Moss Garden

May 24, 2011

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.