Brian Eno explores the melody of the spoken word
The process behind Brian Eno’s new album, “Drums Between the Bells,” a collaboration with the English poet Rick Holland, is based on a simple premise but one that could change the way you hear your next conversation.
“We are all singing. We call it speech, but we’re singing to each other,” Eno said (sang?) from London during a recent phone exchange. Eight years ago the British-born composer, producer, visual artist and sonic conceptualist began putting his belief to a test: “I thought, as soon as you put spoken word onto music, you start to hear it like singing anyway. You start to develop musical value and musical weight, and you start to notice how this word falls on that beat, and so on.”
Hence “Drums,” on which Eno has created a 16-track work of exquisite musical structures that support, reinforce, play tricks with, encapsulate and interpret Holland’s poetry. It’s read by a collection of human voices gathered from Eno’s everyday life, including the receptionist at his local health club, his Polish bookkeeper and a South African woman he met on the street — in addition to Eno and Holland. The work, part of a career that includes at least 45 solo and collaborative albums, is a fascinating, magnetic experiment in sound.
Perhaps most significantly, though, is that “Drums Between the Bells,” eight years gestating, captures most of the Eno sensibilities that have made him such a force in modern music: You can hear melodies suggestive of his gentle late 1970s work on “Music for Airports” and “Discreet Music.” Other pieces, like the title track and “Sound Alien,” are as furiously propellant as his 1992 drum and bass inspired album, “Nerve Net.” The soft, easy melodies on “Cloud 4,” which Eno narrates himself, could be updated reworkings from “Another Green World.”
More than mere experiment, Eno pushes his idea further in the liner notes for the release: “I hope this record will signal the beginning of a new way for poets to think about their work, and for audiences to think about poetry.”
A bold statement from anyone, but the notion carries weight considering that the man behind the proposal is a figure whose influence over a four-decade creative life includes cofounding Roxy Music, coining the phrase (and, arguably, inventing the genre) “ambient music,” producing transcendent music by artists such as David Bowie (his classic “Berlin” trilogy), U2, Coldplay, Talking Heads and Devo, documenting New York’s revolutionary No Wave movement of the late 1970s and steering the notion of sampling with the 1981 landmark collection with David Byrne, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.”
Eno’s on to something here: a movement propelled by advancing technology has transformed the recorded voice into an endlessly manipulatable digital sound file, every syllable and glottal stop a tone to potentially rework.
Deconstructing and recontextualizing the human voice has been going on for years, of course, stretching back to early musique concrete, William Burroughs’ cut-up experiments with Ian Sommerville and beyond. From Steve Reich’s landmark “It’s Gonna Rain” to the Velvet Underground’s tragedy, “The Gift,” to trucker Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” to the collected works of Gil Scott-Heron to hip-hop’s endless verbal exclamation points, the voice has collided with music in myriad ways. . But in the last decade, the ability to mess with our utterances has advanced in directions once unimaginable.
“We are right at the beginning of a digital revolution in what can be done with recorded voices,” writes Eno in the liner notes. "[T]hey can be stretched, squeezed, harmonized, repositioned, inverted, diverted and perverted. Speech has become a fully-fledged musical material at last.”
Indeed, last weekend in Las Vegas, the electronic producer Skrillex proved Eno’s point when he deconstructed a recording of Henry Rollins’ 2008 spoken-word tirade against electronic dance music. Harnessing Rollins’ closed-minded dismissal of the genre, Skrillex transformed it into an electronic battle cry as furious and angry as anything Rollins did with Black Flag.
Eno is on a similar — though much more nuanced and beautiful — path: “I think one of my pursuits over the years is trying to answer the question of ‘what else can you do with a voice other than stand in front of a microphone and sing? What other roles can a voice have in modern music?’ And ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ was one attempt to answer that question, and various other things I’ve done — ‘Music for Airports’ was another attempt.”
In the late 1990s while attending a cultural symposium, Eno heard Holland read one of his poems, and something struck a chord. “I thought, that’s exactly the kind of poem I want: something that is compact, evocative, not over-specific, and quite pliable, in the sense that it had to be able to be pulled apart, and stretched, and all the other things that I want to do with sound.” Four years later after a series of conversations, the two sat down in Eno’s studio to experiment.
“The minute I walked through the studio door, he just put a microphone in my hand and said, ‘Right, read,’” recalled Holland on the phone from England. They didn’t talk concepts but just worked with voice and words. After this initial session, Eno suggested incorporating other people. These new tones, cracked open by Eno, changed the entire dynamic of Holland’s poetry.
“All the different voices that he accumulated were far more interesting,” said Holland, “because the stresses came in unusual places, or they were foreign speakers who had this very different, lilting tone. And when you take some of the melodic elements and mirror the voice, the reading of whatever poem sort of takes it where the whole piece ended up going.”
The result is an album filled with epiphanies. The quiet, otherworldly bliss of “Dreambirds” features an archetypical Eno piano melody that seems to caress the voice of health club worker Caroline Wildi, whose smoky, rich tenor evokes Marianne Faithfull’s. “Dreambirds … the floating caw caw …. The britilla hen … the parrot arachnis,” whispers Wildi while behind her Eno has crafted a quiet piano run that circles around her voice teasingly.
“I just went in and started moving notes, so that quite a few of them fell on her words,” recalled Eno of his creation of “Dreambirds.” “And I thought that was a lovely effect … when the music and the voice occasionally kind of rung together. That really made it magical for me.”
Taken as a whole, Eno’s musical manipulations create mystery that adds an extra dimension to Holland’s words, which on paper exist in an entirely different — silent — realm. Eno compares the process to a painter discovering an entirely new set of colors. “They’re not just new varieties of colors, not like new kinds of pink. It’s totally new colors that don’t have names at all. And so a lot of the pursuit of pop music, actually, has been exploring those colors. What can we do with these new colors? What happens when we combine them with one another?”
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