Give me heart and soul and error

· culture ·

I was watching an excellent Arena documentary the other day about Brian Eno. Eno is a fascinating person, and would most likely be at the top of the list if I ever got asked who I would invite to a dream dinner party. He is one of those rare and precious people who think quite deeply about both art and science, and manage to combine elements of both in new and interesting ways in their work.

There were lots of great bits in the documentary, including a flick through one or two of the hundreds of notebooks he has filled throughout his life. He said that he writes things down so that he can think about them properly (not necessarily to remember them later), and he had notes on everything from mundane reminders of dental appointments to elaborate pictorial representations of the events of a day.

But what really caught my attention was when he was talking about how he dislikes over-precise music. Music has become rather standardised and polished. For example, drummers now routinely record to a click track, so while their drumming sounds very precise, it doesn't necessarily sound 'right', and has a tendency to be have a bit of a cold, antiseptic feel. He said that he preferred a bit of surprise and variability in music — something that doesn't sound exactly the same every time it is performed.

For probably the first and only time in my life, I thought, "Brian, I was thinking just the same thing myself this morning." I had been listening to a band called Sym who play a variety of unusual instruments like the Swedish nyckelharpas (no, I've never heard of it before either) and the hurdy-gurdy. I love anything with a hurdy-gurdy in it, and I was wondering idly why I'm so fond of the sound it produces. It gradually dawned on me that I love it precisely because it never quite sounds the same twice. It's a gloriously 'dirty' sound, with scrapes and squeaks and buzzes and multiple harmonics, and I doubt that even skilled hurdy-gurdy players can play it with absolute consistency. All of these faults just make it sound more real and alive, and that makes it a joy to listen to.

You can take the same approach with electronic instruments by adding back the variability in various ways (like Eno's keyboard which plays a different sampled sound on each key), so the warm and fuzzy feel isn't necessarily restricted to acoustic, analogue instruments. But that feels a bit like cheating, somehow.