set of sequential chord progressions gives formally similar but quite different sounding effects (rather like Terry Riley). I won't elaborate on the Jew's Harp quartet. Guitar wizards Derek Bailey and Fred Frith help out on Bryars' The Squirrel In The Rickety Rackety Cage, a festival of guitars played flat on a table with little attention played to pitch, but a constant, slightly swinging tempo. If this doesn't drive you totally bonkers after the first ten minutes, you can win a copy of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.

So that's it, all ten of 'em. One more thing: a really excellent history of experimental music which discusses the work of many of the Obscure artists has just come back into print after a number of years of being really hard to find. Experimental Music: Cage And Beyond (by Michael Nyman, published by Scribners, $9.95 in paperback) is the best book on the market about a subject that's rarely written about except in periodicals and reviews. It gives you a real sense of what the general formal issues are in experimental music without being stuffy, and it's just been updated to include Minimalism and the New Tonality. Happy hunting/hearing.