Sense of Doubt

May 20, 2011

Sense of Doubt.
Sense of Doubt (promo, 1977).
Sense of Doubt (live, 1978).
Sense of Doubt (broadcast, 1978).

The trilogy within the Berlin trilogy—“Sense of Doubt,” “Moss Garden” and “Neuköln”—are a suite as much as they are discrete songs, with the minimalism of “Doubt” giving way to the minor-scale beauties and wildlife humanity of the latter tracks.

Before starting what would become “Sense of Doubt,” Bowie and Brian Eno drew cards from Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck. Devised by Eno and Peter Schmidt, it was part-Tarot, part-Monopoly “Chance” cards. Its intention was to spur random, even chaotic creative moves, and Bowie, who spent the late ’70s trying to rethink how to write songs, to write in what he called a new musical language, welcomed another means to clear the board. While Eno would torment the likes of Carlos Alomar with Oblique cards during the Lodger sessions, during “Heroes” Eno only used the deck in the latter stages, when Bowie and Eno were devising the instrumentals.

Bowie and Eno agreed not to reveal their cards until they finished the track. As Bowie’s card read “Emphasize differences,” and Eno’s “Try to make everything as similar as possible,” they went to work unknowingly at loggerheads. “It was like a game. We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next, and he’d do the next…I was trying to smooth it out and make it into one continuum [while] he was trying to do the opposite,” Eno said in 1978.

“Sense of Doubt” seems like a sound-picture of this conflict, with, mixed in the left channel, an unchanging, descending four-note piano passage (C-B-Bb-A, at the bass end of the piano, a bit reminiscent of Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata”) set against the random appearances of synthetic wind and waves. The variables are the reoccurring Chamberlin/synthesizers, which at first seem to be locked in the same cycles as the piano, until the patterns mutate—chords are cut short, a stunning faded-in sequence (1:43) suggests a way out. Bowie in 1978 described the track as pitting an “organic sound” against a falsehood, a synthesizer section pretending to be a horn section, but the “artificial” provides the only glimpses of sunlight in the piece.

In the liner notes for his first ambient record, Music for Airports, Eno wrote “whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities” (my emphasis). He wrote this in September 1978, a year after he made this track, and “Sense of Doubt” seems an early attempt at this scenario—it’s providing background music that’s also a series of disturbing sounds, making it hard to serve as aural wallpaper yet having no real sense of progression. Locking the ominous piano pattern in an apparently endless cycle diminishes its power to surprise, yet its continual reappearance undermines whatever flashes of hope appear.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977 at Hansa, Berlin. Performed during the 1978 tour (often as the pre-intermission finale) and used in Christiane F.

Top: Ute Mahler, “Motofoto für Sibylle,” Berlin Prenzlauer Berg, 1978.