An Ending Still Ascending after Thirty Years

I’ve come full circle on this one. I probably had trying to learn to play “An Ending” in mind when I bought this machine, because I recognized it could be appropriated to accomplish similar cross-swell effect. A keyboard synthesizer is more abundant in terms of output, and playing chords would make the tonal succession inherent in the movement much more natural (in spite of what I thought at the time about the fantastic dynamic range of of my chosen instrument and what I’d be able to achieve with subtle tension) but the compact layout and touch sensitivity of the pads suited the ergonomic comfort and dynamic control and I was looking for at the time.

Learning the piece first required finding tonal textures with which to tune one of the patches that would suit the overall feel, as it quickly became clear that I was not going to be able to mimic the original sound convincingly. That was a chore extensive enough that I’ve probably forgotten how much time and effort went into it.

Breaking down the precise timing for performance proved to be painstaking as well – frustrating already for my having had to choose a simple tonic or dominant note for each of the chords, with the occasional pitch shift accompaniment chosen more for the effect it had on the overall tone rather than authenticity – but satisfying as the process began to render results.

What I hadn’t counted on, however, was that it would destroy, for me, the depth of allure of the original composition, which like many of my favorites was rooted in its being alien. If it was mysterious to analyze prior to my dissecting it, once I’d gotten so far as to manage from memory the ability to trigger the notes in sequence and with proper timing of attack, sustain, and decay, I wasn’t anymore able to hear the original the same way. The mystery was gone.

Not that I thought I had brought about anything nearly as lovely. It’s had its moments, sure, but when you play out with as many variations as I have over the decade-plus since I acquired it… well, like the broken clock twice the Earth rotation ::: bound to be sublime a couple of times, and close a few times beyond that. Still, if you touch your ear to it, you can tell it’s not ticking.

And I did get round to recording it for posterity last year when I saw that a group in New York had done a 30-year tribute (one year early). But my result was less than I had anticipated even, which wasn’t a great deal besides.

Besides that, what I had learned to play & since forgotten had drifted so far from what it was based on, I’ve wanted since then to begin again.

So, I figured I’d give the original structure and tuning another go on the occasion of the official 30th anniversary of the release of the album on which it appears, Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks.

I listened to the recording again. One upside to not having heard it for so long (save for when ignoring its crass usage in other media) is that the lustrous swelling returned to trigger something. You can never go back, but this was close. I was hearing enough of a departure from what I had gotten used to performing that the essence of the mystery crept through a crevice in my memory bank, back through the crust, to an older version of my sense memory.

Or I just forgot a lot of shit.

Something interesting that I don’t recall having considered: How it begins and ends on the album defines its obscurity. More specifically, the segment of the phrase that begins the piece on the recording, because it’s faded in, begins only the creation of a shape one cannot identify – or, in this case, sets the tone for what ends up as that which sounds to me like formless symmetry. And that’s precisely how An Ending hit me: a shapeless repetition that could go on forever if it didn’t happen a few times and then fade out again.

Though I’d wished that Eno would do more longer tracks like the ones featured on the albums Discreet Music, Music for Airports, Thursday Afternoon, and Neroli (and quite contrary to many of the tidbits on Music for Films), the studio-fade was made for a composition like An Ending.

Naturally it’s possible with today’s technology for a listener to edit the recorded track on the album to fit endless repeat (on one’s home computer or what have you) but as it is, the fade-in and fade-out make the composition virtually eternal – without beginning or end.

(The Big Ship from Another Green World, on the other hand, sails right on by making you wonder where it went and when it’s coming back.)

But if you just start playing it at a certain spot in nearly full voice – the way I’d been doing it live – the entire piece takes on an inescapable shape & feel, based solely on that factor. And I almost always jumped right in with the phrase landing at the most frequently occurring pitch (transposed for my purposes to -1400 cents), which establishes a linear feeling, leaning in an identifiable direction, no-less, that’s nothing like what it should be in its purest form.

I have not corrected that here and, less-over, have forgone the usual backdrop of delay or bed of effect that has often colored my concert renditions. And my tone is still nowhere near as auroral, but I hope some of the sensibility remains. At any rate, to me, Eno’s sounds magical again.

Here’s to 2043! – and the by then ho-hum revelation that the whole damn album had been staged.

From Apollo: An Ending (parenthetically logged as “Ascent”)

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