It is unusual and thought-provoking to see an artist like Brian Eno, known for his innovative use of technology, performing with a large orchestra. Tonight’s stage is filled with what some may consider outdated instruments, such as ornate cornets and emotional cellos, booming tubas and grandiose timpani. This tour marks the first time that Eno, a multi-talented individual known for his work as an app designer and generative music expert, has performed with an orchestra. Surprisingly, this is also his first solo tour in his 50-year career.
As a result of a request from the Venice Biennale, Eno will be performing his 2016 album The Ship live twice in one night in London alongside the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. This group is known for breaking away from traditional norms and often memorizing pieces to allow for movement during performances. On stage tonight, there are multiple musicians, some stationary such as the harp, keyboards, cellists, and percussionist, while others move around, occasionally facing the audience directly and displaying various emotions or crouching down during quieter moments.
Eno stands at the center of the dimly-lit stage, clad in a vibrant pink jacket resembling a pulsing heart. His command center consists of an array of electronic devices and a microphone. Beside him is actor Peter Serafinowicz, delivering solemn recitations of Fickle Sun (ii): The Hour Is Thin – seemingly authentic musings on war created by an algorithm. On Eno’s other side stands vocalist Melanie Pappenheim, contributing additional vocals, murmurs, and harmonies.
Although he gained recognition for his keyboard skills in Roxy Music and had a playful, theatrical persona with makeup, Eno has often described himself as not a musician. While his grandfather was an organ repairman, Eno did not have a traditional music education. During his time in art school in the late 1960s, he experimented with creating sounds using machines, similar to other visual and conceptual art forms. He is most well-known for pioneering ambient music and producing for artists like David Bowie, U2, and Coldplay. In the 1970s, Eno coined the term “ambient” to describe compositions that were not influenced by popular, classical, or jazz structures but had a three-dimensional quality with tangible texture and emotion, comparable to weather.
So while tonight’s gig makes full use of the conservatoire’s most traditional kit, this Ship is more like an almighty sound installation, in which the full pelt of the orchestra has an undeniably physical presence. The sounds are often tarry and malevolent, and come illuminated mostly by sulphurous low lights in the sepulchral first half.
Afterwards, the atmosphere becomes more melancholic, with a sense of solace and inspiration in the large group of 32 musicians on stage. The rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free” builds up to a climactic moment in the album and possibly the entire concert, sounding like a hymn and less like the Velvets and more like a 1960s band, the Beach Boys. It is the most traditional moment of the evening, but it is executed beautifully.
At their most impressive, these acoustic instruments can sometimes sound like electronic instruments with their droning, whining, and thrumming. They are able to accurately imitate the natural, three-dimensional groans of a ship’s hull or the all-encompassing noise of a battle during a storm at sea (with two whirly tubes playing a prominent role). According to Eno, The Ship was inspired by the Titanic and World War I, both monumental displays of human arrogance, which are reflected in the title track and the most significant piece of the evening, Fickle Sun (i).
His vocals, despite apologizing for his cold, are prominently featured and often enhanced with subtle effects. Although the songs have a nautical theme, they ultimately convey a message about the futility of trying to control the unpredictable forces of the ocean and the consequences of human hubris. Even the uplifting Velvet Underground-inspired track discusses breaking free from one “illusion” only to fall into another.
The encores, drawn from distant points of Eno’s vast discography, tend mostly towards work where his voice is present rather than an ambient greatest hits set. Who Gives a Thought and There Were Bells date from last year’s very song-based ForeverAndEverNoMore, and By This River from 1977’s Before And After Science. The natural world is often uppermost in some of these selections, and their fluttery bittersweetness tends, perhaps, a little too much towards the merely pleasant rather than the truly beatific.
The destructive sounds of war are the most lasting impression in this timely performance. The artist Eno brings back his 2005 song “Bone Bomb,” inspired by two newspaper articles – one about a woman wanting to be a suicide bomber and another about an Israeli doctor treating injured victims. Eno’s voice trembles as he explains that the next song, “Making Gardens Out of Silence,” was repurposed as a requiem for those affected by the conflict in Israel and Palestine.