How Roger Eno took on a Beethoven masterpiece and created a soundtrack for the pandemic
As well as appearing on a new Beethoven tribute album, Eno and brother Brian released their joint debut work ‘Mixing Colours’
The pandemic hasn’t stopped the classical music industry from celebrating a pioneer.
Despite the closure of concert halls for most of 2020, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth was marked by spectacular performances that year.
The latest tribute to the German composer is more modern in style and substance.
Released exclusively on streaming platform Deezer, Beethoven Recomposed features acclaimed pianists putting their touch on a dozen of the composer’s loved works.
Joining the likes of French artists Chilly Gonzales and Sofiane Pamart is Roger Eno.
And true to his standing as one of the architects of ambient music, the British pianist’s contribution is suitably enveloping.
His take on Fur Elise, a piece published 40 years after Beethoven’s death in 1867, is not so much a reworking but a reimagining.
Eno, 62, approaches the work by basing the titular character, the young and carefree woman, Elise, in the present context.
"I guess she would have been about 18 years old at the time and Beethoven wrote a piece that was appropriate for someone of that age – this also includes that little dance bit in the middle that you could have heard at any soiree of that period," he tells The National.
"I wanted to bring Elise here. A person during this age would be out having parties with friends, going out driving and just really be in love with being young.”
That effervescence gradually reveals itself.
Eno builds upon the Fur Elise’s recognisable motif until reaching a radiant section full of minimal percussion, a genteel slide guitar and shimmering arpeggios.
Eno didn’t have to go too far to conjure up those pastoral images and the wide open road.
He only needs to look out from the window of his home studio in Bungay, a town in Suffolk, in the east of England.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive from London, Eno describes the quaint market town as a physical and creative refuge from the bustle of major cities.
To keep in contact with loved ones, he would send them greetings in the form of musical snippets.
"I often get up in the morning, go to my studio at home play with the piano," he says.
"Whatever comes out, I normally send them to my group of friends, including my brother Brian. I often look at it as these little postcards but in the form of MP3s."
Unbeknownst to Eno initially, pioneering producer Brian, 72 – the man behind seminal albums by U2 and Coldplay – kept those files and went to work on them by adding signature effects and atmospherics from his London studio.
These initial sketches went on to to form the outline for Mixing Colours, the brothers' debut joint album.
Painting with music
Eno recalls being excited by the music’s prospect upon hearing Brian’s contribution.
Resolving to continue the freewheeling approach, in the second half of 2019, the duo sent each other work from Bungay and London until they had enough for an album.
It was a process Eno describes as similar to painting.
"I would send Brian these black and white sketches and he would colour them in," he says.
"Now that doesn't demean both of our work. Brian, doesn't need a particularly melodic quality for his work because the kind of sounds he uses is what makes it so beautiful.
“That's his area and I am good at melody. If you put both of these together, you come up with a few strong pieces.”
Not only are the instrumental works, in most part, stunning and quietly devastating, Mixing Colours took on extra resonance as the pandemic raged on.
Released in March 2020, Eno recalls how fans and new listeners gravitated to the work, with its undulating, shape-shifting and melancholic piano and soothing otherworldly soundscapes, as an attempt to come to grips amid the uncertain times.
“It got to a stage where people thought that we created an album specifically for the pandemic, which totally wasn’t the case” he says.
Eno welcomes these assumptions, however. It proves Mixing Colours is achieving its purpose.
“It is a very introspective piece of work and it allows you to look inside yourself,” he says.
“I know that, at least in Britain, many people couldn’t go to office and stay at home. So there have been lots of points where we had to reflect on our lives and how we got here and this album is the perfect background music for that kind of process.”
Thicker than blood
To ensure there were no distractions from the meditation, the Enos titled each track after a colour.
Even the names are purposely opaque so that no meaning can be derived from the titles. Mood associated colours such as blue, red and black are jettisoned for Wintergreen, Dark Sienna and Verdigris.
Choosing these esoteric shades were the only time the brothers butted heads, albeit gently.
After nearly five decades collaborating on each other’s solo works, Eno says to finally release a joint album with his elder sibling doesn’t feel momentous at all.
Mixing Colours, he says, merely represents a combined pallet of their sounds and sensibilities.
“At the same time, I am aware that the kind of relationship we have, where both like the absolute same things, is not entirely normal,” Eno says with a laugh.
“The connection between Brian and I cannot be described as blood, it is something deeper and goes right down to our DNA.”
Updated: April 20, 2021 01:46 PM