INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Wall Street Journal JULY 17, 2019 - by Mark Richardson
BRIAN ENO - APOLLO: ATMOSPHERES & SOUNDTRACKS - EXTENDED EDITION - AN EVOCATIVE LUNAR SCORE
The classic ambient album receives a reissue that includes a full disc of new material as gorgeous as the original record.
The night sky is filled with music. The ancient Greeks drew connections between the movement of heavenly bodies and the mathematical properties of sound, and the cosmos had surely been inspiring the creation of song for millennia before that. The connection between records and space also runs deep.
In 1977, the U.S. launched the Voyager Space Probes, and the crafts carried gold-plated discs featuring the sounds of Earth, including pieces by Bach and Beethoven, traditional songs from China and Peru, and Chuck Berry singing Johnny B. Goode. Also included in the grooves were spoken greetings in fifty-five languages, sounds of animals and the natural world, and the recorded brainwaves of scientist Ann Druyan. Both Voyager Probes are more than ten billion miles from Earth and still in communication with NASA; as far as we know, the records remain unplayed by extraterrestrial life. Humans can obtain versions of the LPs from the Ozma label, which issued the discs - no actual gold included, alas - in a deluxe boxed set in 2017.
This week sees the release of an expanded reissue of another important record commemorating a milestone of space exploration - the Apollo 11 mission that brought men to the Moon fifty years ago this week. Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, first released in 1983, is widely regarded as a canonical ambient album. On Friday, UMC will release an edition of it that includes a full disc of new material.
The original Apollo, created by Mr. Eno with songwriting and production assistance from his brother Roger and the Canadian composer, producer and guitarist Daniel Lanois, included music created for a documentary by journalist Al Reinert called For All Mankind. Mr. Reinert's film, which wasn't completed until 1989, paired footage of the Apollo missions with audio from interviews with the NASA program's astronauts.
For All Mankind strives for poetry instead of drama and Mr. Eno lends atmospheric support, reinforcing the feelings of the sublime found in the images. Heard on its own, the soundtrack is a set of beautiful and quietly evocative music that sounds great in the background and also rewards close attention.
Apollo finds strength through simplicity. The phrase "space music" might bring to mind psychedelia, something mind-altering that warps one's senses, but Apollo is relatively grounded, a human-scale undertaking. Voyages to space put ordinary people into an extraordinary environment, and the soundtrack by Mr. Eno and his collaborators reflects intimate human experience rather than outsize technical achievement.
Several of the pieces prominently feature the ethereal pedal steel guitar work of Mr. Lanois. The instrument, identified most closely with country and western music, evokes the wide-open spaces of rural America, which are often, as it happens, the best places for watching the stars. His curling guitar lines on tracks like Weightless and Deep Blue Day evoke both windswept prairies and bodies turning in zero gravity.
An Ending (Ascent), almost certainly the most well-known track of Mr. Eno's career, set a standard for textural radiance few have matched. Consisting off a thin, wavering drone moving gently through a descending melody, the piece has become cultural shorthand for emotionally overwhelming moments that transcend language - see its use at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, during a segment paying tribute to the victims of that city's July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks. It has also been frequently used in film and on television.
The new music on the deluxe set appears under its own title, somewhat confusingly called For All Mankind, even though this work had nothing to do with the film. The tracks were created individually by Brian Eno, Mr. Lanois and Roger Eno, and were edited and sequenced by Brian.
Augmenting an album widely understood to be a classic decades after the fact is an unusual and risky move, but here it mostly works, enriching and extending the mood of the original. The opening selection, The End Of A Thin Cord, begins the set on a gorgeous note, with a delicate keyboard line that shifts between two notes set against a rumbling background. The contrast between the sounds paints a picture of a fragile life adrift.
Capsule features guitar and organ cycling through a slowly winding series of chord changes, and it mirrors the subtle beauty of the 1983 LP. Over The Canaries, another of the lovelier pieces, consists mostly of single tones that hover and decay slowly, seeming to freeze a moment in time. Because these new tracks have a clear sonic relationship to the original material, the expanded version of Apollo, heard in one sitting, makes for a unified and ultimately moving listening experience.
"This is not an adventure film," Mr. Eno wrote in press notes in 1983 elaborating how Mr. Reinert's work strove to capture "a unique mixture of feelings that quite possibly no human had ever experienced before." That he wanted to create music to accompany such a lofty project speaks to Mr. Eno's confidence, and that he succeeded speaks to the brilliance of his creative mind.