Sunday, May 15, 2016

Brian Eno: Spontaneous Hypnosis

My Oblique Strategies card says "Don't break the silence."

My parents were gone for the weekend. Rather than seeing this as an invitation to debauchery, I took it as an opportunity for experimentation of a quite different sort. Not long before, I had invested a chunk of my savings into a major object of desire at St. Mark's Sounds: the Brian Eno box set Working Backwards 1983-1973. As advertised, this magnificent monolith of vinyl contained every Eno solo album from Here Come The Warm Jets to Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks. There were also two bonus discs, Music For Films Volume II and a 12" EP of rarities, including Seven Deadly Finn's and Eno's beautiful cover of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

On the back of Ambient #4: On Land, there was a description of "An 'Ambient' Speaker System" using three speakers, complete with a diagram. I had read it over many times, intrigued by such descriptions as " opens out the music and seems to enlarge the room acoustically." And now, with my parents away, I was going to try it. I disconnected one of their speakers from the living room Hi Fi and brought it to my room. 

I followed Eno's instructions (prescription?) and hooked up both terminals of the third speaker to the left and right positive connectors on my amp, creating a triangular layout in my room. "I arrived at this system by experiment," Eno writes, "and I don't really know why it works. What seems to happen is that the third speaker reproduces any sound that is not common to both sides of the stereo - i.e., everything that is not located centrally in the stereo image - and I assume that this is because the common information is put out of phase with itself and cancels out." Ok, Brian, let's give this thing a test drive...

I put on side one of On Land settled back to listen in my swiveling arm chair. Within a few minutes, before Lizard Point was even over, something happened. I was out. But not asleep. The room fell away and I was truly experiencing the music "from the inside" as Eno had hoped. The sounds assumed an almost physical form around me, with color and shape, and occupied my mind completely. This state of suspended animation continued even after the side ended. The sounds continued in my head for a few moments and I was unaware of the resulting quiet, or even of the needle lifting from the record and the tonearm swinging back to its black plastic holster.

When the room reassembled itself, I realized what had occurred. Fortunately, I had a point of reference because of my father's work with a technique of relaxed concentration in his psychiatric practice. This technique was called hypnosis, or self-hypnosis, and he used it to help people quit smoking, lose weight, or cope with stage fright without using drugs. This type of hypnosis bore no resemblance to the Hollywood swinging-pendulum-hop-like-a-bunny hooey that you might think of when you hear that word. He had taught me the technique a few years earlier to help me master my fear of math, which was causing serious problems at school, and I had never forgotten how it felt.

There was no question. Eno's speaker setup had induced a state of spontaneous hypnosis. I sat for a few minutes, stunned, even a little spooked. "No one will ever believe this happened," I thought to myself, as I quietly dismantled Eno's electronic hypnogogic and returned the speaker to the living room. Eno's system was clearly too powerful to use on a regular basis. I can only imagine what might have happened if I had bought the cassette version, which features all of On Land continuously on one side! Sceptical? Consider the fact that the diagram was omitted from the CD release of the album.

You probably don't have three speakers in your house but perhaps you can find some way to celebrate the unique achievement of Eno, born this day 67 years ago. You could do worse than to listen to his intriguing, theatrical new album The Ship, which concludes with this spine-tingling rendition of I'm Set Free by The Velvet Underground, the first cover he's recorded since The Lion Sleeps Tonight in 1975.

You may also enjoy:
Brian Eno (Which contains a shorter version of this anecdote)
Listening To Lux On West 57th


  1. We call that cool and simple means of ambience extraction the"Hafler Circuit":

  2. Very cool - thanks for sharing that tidbit!