Sound And Music JULY 20, 2009 - by Geeta Dayal


Geeta Dayal is the author of Another Green World, a book on Brian Eno, to be published by Continuum in September. With our Apollo event starting tonight at the Science Museum, she introduces us to Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks.

In the NASA documentary For All Mankind's crowning moment, a man walks on the moon, planting a bright American flag on the barren lunar landscape. It's a moment we've all seen before, etched indelibly on the popular consciousness to the point of cliché. But in the documentary, the Apollo moon landing looks strangely new; the moment doesn't happen until roughly an hour into the film, and it seems inconceivable. How could something this alien, this unbelievable, actually have happened in our lifetimes?

That moment in time is soundtracked by Brian Eno's An Ending (Ascent), from the album Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks. As the two astronauts step on the moon, an ethereal melody wells up into an almost unbearable sense of wide-eyed wonder, in a rich sustain of poignant synth wash. The combination of footage and music feels timeless - as if An Ending (Ascent) was playing on the moon in 1969. It feels as if it was always playing, out there in the cosmos.

In many ways, Apollo was a departure for Brian Eno. Unlike many other musicians who work with electronics, Eno never professed a deep interest in science fiction or outer space. The otherworldly aspects to Eno's ambient music always came from inner space - the space between our ears. The imagery he supplied in his music was generally rooted on Earth: faraway beaches, China, lizards, rivers, marshes. That said, Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, released in 1983, shared conceptual DNA with three earlier Eno works: Another Green World (1975), Music For Films (1976), and On Land (1982).

Another Green World was Eno's first album-length exploration into building another sonic world with his music. It was a conceptual, coherent whole, a contemplative collection of ambient tone poems and quiet songs. The track titles seemed to profoundly suggest nature - dark trees, lava, St. Elmo's fire - and each of the fourteen pieces on the album formed part of a thriving ecosystem. The dense thickets of sound seemed biological, a sonic underbrush teeming with life. You could envisage odd creatures lurking in its mysterious recesses - sombre reptiles, perhaps, or little fishes.

Music For Films was a collection of intriguing instrumental fragments, many culled from the Another Green World sessions. The dark, atmospheric music wasn't for any film in particular, but Eno hoped that the album would eventually wend its way into actual movies. In the liner notes, he wrote that Music For Films was intended for "possible use as soundtracks to imaginary films" and even sent the LP to filmmakers. Many of the tracks on Music For Films have since been licensed for use in many actual films.

Apollo, like Another Green World and On Land, was a self-contained ecosystem of sonic landscapes - swapping the fish for stars, the hills for craters. And, like Music For Films, Apollo was music for an imaginary movie. Brian Eno created Apollo, the soundtrack for For All Mankind, based on the idea of a documentary about the famed lunar landing - before seeing the finished film. For All Mankind came out many years later, in 1989. Apollo was mainly synthesizer music - likely composed on Eno's beloved Yamaha DX-7 - but the album also incorporated the estimable talents of Eno's brother, the composer Roger Eno, and Daniel Lanois on pedal steel guitar.

In the liner notes to Apollo, Eno wrote that he felt frustrated at seeing the same few seconds of man-on-the-moon footage looped over and over on TV in 1969, feeling certain that there was much more beneath the shrill television news experience. He created Apollo to reflect the transcendent experience of deep space, the wonder of weightlessness, the remarkable nature of human endeavor. For All Mankind incorporated never-before-seen NASA footage from the Apollo 11 mission; it told the strange, moving story behind the soundbite. But by the time For All Mankind finally came out in 1989, much of the Apollo music had been replaced by dialogue and music from other albums. The brief moments in the documentary when the talking stops and the astronaut floats in mid-air, soundtracked by Eno's gossamer synth pads, are the points when the film transcends the bounds of the practical and enters into the ineffable. Apollo was music for another world - a world far beyond the outermost edges of our earthly experience.