Brian Eno’s Surrender Sonata

‘Surrendering is knowing when you can’t control something and knowing how to go with the flow of it… You control when you move your surfboard in the right relationship to the wave, and then you surrender to be taken by the wave’

After I left Brian Eno’s ‘Empty Formalism’ installation and stepped onto the U-Bahn, I read his explanatory preamble for the first time. It talked about critics’ attempts to search for decodable meaning in visual art, something which is apparently never expected in music. ‘Nobody ever said of a Roy Orbison song, or a Mozart sonata: “I don’t understand it, I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean.” It is what it is, and its “meaning”—whatever that word means—is its effect on you.’ The first bit feels obviously, provocatively wrong, but the second is pretty close to the notes I typed whilst lying on my back inside Empty Formalism. See what you think.

Her ponytail spreads into a small, brown thicket set against sky blue. At its end the blue stops, and baby pink frames her shoulders. The top of her head crests a perfect turquoise circle, as if she’s balancing an empty, calm thought bubble.

It’s impossible not to face people in the Hexadrome, unless you look up, away from its 7 inwards-facing screens, through a snowflake of black poles and into the dark sky, where you see a few dim shards of colour reflected in the hall’s glass ceiling. Looking up into grey, as clean ambience (reminiscent of Eno’s 1985 record Thursday Afternoon, but with a synthetic lilt) plays in your ears feels good, but it’s obviously secondary; how could you resist looking at those enormous pink, green, orange opals, larger and cleaner and purer than anything else in the city. 7 circle arrangements fade in and out of focus, gently changing in colour. They’re shaped like pupils and retinas, and watched by a hundred or so pairs of eyes underneath.

Love in pop music is often the same, it’s often got the same base facial expressions, the same heart rate. You see and hear love again and again, moulded into different faces and words. It’s exciting and scary, it’s intense and overwhelming, triggering peaks and valleys as chords hit your pleaser spots and eventually thud against your temple. It doesn’t matter that it’s the same, because you aren’t, and you can always do with a reminder of the light at the end of the tunnel.

Surrendering is part of love (and many other things). You open yourself and let someone slip into you, let them fill up your head. Pupil dilation isn’t far away from that, literally or metaphorically; pupil dilation literally opens a hole into your head, revealing the most delicate part of your face, the part that can be excited, provoked, damaged by light.

I feel like ambient music follows the same repetitive principle of reminding the same feeling, but instead of Love, the feeling is that of surrender, something Eno (the genre’s architect) has talked about for years. Paired with his comments, the whole business feels just as simple, as squarely egolessly focussed on essential emotion as a sugary love song. You see surrender on the screens, triggering surrender in the people.

And it really works. I tend to write a few notes when reviewing a gig (unless I’m also taking photos), and then write up the rest the next day, aided by tea. I wrote this review on my phone, in a few quick, comfortable blasts, as I my head lay against the firm, nylon floor. The music hardly changed, the notes hardly changed, but my brain did. It felt (*feels*; I’m still here) great.

Afterthought: In Eno’s preamble he seperates this sound-image installation as ‘closer to the history of music than to the history of painting or sculpture’. I’d argue that the seperation is closer to that between design and literature. I personally disagree with his overarching claim that music doesn’t involve representation in any important way, I think it’s a contextual reaction to a certain school of thought. Brian Eno’s particular music focuses on engendering a certain feeling, rather than telling a story of a certain feeling. However, if this sounds unimpressive, think about how many times you have really surrendered in the last month. How many times you have soberly, wakefully, let yourself go. Thursday Afternoon is one of my favourite albums of all time, but it sits in a different part of my mental collection to the rest. It sits next to my best friend’s phone number, a small routine of stretches and Tina Fey’s audiobook, in the box I turn to when nothing else will sort my head out.