Under the spell of Brian Eno


Under the spell of Brian Eno

When FRED DE VRIES had the opportunity to see one of his heroes perform at Venice’s famed opera house, Teatro La Fenice, he leapt at it.


IN the not too distant past, my friend Tim Cohen and I asked each other the question: who would you queue around the block for? As in: which artist or band are you still dying to see? These days, there’s no more queueing for tickets, so I guess the question should now be phrased in that off-putting “bucket" lingo. Anyway, back in the day I mentioned Cat Power and The Kinks. Since then, I’ve seen Cat Power no fewer than three times, while The Kinks have refused to re-form, and there is very little chance they will. So I’ve achieved half my list. Not bad, even though I had to travel from Rotterdam to the French city of Lille for my first Cat Power gig.

But later you realise you left out some important artists. One of the names I would and should have added was Brian Eno. But it didn’t occur to me because I was under the impression that Eno had stopped doing live performances ages ago (in fact, I just read that he hadn’t done a solo show for nearly 50 years). And his ambient stuff lends itself more to art galleries than concert halls. So when, months ago, his website sent me a message announcing a tour, I became simultaneously excited and sad. Excited, because there was a tiny chance of me finally seeing one of the most important musicians pop has produced. Sad, because I knew the chances of him including South Africa in his schedule were close to zero. And I simply lacked the money to fly to Europe to catch him there.

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But lo, it turned out he would be doing two concerts in Venice. And those dates coincided with the two-week annual writing retreat that my partner's All About Writing company organises and that I am also involved in. The Eno performances would be part of the Biennale Musica 2023 and would take place in Venice’s famed opera house, Teatro La Fenice, on October 23. So I frantically started clicking my mouse, clicking and clicking, only to be told tickets were “non disponible", which meant they were either sold out or hadn’t yet gone on sale. I prayed for the latter. But with each new click I saw my chances of getting a ticket fading further into the Venetian Lagoon.

Now, before we get to the Venice part, let me tell you a bit about the 75-year-old musician we all know as Eno but whose full name is Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. As we get older and more cynical, we discard many heroes from our past, but for me Eno is still up there in hero land, a true genius if there ever was one. And often I feel deeply envious of him and his ever-curious spirit, his irresistible urge to stay current and remain creative.

Take his 1995 diary, the recently republished A Year With Swollen Appendices, in which, on page 7, he writes about a typical day in his life. “Just had three great days’ work — starting at 4.30am (when the whole of London is pitch dark and completely silent) and getting three hours’ work done before even having a break for a dawn breakfast. I did so much work — listening back yesterday I was astonished at its confidence and quality as well as its sheer abundance. Sometimes, I know I just can’t get a foot (finger) wrong, or rather, if I do, I’ll take advantage of it. Great start to a year."

Don’t hold back Brian, rub it in, I sighed, thinking about all my many failed and forsaken plans and projects.

But bragging aside, Eno’s achievements are mesmerising. In the book Brian Eno: Visual Music,  playwright Steve Dietz sums it up: “Glam rock star, ambient music godfather, champion of the experimental, producer to rock royalty, video artist, installation artist, sound artist, pioneering crossover artist, committed politico, and big thinker." And what’s more, he has been able to make a comfortable living from doing what he loves most: being creative — as a musician, as an artist, as a philosopher. By his own admission, he has worked for a boss only once, at an advertising magazine.

Eno first caught my attention as the “non-musician" in the first edition of Roxy Music, which was formed in 1970. He had joined the band as a sound wizard, whose task it was to radically alter the colour and timbre of the vocals and instruments. He used an early version of the (the EMS VCS 3) to give early Roxy Music its unique retro-futuristic sound, which can be heard on the first two albums, Roxy Music (1972) and For Your Pleasure (1973). He eschewed the virtuosity that was the key ingredient of the progressive rock of the day. His prowess lay in manipulating sounds and mastering machines. But he was much more than a music nerd; he had real stage presence, using heavy make-up and prancing around in glittering outfits and peacock feathers. Eno had it all: he was eloquent and at the same time popular with the girls. So popular that he ended up in hospital because of too much sex. Fans preferred him over the more introverted and melancholic Bryan Ferry, shouting his name at concerts.

He lasted two albums, both of them classics, before Ferry kicked him out. It hardly mattered to Eno, who immediately started a career in pop, producing excellent solo albums such as Here Come the Warm Jets (1974), Another Green World (1975) and my favourite, Before and After Science (1977). In the meantime, he was experimenting with ambient sounds, first heard on Discreet Music (1975). Some people detested the soothing driplets emanating from the speakers, which would develop into a proper genre, often associated with New Age spirituality. No Wave icon Lydia Lunch once famously said: “Eno’s records are an expression of mediocrity, because all it is is just something that flows and weaves, flows and weaves… it’s kind of nauseating. It’s like drinking a glass of water. It means nothing, but it’s very smooth going down."

But that doesn’t do justice to Eno’s ambitions or his ambient experiments. What he had in mind was to use manipulated sounds to evoke certain moods, keeping the music in the background, blending it with accidental environmental tones. In an interview with Rick Rubin for the podcast Broken Record, he compared it to a flowing river: the same and yet always slightly different. Eno was interested in the minimalism of visual artists such as Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and classical composers such as Erik Satie and John Cage. He soon hit his stride with a famous series of ambient albums, starting with Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978), a direct result of his irritation with the “terrible music" he had to endure at Cologne’s new state-of-the-art airport.

