"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Brian Eno is widely considered one of the great contemporary composers and music producers, famously for his work with U2 and Coldplay, but perhaps most influentially with David Bowie and the Talking Heads. He began his career in 1971, in his early 20s, as a member of the band Roxy Music, then left to make music on his own, including such albums as “Another Green World,” “Music for Airports” and with David Byrne, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” a landmark in the history of sampling.
His fascination with musical technologies and artistic systems led him to popularize the Koan algorithmic music generator, and, with Peter Schmidt, to develop the “Oblique Strategies” deck of cards, an intervention into the artistic process. His music is heard, unknowingly, by millions of people every day: he created the start-up sound of the Microsoft Windows 95 operating software. He is a founder of the Long Now Foundation, whose mandate is to educate the public into thinking about the distant future. “Drums Between the Bells” is his latest release.
David Mitchell, born in 1969, is the acclaimed, award-winning author of the novels “Ghostwritten” (1999), “Number9Dream” (2001), “Cloud Atlas” (2004) — the latter two shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize — “Black Swan Green” (2006), and “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” (2010). Granta selected him as one of the best young British novelists, and he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, which credited him with having “created the 21st century novel.” Mitchell was raised in England, spent many years teaching and writing in Japan, and presently lives in Ireland with his wife and their two children.
Mitchell and Eno were fans and admirers of each other before the idea for this conversation came about, and spoke for the first time over email. David Mitchell asked questions, and Brian Eno provided answers.
I. NO SONG, NO BEAT,
NO MELODY, NO MOVEMENT
Do you agree that no new genre is ever invented, but rather hybridized from something that was there before? That infallible source Wikipedia credits you with coining the phrase ambient music. If that’s so, from what was ambient music cross-pollinated?
Yes, nothing starts from nowhere. My version of ambient was the coalescence of lots of different streams. Some of them were musical, others not. The musical threads I picked up would include Satie, of course, but also the early experiments of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and the other minimalist composers of the late ’60s — all of whom were looking at music as a “steady state” rather than a narrative experience. Also, I would have to add that it was the slow movements of classical works that appealed to me most — the parts where less was happening.
But really, the idea arose out of the new possibilities of the medium of recording. I listened with interest to the work of producers like Phil Spector and Joe Meek and George Martin because I realized that they were doing things with music that could be described as sound painting. For me, trained as a painter, this was exciting: Music was being made like paintings were made, adding and subtracting, manipulating colors, built up over a period of time rather than performed in one sitting. Separated from performance, recorded sound had become a malleable material, like paint or clay. And the results of this process were pointing toward a type of music that was less linear and more immersive: music you lived inside.
The technologies of this manipulation were what I came to specialize in, and they multiply every week, so quite a lot of my time is spent playing with new technology to see what it can do that could never be done before.
What does Doctor Pangloss have to say about how 21st-century human ingenuity is being channeled into inventing juicy gizmos like the iPad, instead of preparing for a world without oil, which, if even conservative estimates are correct, will be upon us by the time my daughter is in her late 20s?
The hope is that some of these gizmos become the tools by which we make those preparations. It’s a worry: Are we entertaining ourselves to death, or are we actually learning new ways of coping? Only time will tell.
One of my favorite definitions of time is that time is what stops everything happening at once. I wonder if music is what stops noise happening all at once?
I think much of your music — like on the albums “Music for Airports,” “Apollo,” “Discreet Music,” “The Pearl” — is ideal writing music. It can kick-start a good writing session, and then, if your mind wanders back to the here and now, your music sends it back to work, but these four albums never obtrude or nag or distract. I wonder if there’s a “Man From Porlock” spectrum on which all music can be placed with, say, Ian Dury at the Porlock end — which is impossible to work to, where listening is compulsory — and much of your work toward the non-Porlock end?
I remember an early review of one of my ambient records saying something like, “No song, no beat, no melody, no movement” — and they weren’t being complimentary. But I think they were accurate, because this is a music of texture and sonic sensuality more than it is any of those things they were alluding to. I’m sure when the first abstract paintings appeared, people said, “No figure, no structure,” etc … The point about melody and beat and lyric is that they exist to engage you in a very particular way. They want to occupy your attention.
I wanted to hear a music that could create an atmosphere that would support your attention but still let you decide where it was directed.
