Sunday, 2 May 2010

Before and after Eno (or how the Apollo space mission affected human consciousness)

Click for Apollo sample
When I invited a young friend to the performance of Brian Eno’s Apollo that opened the Brighton Festival last night (1 May 2010), I wasn’t tremendously surprised that she didn’t know who Brian Eno is. Despite her tender years, my friend is the veteran of countless surreal, early-morning chilled-out after-parties, so I was more confident of the effect of describing Eno as the father of ambient music. That was enough to get her to the Dome.

Ambient music has become a part of modern life, so fundamental to our experience that it is taken for granted, rather like our modern view of man in space. The lonely, beautiful, ever-changing disc of blue – earth viewed from space – has become a commonplace visual icon in our modern human consciousness, just as ambient electronic music has become an unremarkable strand in the aural texture of our lives. But there was a time before; the time before science became integral to our human essence. Eno’s music is the soundtrack to that transition: before and after science.

My companion came away from the concert dazzled. The performance was like taking the pure essence when you’ve been used to the diluted stuff. She stumbled over herself in her praise for Eno. “He is my new master,” she declared, revealing, I thought, an unconscious yearning for direction.

Eno originally produced Apollo as a soundtrack to Al Reinert’s docu-movie about the moon landings. It was a studio recording using electronic equipment that, in the 1980’s, was both experimental and state of the art. Technology has come a long way since then. As Eno pointed out, in a talk before the performance, the computing power applied to the entire Apollo space mission could be fitted into a modern mobile phone.

Last night, live musicians using acoustic instruments – including guitars, cello, drums, violin, wind, brass and pedal steel guitar – performed the sound track to Apollo. They sat beneath a giant screen projection of the hour-long movie, which was culled from six million hours of film footage shot by Nasa on their moon trips (more...)

The music is – ambient. You’ll have heard it on a TV programme or in an airport lounge or an elevator somewhere. Undulating harmonics, pure strains of music, emerge from a primal soup of plinks and plonks of falling drops, blend with haunting calls of sonic whale song, evolve to meditative chant and glide through clouds of soft, plaintive guitar, until suddenly we break into clear sunlight, soaring miles and miles above the swirling blue that is our lovely home, the perfect other, so far away it’s sad, and the wistful twang of country guitar picks up the refrain… and, oh my, it’s just us alone in this deep, deep blue. We’re looking down on the silently drifting earth, absorbed in images from the movie’s lunar capsule view of our fragile home.

The performance, combined with the stunning, surreal and sometimes familiar images of space travel in the 1970s is a trip through a landscape of audio and visual archetypes that would have tugged a psychic tear from Jung’s emotional heartstrings.

We didn’t know what the earth looked like from space before we took photos from up there, and our consciousness has been transformed utterly and irrevocably by the knowledge. That, and mastering nuclear power, and a few other things in the material dimension, have made us feel we are masters of our external world. But it doesn’t take too long looking around the mess we are creating on earth to realise that we are far from mastery of our inner selves, let alone the universe.

Eno appeared in the Brighton Dome to introduce the concert, and he made the perfect human contact for us. He appeared human-scale and friendly on stage, shaven headed and in smart casual dress, years away from the iconic image of him in psychedelic garb on Roxy Music album covers. Eno was 21 when the moon landing was made in 1969. He described watching the TV in his art teacher’s house, and looking up into the sky at the full moon, and realising, with a shock, that the TV pictures of men erecting an American flag on the moon were real things happening, right now, on the moon he could see hanging in the sky.

I think that was the point, the change in consciousness: the before and after science moment. The movie looks dated now. Nuts and bolts and men manually controlling the huge, phallic rocket, named after the patriarchal god Apollo, blasting tonnes and tonnes of fuel into reddish flame, as it thrust men into space, into the sacred vale of the gods, hitherto hidden from human experience.

Eno’s music gives us the heart-song, our hopes for the future, our knowledge of how small we really are, and offers a connection to all that we lost, when we lost our wonder of the world.

At the end, Eno came back to us, and sang with the orchestra. Eno is no virtuoso singer. He has mostly relied on studio production, or charismatic front men, for his public face. He told us he was about to sing “Another day on Earth”, and that tonight would be the first live performance of the song. His voice a faltered a little as he started singing, and we felt his frailty and braveness. We experienced an intimacy with this great artist as he allowed himself to be vulnerable. Next was “Julie with her open blouse” and I was adrift on the timeless open sea of my late twenties. The final song was his daughter’s favourite, Eno said, and she was sitting in the audience. By this time it felt like we were all family. Singing “By this River”, Eno sounded confident and at ease, and my mind slipped back to the images of the astronauts struggling to manage their weightlessness in space. So small, so frail and prone to failure, so full of hope and faith: so human. The audience responded with a standing ovation.

“Apollo: this is for all Mankind” was performed live on May 1, the opening night of the Brighton Festival 2010. It was composed by Brian Eno, arranged by Woojun Lee, who was in the audience, and performed by Icebreaker, with BJ Cole on pedal steel guitar. Al Reinert’s movie Apollo was projected as a huge backdrop to, and integral part of the performance.

Brian Eno is guest artistic director at the Festival, which runs 1-23 May 2010. Other works by Brian Eno at the festival include the audiovisual installation “77 Million Paintings”, at Fabrica Gallery (12 noon -8pm (free)), and the soundtrack to Malcolm Le Grice’s 1970 short film “Berlin Horse” which is running in continuous loop at the Lighthouse (Tues-Sun 11 am – 6pm (free)).

Link to Brighton Festival
Link to Apollo Sound Track


  1. Who on earth (or the moon for that matter) has not heard of Brian Eno?

  2. Aha, now that would be telling, Beau

  3. Thank you for the excellent post! I really enjoyed the flow of ideas, thoughts and observations.