zeros and enos

the other day i chanced upon this stylus review of fripp and eno's 'equatorial stars' by matthew weiner. it's a grudging review (unlike the rather embarrassingly breathy one i wrote at the time), and though my love for the album has cooled a little i thought mr weiner's reaction to it was at best, a little harsh. but this passage caught my eye...

I'd suggest, rather, that the problem is that Eno, perhaps the premier analog synthesizer pioneer in pop, has never gotten comfortable with digital technology. From his wild, careening solos with Roxy to his groundbreaking instrument "treatments" with the EMS Synthi One suitcase synthesizer he utilized on the Bowie and Talking Heads records, Eno always sought to infuse an element of sonic chaos into the proceedings. But listening back to "Pierre in Mist" from 1992's Nerve Net, one is struck by how utterly ill-at-ease Eno sounded as he played rambling solos on saxophone presets, pitch-bending to poor, often embarrassing effect. It's been more or less that way ever since, as he's searched in vain for a sonic palette that can give him the same measure of (non-) control with which he sculpted such pioneering studio-as-instrument recordings as 1982's On Land and the trio of Talking Heads records Eno helmed at the dawn of the '80s.

that seems to me to be sort of spot on. there are holes in the argument; it was the advent of digital technology that allowed eno and byrne to concoct the kind of cutup effects liberally applied to voice and instruments on 'fear of music' and 'remain in light', not to mention 'my life in the bush of ghosts' (which mr weiner praises elsewhere in the review). later on he accuses fripp of the same failure to get to grips with digital technology. though this is i think a bit more justified (fripp often midifies his guitar to trigger acoustic piano sounds, for gawdsakes. and the results are foul). he then cites fripp's 'blessing of tears' as a career highpoint (despite the fact it was clearly made with a hefty arsenal of midi gimcrackery) thus blowing another hole in his premise.

but hey, let's not nitpick. oh, yeah, too late. so anyway, he's sort of spot on. the trouble of course is that working digitally (as pretty much everyone does these days) multiplies your options exponentionally. the fact that you can do pretty much anything means that you sometimes end up doing things you probably shouldn't. with tape and analogue synths, there was a lot of work involved. if you were going to make a loop, it was a bit of an effort, and (if you were me anyway) the results might be unpredictable and unusable. programming synths was a pain. loads of that work's been done for you these days. adding reverse echo to a track in ye olde worlde of analogue meant flipping your reel of tape over, playing it backwards while feeding the output of your chosen track out through a mixer, through a delay and recording that onto a spare track or two on your recorder at the same time. then you'd flip the tape back over to audition the results, rinse and repeat etc. in most digital audio apps that's a matter of a few second's work. your options are of course limited by both your willingness to explore them all and to some extent by the design of the software or instruments (or software instruments even) that you're using. but then multiply that by the bewildering rate that technology advances and you have some idea of he creative shit creek you can so easily row your sonic boat into.

musicians like eno, t. dream, kraftwerk, and even herbie hancock who made a name for themselves pushing the envelope of analogue technology naturally have felt the need to embrace the brave new world. sometimes the results have been horrific, not in kraftwerk's case of course; they were digital even when they were analogue. the technology changes so quickly, you either say (as eno has attempted) 'hold on a minute. i haven't really explored this thing here yet' and stick with a certain bit of gear, or you end up surrounded by 682 bits of kit you only use the presets from. sometimes (as with t.dream) you lose everything about you that might have made you interesting as you upgrade from creaky mellotrons and moogs to shiny roland or yamaha boxes.

i've been lead up that creek a few times. luckily, i only do that kind of thing for my own amusement so luckily my feeble soundblaster-driven epics from the 90s will remain off the public record, for which we should all be grateful. the problem is that it's often hard to remain in control. and even harder to realise that you might not be in control at all. sometimes of course loss of control is a good thing ('embrace hazard' is one of fripp's maxims). it's ironic that the most interesting things being done with digital technology are by those who are making it more analogue - more unpredictable, or warmer, or whatever. there are those whose aesthetic (for want of a better word) is strong enough that they'd produce something that was recognisably 'them' no matter if they used a hurdy gurdy and a wah wah pedal or a macbook stuffed with more sofware synths that you could count. i think my friend justin spooner's one of those....