OBLIQUE. It's the title track of Brian Eno's 1975 album Another Green World. The music fades in, plays for barely over a minute, and fades out. The content is almost nothing: a single ten-second motif, repeated over and over. The instrumentation is plain: piano, organ, guitar. There are no vocals. The piece has a limited range of notes, and just two chords. The chords make a familiar cadence, subdominant-seventh to tonic. It's a tiny drama of tension and release. Every cadence is a catharsis. Energy is discharged, irritation purged. We're left with post-coital peace, rest after hard labor. But something else is going on here, as well. The sense of an ending is ruined by repetition. The tonic chord doesn't ring forth majestically. It just peters out in a series of repeated bass notes. The motif turns back upon itself, and starts all over again. The two chords alternate, caught in an endless loop. This process could go on forever, without beginning or end. It leaves us suspended in mid-air or mid-ocean: "becalmed," as another song on the album puts it. The passage of time is marked only by changes in volume. As the sound fades in, we take notice, start paying attention. When we begin to get bored and restless, it fades out again. But the musical process itself is unaffected by these changes. It is oddly self-sufficient. It has no need for an audience, no need to be heard. It plays, for the most part, beneath the threshold of perception. It was already running long before we heard it. It will continue after we have gone. This process unfolds at its own pace, in a time that is not human. It never gets anywhere. But it never runs down either. It works to maintain a steady state. Energy is not discharged. Instead, it is sustained at a constant level. It's like running in place, or dancing in one spot. The balance is tenuous. It must be achieved anew at every moment. Fresh impulsions of desire must match the wear and tear of entropy. This music doesn't repeat itself, so much as it replenishes itself. It's like a plant that time and again puts out fresh shoots. Each reprise is a new impulse, a new beginning. The music makes itself up as it goes along. The result is indeed a repeated motif. But this repetition is only a result. It's not given beforehand. The course of the music's development can't be known in advance. For it is continually altered by its own feedback. None of the other tracks on the album are as stark as this one. Some are fairly peaceful, others are loud, active, even aggressive. But they all convey a sense of ongoing process. They all exhibit self-organizing, self-regulating order, just as living organisms do. Each is another self-sustaining ambience: an ecology, a pastoral, a green world. Order emerges precariously, at the very edge of chaos. Eno produced the album by "setting each piece within its own particular landscape and allowing the mood of that landscape to determine the kinds of activity that could occur." The aim is not to imitate the natural world, but to emulate it, simulate it, even surpass it. It's a matter, Eno says, of "exaggerating and inventing rather than replicating spaces." The ecology of the recording studio is every bit as intricate as that of a forest or swamp. Each track is a new virtual landscape, a second nature in its own right. Each has its own geography, its own special mood. These moods are almost too fragile and fleeting to be grasped. Words cannot define them, as "Sky Saw," the very first song on the album, reminds us: "All the words float in sequence,/ No one knows what they mean,/ Everyone just ignores them." Indeed, only five of the fourteen tracks have lyrics and vocals at all. The album is like program music without the program. It's all background and no foreground. It's evocative, but I can't quite say of what. I cannot enter into, much less inhabit, these landscapes of sound. They are too blank, too beautiful, too remote. Their process, their order, excludes my own. Their smooth, abstract surfaces offer no point of contact. I cannot discover anything of myself in them. I can only approach them obliquely. I contemplate them from afar. This alien beauty is what makes Eno's music so seductive. It calls out to me, because it is a thing apart. I feel it only as a breath, a whisper, the slightest of insinuations. But that is enough to entice me, gently, outside of myself. It lures me into regions from which there is no return. Slowly, I slip away from my center, from any center. I am left, on the last track, stranded anywhere or nowhere. All I can hear are "spirits drifting" passively through the night.
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