I would need many more words, paragraphs and pages to sum up and describe everything he has done since: numerous albums, commercially successful producer jobs (U2, Coldplay), collaborations (for example, with David Bowie on Low, with David Byrne on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and with South African artist Beezy Bailey on The Sound of Creation). If you’re interested, I suggest you pick up a copy of David Sheppard’s illuminating biography On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (Orion, 2008).

So let’s rather fast forward to his 2016 work The Ship, which was special in itself because it was the first album to feature Eno’s vocals since 2005’s Another Day on Earth. It was a superb piece of music. As Thom Jurek concluded on AllMusic.com: “It places an exclamation point on Eno’s career as curiosity, experimentation, chance, and form gel; his relentless sense of adventure remains undiminished by time."

Now this is the right moment to return to my Venice trip, because the Biennale Musica programme announced that Eno would perform The Ship. And I do love that album, in particular his version of the Lou Reed-penned Velvet Underground song I’m Set Free. So, after we had arrived, and even though I was sure it would be in vain, I decided to go to the Biennale office and inquire about the possibility of obtaining a ticket. And who knows, maybe I could use my press card or my Vrye Weekblad credentials. It turned out that the office was closed on Sunday. But I spoke to a helpful Biennale assistant who said he had heard tickets would be available online the next day. So come Monday 10am, I clicked. And for the first time I was transported away from that “non disponible” notification. Instead, a layout of the concert hall seating opened before my eyes. I saw two tickets for sale. I clicked on the first. Too late, gone. Then the second. Click. I let out a scream: yeah! It asked for my payment details. I bought the last available ticket.

So on the Saturday that the Boks battled England, I set off to La Fenice for my first live encounter with Brian Eno (I did see Bryan Ferry when he played in Cape Town a couple of years ago). It’s hard to describe how excited I felt and how fabulous it was. I mean, La Fenice itself is a monument to music, history, architecture and acoustics. It opened as an opera house in 1792, was destroyed by fire in 1836, reopened in 1837, was destroyed again in 1996 and reopened once more in 2003. The phoenix rose, again and again. It has hosted the works of virtually every famous composer, including Beethoven, Wagner, Rossini and Verdi. And now we can add Eno to that list.

Brian Eno (left) and Kristjan Järvi in Teatro La Fenice with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic.
Brian Eno (left) and Kristjan Järvi in Teatro La Fenice with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic.
Image: © FRED DE VRIES (top left) | © TWITTER

Entering the opera house is like walking into a 19th century fairy tale. Everything basks in a golden light. You feel a deep sense of history. The perfect way to let it all sink in is to nip from a glass of prosecco while watching the other lucky ones who have managed to get a ticket. Of course — I mean, this is Italy, this is Venezia — everyone came dressed to the nines, even the cool hipsters, clad in many classy shades of black. My seat was in row five, which meant the event evolved right before my eyes, close enough to see the expressions on the faces of the musicians who appeared on stage shortly after 8pm. They were part of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic conducted by Kristjan Järvi, a man with a wild mop of hair who came as close to a rock ’n’ roll star as a conductor could.

As the first song slowly built, more musicians entered the stage. When everyone was there I counted about 30, the full orchestra plus half a dozen rock and electronic musicians, including guitarist and long-time Eno collaborator Leo Abrahams and vocalist Melanie Pappenheim. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The programme promised that Eno would also be on stage. And then I saw him, an almost minute, bespectacled bald man with a white beard, dressed in a black T-shirt with a pink circle. And while the young classical musicians moved around the stage, taunted and directed by a spiderlike Järvi, Eno stood somewhat at the back, in the centre of the stage. And he sang. How I love his voice, still, nearly 50 years after he sang his “hit" Baby’s on Fire. He sounded warmer now, more melancholic, beautifully accompanied by the soprano of Pappenheim. Chicken skin music.

I remained spellbound for nearly two hours. The members of the orchestra, who kept moving on stage and did not use sheet music, cleverly played acoustic versions of the computer effects Eno uses in his studio work, every so often reaching a crescendo, showing the power of an orchestra in a proper opera house, which brought me close to tears. They played The Ship in a loose yet disciplined way, giving it the body and warmth that it lacks on the vinyl record. Then, when The Ship, including a beautiful rendition of I’m Set Free, was finished, they gave us By This River, my favourite song from Before and After Science, full of the kind of nature metaphors that Eno is so fond of. “Here we are/ Stuck by this river/ You and I/ Underneath a sky that's ever falling down, down, down/ Ever falling down.” When the song was finished, a vast, roaring silence descended over La Fenice.

He ended with There Were Bells a tune from last year’s FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE. It’s a lament to a world wrecked by war and disaster, sung by an elderly man who feels battered and baffled by all the misery humankind has managed to wreak upon itself. He didn’t mention Gaza, as he did a few days later during a performance in Utrecht, where he sat down “to cry". Maybe he didn’t want to spoil a perfect evening. But we all knew why he chose this song. “There were horns as loud as war that tore apart the sky/ There were storms and floods of blood, a human high/ Never mind, my love, let's wait for the dove/ Fly back to tell us there's a haven showing nigh/ There were those who ran away/ There were those who had to stay/ In the end, they all went the same way", he sang in a wary voice.

And then, or course, there was the long standing ovation.

Spotify playlist - Brian Eno


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