The Times OCTOBER 22, 2005 - by Jane Macartney


Musical pioneer’s latest work strikes a chord with Beijing's elderly.

Brian Eno, the avant-garde British musician, brought the sound of silence to an ancient park in the heart of Beijing yesterday where, for centuries, emperors have offered up sacrifices to the sun.

The Altar of the Sun is usually frequented by old men flying kites, young soldiers practising martial arts and elderly women performing their early morning tai chi exercises. Yesterday the altar received what must be one of the strangest offerings to have come its way since it was built in 1531.

The mellow tone of gently chiming bells echoed around the circular walls that surround the square, flat-topped central altar. The sounds came from sixteen CD players nestling at regular intervals around the foot of the wall. The small, silver gadgets on small black boxes were barely noticeable against the faded red walls topped by glistening green tiles, but they have caused quite a stir among park regulars.

Is this supposed to be music? asked one old woman of no one in particular as she walked across the altar's flagstones around the altar on her way home through the park.

Foreigners have so much money I suppose they can afford this. But what is it?

Elderly Chinese gathered in the evening sunshine to peer curiously at the machines, clearly fascinated by the music.

They are the very audience that Eno wanted to reach. He said that he first visited China in March at the invitation of the British Council, which has organised the event, Sound and Music, to enable the Chinese to hear something other than traditional concerts.

Eno said that he had been enthralled by the sight of China's elderly in Beijing's parks. I looked at the life of old people and it is very beautiful and very moving, he said. Everybody makes music for younger people, but I wanted to make music for old people.

He chose the park of the Altar of the Sun for a musical installation partly because of the old people, whom he saw dancing, exercising, singing, strolling, chatting and playing cards, and partly because it was the quietest place he had ever visited in a large city. To create music in such a tranquil spot posed particular challenges, he said. It's very dangerous to add music to a quiet place. People like quiet places because they're quiet.

So he searched for a sound that was not exactly music, would not break the silence but would instead intensify it. His answer was the bell.

Eno, who recently spent six months in Russia, used synthesised chimes to recreate what he thought a huge Russian bell called the Tsar Kolokol would sound like. The bell was cast in St Petersburg between 1733 and 1735 and is believed to be the largest ever made. However, it was damaged in a fire two years later and was never rung.

Fu Yangsheng, a gatekeeper for the nearby Divine Kitchen, where the imperial instruments of sacrifice were stored, was entranced. He squatted out in the chilly late autumn sun to listen. "Is this music? I don't understand it, but it sounds really nice," he said.