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Brian Eno Goes Classical

by Seth Colter Walls

Brian Eno Goes Classical

About this playlist

When answering the question of how (or why) a group of classically trained musicians should bother approaching Brian Eno's "ambient" works, it may help to assert that it's not a ridiculous idea in principle. While Eno is best known for his pop-based work as a songwriter and producer, he's also had a foot in the modern-classical world for some time. In the '70s, with his own short-lived Obscure Records label, he issued a piece by the then-young John Adams -- as good an indicator as any that Eno's engagement with post-minimalist classical music is a real thing.

So, once his classical music bona fides have been established, we can ask: How should classical ensembles approach the playing of his ambient pieces? Inducing anything like new chords or musical "events" into live performances of these studio-based creations risks disrespecting the works themselves. Meantime, utterly strict copying of what happens on such albums as 1978's Ambient 1: Music for Airports risks utter pointlessness.

The recent release of a new version of Eno's 1983 work Apollo by the Icebreaker ensemble seems to strike just the right balance. In this playlist, I've given listeners several chances for a direct compare-and-contrast, by spotlighting four tracks from both versions of Apollo that sound much the same, melodically, but hit the ear in distinct ways. In each case, there's more of a feel of humans playing this music in Icebreaker's new version. None of this means it should or will replace the original Eno recording, of course, but this live version does seem to open up our sense of how ambient music can be enjoyed.

The last two tracks on the playlist come from Eno's original Music for Airports and percussion ensemble Bang on a Can's re-imagined version, released in 1998. In this case, BOAC's redraft doesn't seem (to my ears) quite as inventive or necessary as the new version of Apollo. Which only suggests that these sort of classical-goes-Eno adventures are only getting better.