I think I got to this place by noticing what I wanted from music in my own life. Of course I wanted the high-focus, exclusive, pure-Porlock stuff like the Velvet Underground and Shostakovich — but I also wanted a music that simply “tinted” the air around me. Problem was, there wasn’t much of that kind, and what there was all had something wrong with it from my point of view — classical was too stiff and carried the baggage of people sawing away at violins; jazz had too much personality; Muzak was unbearably oversweet.
By the early ’70s, a few friends and I were exchanging cassettes we’d compiled from our record collections — long sequences of “mono-mood” music that were intended to create and maintain a feeling for a long time. Remember that records at this time were compiled on the assumption that nobody could possibly want to spend more than four minutes in the same feeling, so you’d get a fast track and then a ballad and then a dance number, and most classical music was similar: allegro, andante, largo. All of this was based on the idea that music was an ephemeral form — which it used to be, before recording — and that you’d therefore be after an adventure, a narrative.
With recording, everything changed. The prospect of music being detachable from time and place meant that one could start to think of music as a part of one’s furniture. It’s an idea that many composers have felt reluctant about because it seemed to them to diminish the importance of music. But my feeling is that it just widens the possibilities: It doesn’t prevent anyone from writing difficult and engaging, high-Porlock music if that’s what they want to do, and I’ve always tried to make it clear where I felt any particular piece of my own work rested on that widened spectrum. I came up with the word “ambient” to suggest that here was a kind of music that rewarded a different sort of listening behavior, but the term certainly isn’t meant to cover everything I do.
I notice that a lot of pop music now is much further toward the non-Porlock end than it used to be. Bands like Portishead and the Cocteau Twins started it (well, I suppose I did, too, but they made it successful). Now there are countless bands that have a sort of ambient-pop sound, where the vocals are partly buried, the instruments are swathed in echo, and the rhythm instruments are softer and more distant.
Perhaps when music has been shouting for so long, a quieter voice seems attractive.
II. SKY BLUE AND LIGHT
I read that Paul McCartney got the tune for “Yesterday” from a dream. Once I dreamed that I opened a wooden box at the end of my bed, and on it was written “The Language of Mountains Is Rain.” I used the phrase in an early book. Have your dreams ever chucked you a freebie like that?
I’ve had quite a lot of luck with dreams. I’ve often awoken in the night with a phrase or even a whole song in my head. The fact that these works come from dreams is no guarantee that they’re going to be any good — a direct line to the subconscious is only rewarding if there’s something interesting going on there — but nonetheless it is a thrill to be “given” a chunk of material like that. The song “On Some Faraway Beach” came almost intact in a dream, and, to a lesser extent, other songs have drawn lines or titles from dreams. “Two Voices,” from my album with Peter Schwalm, is an intact dream-poem. I awoke one night with an image of a piece of paper and all the words of the poem written on it, so I just blundered down to the kitchen table and “copied it out.”
I’ve occasionally dreamed ideas for types of music. One was called “reality score,” and it involved the use of samples. Every sound was sampled from a momentous historical recording — the snare drum was a recording of the shot that killed President Kennedy, and so on. I still think this could be great, but I don’t have the necessary persistence and nerdery to actually get it done.
Are you synesthetic? Do you think music can convey emotion because music is a form of universal synesthesia? In my limited case, days of the week and common male names have colors.
I don’t think I’d call myself synesthetic, although I do think of sounds in terms of temperature and brightness and hard-edgedness and angularity. Is that being synesthetic? I don’t seem to have an invariable and involuntary set of responses of the kind you and Nabokov have — a “the letter d is dusty olive green” kind. I do, however, have extremely strong responses to certain “aesthetic” things. I am made furious, for example, by a minor chord lazily used in songwriting, or a throwaway middle eight written just for “variety.”
I despise variety for its own sake. My friends and colleagues find the extremity of my reactions very amusing. Conversely, I am always deeply moved by certain combinations of sound or color — sky blue and light chocolate brown, for example. But there are thousands of others! I have spent a lot of time wondering where those strong preferences come from.
What is interesting to me about music among all the arts is that it is, and always has been, as far as I know, a completely nonfigurative medium. Although cover notes for classical music albums tend to say that the trill of flutes suggests mountain streams and so on, I don’t think anybody listens to music with the expectation that they’re going to be presented with a sort of landscape painting. Even opera, with its strong narrative element, doesn’t depend on the narrative for its effect. So although lots of people still find abstract painting difficult to deal with, they are very happy to listen to music — a much more resolutely abstract form of art.
