It is uncommon and intellectually interesting to discover an artist like Brian Eno, known for his innovation and use of technology, performing with a large orchestra. The stage is filled with traditional instruments that some may consider outdated, such as cornets, cellos, tubas, and timpani. This tour is significant as it marks the first time that Eno, a multi-talented individual with a background in app design and generative music, has collaborated with an orchestra. It is also his first solo tour in his 50-year career.
Eno, in collaboration with the Venice Biennale, will be performing a live rendition of his 2016 album The Ship twice in London with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. This ensemble is known for their diverse background and willingness to break away from traditional norms. They often memorize pieces to allow for movement during performances. The stage will feature a variety of musicians, some stationary (such as the harp, keyboards, cellists, and percussionist) and others in motion, engaging with the audience or taking on different poses.
Eno, in a pink jacket resembling a beating heart, stands at the center of the dimly lit stage. His mission control consists of an array of electronic equipment and a microphone. Accompanying him is actor Peter Serafinowicz, delivering the solemn words of Fickle Sun (ii): The Hour Is Thin – a collection of seemingly believable reflections on war created by an algorithm. On Eno’s other side is vocalist Melanie Pappenheim, adding additional vocals, murmurs, and harmonies.
Although initially gaining fame as a keyboardist for Roxy Music, Eno often refers to himself as a non-musician. This is partly true, as his musical background was not rooted in classical training like his grandfather, who repaired organs. Instead, Eno explored sound creation through machines during his time at art school in the late 1960s, approaching it as a form of visual or conceptual art. While he is most recognized for pioneering ambient music and producing for artists such as David Bowie, U2, and Coldplay, Eno coined the term “ambient” in the 1970s to describe compositions that did not conform to traditional pop, classical, or jazz structures. These pieces aimed to evoke spatial dimensions and provoke emotional responses, much like the unpredictable nature of weather.
Tonight’s performance utilizes the conservatoire’s traditional equipment, but this Ship is akin to a powerful sound installation. The orchestra’s full force has an undeniable physical presence. The sounds are dark and menacing, accentuated by low, sulphurous lighting in the first half.
As the performance progresses, the atmosphere shifts to a more mournful tone, but there is a sense of solace and inspiration in the large number of musicians present on stage – a total of 32. The rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free” builds up to a crescendo, serving as the pinnacle of the album and possibly the entire concert. The sound takes on a hymnal quality and bears little resemblance to the Velvets, instead evoking a completely different 60s group – the Beach Boys. This is perhaps the most traditional moment of the evening, but it is executed flawlessly.
At their most remarkable, these acoustic instruments can sound eerily electronic with their droning, whining, and thrumming. They convincingly imitate the natural, three-dimensional groans of a ship’s hull or the encompassing noise of a stormy battle at sea (with two whirly tubes contributing their own unique sounds). Eno has shared that The Ship was influenced by both the Titanic and World War I – two monumental displays of human arrogance, which are rawly exposed in the title track and Fickle Sun (i), the most significant pieces of the night.
His vocals, as he acknowledges his cold, are prominently featured and often enhanced with subtle effects. Despite the maritime inspiration, the songs are ultimately anti-shanties that explore themes of perceived control and the relentless power of the sea, leading to destruction and human foolishness. Even the uplifting Velvet Underground-inspired track touches on breaking free from one illusion only to succumb to 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 powerful and impactful sounds of destruction, like the deep moan of a cello being overwhelmed by dark forces, are what truly resonate in this timely performance about war. One particularly poignant moment is when Eno revisits his 2005 song Bone Bomb, inspired by two newspaper articles – one about a woman who aspired to be a Palestinian suicide bomber, and another about an Israeli doctor removing bone fragments from injured individuals. Eno’s voice trembles as he explains how he “repurposed” the following track, the hauntingly subtle Making Gardens Out of Silence, as a requiem for those in Israel and Palestine.