Moss Garden

Moss Garden.

Another product of Bowie and Eno playing “Oblique Strategies” and not revealing what their cards were (see “Sense of Doubt”), “Moss Garden” came about through a similar clash of intentions, with Bowie playing chaos (having drawn a card that read “destroy everything”), Eno, order (“change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency”).

The Oblique instructions were a minor ingredient of the mix, as Bowie mainly had intended to create a sonic depiction of Saiho-ji, the “moss temple” of Kyoto, which he had visited while on tour in Japan. He acquired a koto, a six-feet-long, 13-string traditional Japanese instrument, to serve as the main instrumental voice, and played it on the track with an amateur’s inspiration and sense of restraint, mainly keeping to a few repeating scale patterns (compare “Garden”‘s relatively spare lines to “Go Dan Ginuta,” a work by a master of the instrument, Michio Miyagi).

“Moss Garden” hangs between F-sharp and G-sharp, and so hints at being in the key of C#, but as it never falls back to the tonic, it exists in a shadow key. Much of the piece has a similar fluid nature. While “Garden” suggests a clash of West and East, with synthesized airplane drones disrupting the “traditional” musings of the koto, it’s far from that simple—Japan is as much a modernist country as it’s a traditional one (and the sound of an airplane over Japan calls back to the bombers heard in “V-2 Schneider,” though with an even deadlier cargo). The koto itself spans worlds, as it’s able to be tuned to both Japanese and Western “classical” tunings. The piece’s livelier ancestor is Eno’s “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More,” with its Kyoto-bound jet liners disturbing the wispy beard of a meditating sage miles below, likely sitting in some silent moss garden.

Gorgeous and static, the eye at the center of “Heroes” (and, arguably, the whole “Berlin” project), it’s one of the most successful ambient pieces Eno (and Bowie) created before the start of Eno’s Ambient series in 1978. That said, “Moss Garden” eventually builds to a small climax with a surge of synthesizers in the final minute, capped off with the appearance (4:40) of a synthetic dog barking, its timbre accurate enough to prick my dog’s ears.

Recorded: July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin.

Top: Philip Guston, Ladder, 1978.

8 Responses to Moss Garden

  1. gonemansland says:

    Moss Garden is OK but very heavily influenced by this

  2. diamond dog says:

    I love the ambient soundscape but the kyoto playing is somewhat annoying and grates after a minute or so.

  3. Brendan O'Lear says:

    After reading this entry I decided to give the song another listen on my iPod on the walk to my office this morning. It was only when I heard bird noises in unfamiliar places that I realised I was walking through exactly the kind of Japanese ornamental garden that Moss Garden is depicting. There was even a low-flying jet just as I reached the exit!

  4. Jeremy Earl says:

    Wow, a bit of colour in your main picture. Pity no picture exists of bowie playing the Kyoto. That’s what went wrong in the 80’s – he wasn’t playing the Kyoto anymore.

    As usual -love it. Lets face it – this album is a work of genius!

  5. diamond dog says:

    Its all a little pretentious and self indulgent , but he was never a stranger to that , what the hell. Always room for some artful dabbling but can you imagine what RCA thought …

  6. Deacon Lowdown says:

    I think the execs at RCA were just repeating “His contract is up after two albums. His contract is up after two albums.” to each other again and again.

  7. Carl H says:

    Moss Garden is like the first song of “Heroes”, beauty and the beast. Extremely alluring, it makes me think of the zen like state of a Japanese moss garden, and in the same time it has some threatening noise of things like aeroplanes and cold synthesizer sounds. Wow!

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