I know what you mean when you describe music as being resolutely more abstract than art, but doesn’t music’s emotional directness explain its accessibility? Even vocal-less music can stimulate adrenaline, calm you down, or bring on homesickness with a wallop that only literature can rival, among the arts.
When you think about it, why does music have any emotional appeal at all? Why should something so unlike anything else in our experience — unlike, that is, any sound generated by the normal workings of the world — have an emotional impact? Perfume seems to have a similar directness, in that we are affected by it without really being able to articulate why; as opposed to stories, for example, where we have a clearer sense of what’s going on and why it might matter to us.
A science website asked several scientists to tell them what they thought was the most interesting question you could ask of science at this moment. Most of the replies were of the nature “Is the alpha constant stable over the universe?,” “Will the Riemann hypothesis hold?,” “Does junk DNA have a function in the genome?” — science questions. My friend Danny Hillis asked, “Why do we like music?” — a question that has formed the basis of our conversations over the years. And that is truly a mysterious question, which many learned books have utterly failed to answer. Why do I like one composer’s string quartet rather than another’s, when to a Martian visitor they’d seem indistinguishable? What are the differences we’re hearing? What intrinsic wiring exists for having feelings about music? — and by intrinsic wiring I mean the kind of wiring that leads us to prefer symmetrical faces to asymmetrical ones, or to be frightened of spiders.
I used to think that, given enough goodwill, anybody would be able to “get” any music, no matter how distant the culture from which it came. And then I heard Chinese opera.
III. THERE ISN’T A HORSECOW,
THERE ISN’T A VIOLINET
Do you think that music involves propinquity? I’ve noticed with writing, just by placing sentence A — about a ladybird, say — next to sentence B — about a man’s last three seconds of life — a C gets generated as if by alchemy. It’s not there, but it is. You don’t even have to write C — in fact, you shouldn’t. I was wondering if this happens in music, and, if it does, whether this is why, even where your music eschews melody, it still feels as if there is a tune, so long as you don’t try too hard to identify it?
The problem with analyzing music is that there are so many relevant variables. The most complicated is context. When you hear a great moment in a piece of music, how far can you separate it from its context? And how much of its context is relevant: the preceding two bars? The surrounding four bars? The whole piece? What is the context, anyway? Is it your knowledge of how the piece was played? Your understanding of the artist’s other works? Your understanding of the whole genre? I always think that whenever you listen to a piece of music, what you are actually doing is hearing the latest sentence in a very long story you’ve been listening to — all the pieces of music you’ve ever heard. So what you are listening to are tiny differences, tiny innovations. Something new is added, something you’ve grown used to is omitted, something you thought you were familiar with sounds different.
Why are some chords sinister and dimly lit, and others seem wistful, while others are brash and extroverted? How come?
One could maintain that there are no fundamental musical responses — that they’re all the result of acculturation, so somebody growing up in an entirely different culture could quite possibly receive entirely different emotional signals. But this extreme position is not supported by evidence. There do seem to be some “pre-cultural” fundamentals. I think we universally hear “louder” as “more exciting, alarming” and “brighter” as more “lively,” for example. I think few people would argue about that. But there’s a lot of argument about subtler points. Does everybody feel that minor chords (that is, chords with a flattened third) are darker, sadder, more nuanced? If so, why?
The psycho-acoustician’s answer is that the more dissonant a chord is, the more work our perceptual machinery has to do to read it. A minor chord — say C, E-flat, G — apparently requires more neural processing than its major — C, E, G. That may be true: The notes in the former are more complexly related, mathematically. But I don’t understand why it follows that we would translate that neural overtime into “sinister” or “melancholy.”
Of course, a simpler argument is to say that we respond more fondly and comfortably to chords that are most like the ones we heard as children, and are more alarmed and disturbed by those which we connect to our more complicated adulthood. But this argument’s a bit circular: Do we play music made up of major chords to children because that’s what they like and understand, or do we like those chords because that’s what we hear first as children? What responses would a child brought up in a dogmatically 12-tone household have?
Anyway, there’s a whole other axis to consider here. In classical times, or pre-electronic times, the question of timbre was of limited importance. A violin sounded like a violin, and, in the hands of a great player, it could be extended a little this way or that. But it always sounded like a violin, rather than, say, a kettledrum or a harp. So with all other instruments: each is an isolated sonic island in the same way that animal species are isolated genetic islands. Just as there isn’t such a thing as a horsecow, there isn’t a violinet. But there can be now. The field of timbre is effectively unlimited and continuous, and a lot of what contemporary composers — particularly in pop music — are doing is exploring that huge new palette.
