Eno's The Ship at Veletržní palác

The installation is meant to be an ambient three-dimensional song

Musician Brian Eno was in Prague recently for the opening of his music installation called The Ship, which is at National Gallery's Veletržní palác until Sept. 10, 2017. The piece is also billed as the seventh chapter of the Moving Image Department, an ongoing series at the gallery. This entry has no moving images though. The piece itself is the image. There are also two older videos from the 1980s by Eno on display.

Eno is most closely associated with ambient music, a term he coined but he admits he did not invent the genre. Before that he was in the rock band Roxy Music and he issued a handful of avant-garde rock solo albums. “I spent five years at art school and like many people I left art school and immediately joined a rock band” he said. He didn't stop working in visual art. “In 1976 I started working with light, which is my preferred medium,” he said. He then began to make installations that included this new ambient music. “At the same time in a parallel life I was still making records with songs. So for about 40 years I had three separate careers. One was making rock 'n' roll music, one was making ambient music and the third was making installations of visual objects. And if I wasn't so stupid I would have realized a long time ago I could do all three at the same time, but it took me a while,” he said.

Eno said he was very pleased to have his work in Veletržní palác, which he called an absolutely fantastic building. His installation The Ship is in one large, dimly lit room with speakers playing a 15-track recording. Some faux-candles are on the floor and there are odd bits of furniture to sit and relax on. The whole piece takes almost an hour to listen to. The effect is not unlike a modern church, if it was built in a warehouse or cargo hold. The piece does have a beginning and an end, but Eno said it doesn't really matter when you come in, though he did recommend staying for the whole 54 minutes.

“I am slightly humbled by the Picassos and other painters that are here [in the same gallery],” he said, before turning to his own work. “This piece I am installing began life in 2014. I was commissioned by the oldest still working electronic music studio in the world … which is in Stockholm. It opened in 1932,” he said.

“I was asked to make a multi-channel piece of music. They had obviously heard my ambient music and wanted a version of it for this very large room they had,” he said.

“I was thinking a lot at the time about the First World War. It was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Two years earlier, 2012, had been the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The two events seemed to be very analogous. They were both sort of expressions of huge hubris and confidence in human achievement. The Titanic was the boat that would never sink. The First World War was the war that was going to be won in two or three weeks. Both of those predictions didn't come true,” he said.

“But they showed a kind of side of human nature which I think has been very evident in the 21st century. The hubristic side — we are so big we can do anything, we are too big to fail. We saw it in the invasion of Iraq. We saw it in the banking crisis. And we are seeing it now in America again,” he said. “I started working on a piece which was an abstract musical piece of quite a dark complexion. It was not a cheerful piece of music. And during working on it — the beginning of piece was in the key of C — and I found to my surprise that I could sing a low C. I can tell you now one of the only advantages of getting old is that your voice gets deeper, so if you are a singer you suddenly have access to a range that you didn't have before. The bad news is you lose all the top notes. But anyway, I discovered I could sing this very low note,” he said.

“When I was working on the piece without thinking that it was intended to be a vocal piece … I found myself singing this low note,” he said, demonstrating. “And I started getting this image of a sea, an ocean that was disturbed and chaotic and dangerous. After a while I realized that I was writing a song, and the ship was the Titanic, and the Titanic was a kind of metaphor for this whole human issue of thinking we are too big to fail,” he said.

“So the piece developed as something quite new to me, which is the idea of an ambient three-dimensional song. I was a songwriter in the past an I made songs that ended up on CDs and records. Sometimes even in the charts though that was not a common fate of my songs. Nonetheless, I had thought of songs as something that come out of two loudspeakers. So for me to think of a song as a place that you visit, a place that you live inside of, was a different feeling for me. And so I began making my first three-dimensional song, and the whole of the rest of the piece developed out of that idea of trying to make a song that you can walk around inside,” he said. He also said that he previously thought ambient music and vocals could not be mixed.

Eno has made other ambient pieces to be played in public settings. “I assumed that people would come to listen to this piece. I don't assume that in an airport. I don't assume that people go to airports to hear music … they go to airports to catch a plane. So it is a different demand the music is making really.” he said. Music for Airports was Eno's first ambient album in 1978, and it was played in La Guardia Airport for a time in the 1980s.

The Ship is different. “I am assuming I am making something that isn't a background. In this case I am making something that is the foreground, is the whole ground, actually. So it is a different feeling,” he said.

The Ship is not his most recent recording. He also released Reflection on Jan. 1, 2017, as an album and an app. “[The app] produces that piece of music infinitely, produces it as constantly changing so it doesn't repeat. So the app is the major version. … I am hoping to get the idea of infinitely long pieces of music to become a big idea. I met somebody just last night here who said, 'I have been listening to the piece for the last five hours,'” she said.

Eno had not been in Prague since the last time he had an installation here. “I did work in Prague nearly 20 years ago with Jiří Příhoda … at Gallery Nová síň in 1998,” Eno said, referring to the Music for Prague installation. “It is very nice to be back here, and it is a totally different city, actually. In 19 years, I don't know if you realized it but Prague has gone somewhere else and there is this new Prague here. It is nice. I like it. So congratulations on your wonderful city,” he said, adding that he hoped Czech voters would not go down the wrong road.

For more information visit www.ngprague.cz.

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