One of the interesting results of that exploration is that the distinctions between, say, major and minor are now augmented, or even displaced, by these new timbral effects. I can confidently invest the brightest major chord with the deepest sadness by manipulating its timbre. Funnily enough, this is something the kitsch painter Tretchikoff discovered. His “Blue Lady” pictures are perfectly normal women made to look deeply interesting by being deep blue. That sort of trick is a commonplace in modern music.
It’s a good day when I learn about a job or discipline I didn’t know existed — psycho-acoustician, thank you for that!
IV. HOW BLIND PEOPLE
MIGHT SEE RADIATORS
With which dead composers do you feel a sense of kinship?
A very important figure in my life was Cornelius Cardew, who died young, in 1981. His approach to making music was fiercely experimental, and although a lot of the experiments now seem a bit dated, when they first worked, they were eye-opening. Cardew started the Scratch Orchestra, of which I was a member. This was a large group of mostly art students who, under Cardew’s influence, regarded the making of music as a kind of philosophical enterprise. That idea of music as philosophy embodied stayed with me.
Painterly isn’t an adjective I would have applied to your music before this dialogue, but, now that I think about it, it strikes me as rather a good one. I’d read somewhere you’d trained as an artist.
I feel a lot more connection with painters than composers. Mondrian, for example, is a big star in my firmament. I am still amazed by the magical simplicity of his paintings. Since Mondrian was the first modern painter with whom I really connected, I’m sure that this feeling of “magic from limited means” has remained a strong meme for me, and why I’d call myself a minimalist.
Novels are palimpsests written over earlier versions, red herrings, wrongly barked-up trees, and still somehow contain the ghosts of the novels that didn’t get written in order for this one, the finished one, to emerge. In a not-dissimilar way, one senses the thought behind an Eno composition — all the paths not taken to find the uncluttered path that is taken.
When I do listen close and hard to your work — as opposed to writing to it — I feel watched. I don’t know where this is going — a confession of paranoia, perhaps! — but your music has a particular hold on its listeners, and we hanker to know why. Sentient snakes may feel a similar curiosity about snake charmers.
Mondrian and “magic from limited means” shed light on your work. For me, you’ve always been a sonic Rothko. A friend describes Rothko as “how blind people might see radiators.”
A brilliant analogy!
You and less than 10 other British musicians have been making artistically muscular and widely listened-to music for, what, five decades? What’s the secret of artistic longevity in the music business? This question was inspired by a recent biography of Syd Barrett — it contained a strong metaphor about creativity being like a tube of paint of finite size, and if you squeeze it out all in one go, there’s none left for a long-term career, but if you spend it in more judicious dabs, you can go on and on. Tube size differs, as it were, but I like the basic image.
Thanks for the compliment, but I think I can only claim four decades at the moment. Perhaps the answer is not to be too successful at any particular thing: Success can become an albatross for an artist, as it does for those actors who do so well in a particular role that they can never successfully take on any other.
What one human work gets to be saved from the fires of destruction at the end of the world?
Christ! That’s a tough one. I could mount a good argument for writing, but a better one for recording, since theoretically that could subsume writing into itself. The very idea of recording — of saving experiences in some way so that they become available to others — is, after all, the basis of human culture: namely, the way in which humans can pass information to each other and thus escape their purely genetic destiny.
I like your observation about how recording fixes the ephemeral, like insects in amber. It makes me think of how the printed word is frozen speech, or perhaps pickled thought. Kilgore Trout might imagine a world where novelists read their work from memory, just the once, then get plastered on home brew to lose their latest work forever, though the collapse of civilization will achieve the same end.
If you could email your 20-year-old self about what was ahead, what would you tell him? Or would you tell him nothing and just let him get on with it?
I think I’d say, “Put out as much as you can. It doesn’t do anything sitting on a shelf.” My feeling is that a work has little value until you “release” it, until you liberate it from yourself and your excuses for it — “It’s not quite finished yet,” ”The mix will make all the difference,” etc. Until you see it out there in the world along with everything else, you don’t really know what it is or what to think of it, so it’s of no use to you.
This article first appeared in the Believer. To read more from the Believer, or to subscribe, visit www.believermag.com.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)