Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon was released in 1985 as an audio accompaniment to his video installation of the same name. The album consists of a single 61-minute ambient track, which manages to be both discreet and stark, but also stimulating and hypnotic at the same time. The piece is another step in his exploration of generative music – the creation of music derived from a system, usually incommensurable loops that reconfigure upon repeats.
Thursday Afternoon adds several layers of complexity to Eno’s systems-based approach. The loops are irregular, and were recorded in full rather than looped with tape; it also employs drones more than previous releases. It was Eno’s first album to take advantage of the then-new CD format, which had a longer running time and lower noise floor than vinyl or tape. The album was still recorded on analog equipment; it was 1985 after all, and digital playback warping technology was too far behind for Eno’s use.
“The quality of reproduction you get with Compact Disc eliminates all extraneous noise. My music is very quiet; silence is very important in my music. But then, having no silence in music is like having no black or white in a painting. But the music wasn’t recorded digitally. It was recorded on a 24-track analogue machine, and then digitally mastered. The drawback with digital recording is that it only gives you about 15% range, as far as changing speeds is concerned. As I work at a lot of different speeds, this isn’t enough. But they’ll change that.” – Brian Eno
Thursday Afternoon’s credits include Daniel Lanois, who started working with Eno in 1982’s On Land, credited with “live equalisation” on the track Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960. Lanois is a performance mixer, often working on a mixing desk in live takes, and his contribution to Thursday Afternoon was likely the live mixing of all the individual elements. Live mixing in this way adds an organic element to Eno’s systems-based approach, as even though the material is made-up of looped tracks, they can be manipulated live to create the illusion of performance.
Thursday Afternoon is composed several tracks of looping notes over a background chord drone. The foreground elements loop separately, allowing the individual notes to overlap in different ways upon each repeat, a concept devised on earlier albums such as Discreet Music, which featured two independent loops, and refined with Music for Airports, which had tracks featuring at least 8 loops. On Thursday Afternoon, created 7 years after MFA, there are at least 16 independent loops, possibly more.
The recording process of Thursday Afternoon isn’t as well documented as some of Eno’s better-known releases. One clue to the recording process is displayed on the back cover of the CD, release, which shows hand-written notes made on the tracks, with notes such as “hints of shimmer”, “piano 11 only”, “waves”, “12/13 shimmer”, “increasing density”, “piano end”, “PC gap” and “SP end”, and my favourite, “strange chord”.
On Music for Airports, Eno was using tape loops to repeat music material, with the length of the tape reel dictating the length of the repeat. On Thursday Afternoon, the loops are less rigid, and the loops repeat duration varies upon repeats, for example repeating every 16 to 19 seconds. To achieve this, Eno would physically record each looped track in full, repeating the single note at approximate durations. He explains:
“I pick a note on the piano. I play it, or get someone else to play it, for several minutes. Sometimes it’s more like several hours, piddling around with the sound until I make it sound like a drop of water falling into a pool, for example. Having done that, I then record myself, or an accomplice, playing that note every… 23 seconds, or thereabouts. Then I do the same for another note, repeat the process, only this time playing it every 21½ seconds, perhaps. Then I’ll get another note played every 17 seconds, until I begin to build up a tracery of notes which cluster together in interesting ways.
So that’s a typical mechanical process – quite unexciting, really. Nothing much happens for the first eight or ten hours, doing something like that. You have to suspend your need for gratification for a while and just trust that it’s going to work out.” – Brian Eno
The two main sound sources in Thursday Afternoon are a piano and a mellow synthesiser that likely came from Brian’s Yamaha DX7. The DX7 was introduced in 1983, and quickly became Eno’s main synth. I’ve previously covered Eno’s use of the DX7 in my Exploring the Yamaha DX7 article, looking at his synth sounds in An Ending (Ascent) and the U2 song Where the Streets Have No Name.
Although the DX7 is capable of some very tonally complex patches, in this instance it’s used to just produce a simple sine wave with a volume decay. I used Ableton Operator for the below samples, with a single operator producing a sine wave with a 2.11-second decay and 18 dB sustain. The reverb on the samples comes from Valhalla VintageVerb, on a Medium Hall setting with a high mix level.
- Organ 1 // Organ 2 00:00
The droning backdrop of Thursday Afternoon is a much more complex sound and was likely created by using hardware effects units and running sounds through the same effects multiple times to create audible degradation to the quality. The sound is a signature of Daniel Lanois’, who uses a Lexicon Prime Time in much of his work, even using one as the main instrument in his NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert.
A great software emulation of the original Prime Time is Soundtoys PrimalTap, which has the same features as the Prime Time delay, with some modern enhancements. To create a lo-fi drone, run some audio through the delay unit and hit the freeze button. This will loop the audio in the delay’s memory, with the loop length determined by Multiply knob. Higher Multiply settings, such as x8, give longer loops at the expense of bandwidth and quality. As a byproduct, the frozen material is repitched by an octave, great for low, dark drones and high, shimmery sounds.
To create drones similar to those in Thursday Afternoon, you can use PrimalTap to freeze the reverb/delay tail of various instruments. This typically lends itself to grainy, thin audio. It’s also a similar technique to the drone heard in Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill, which comes from a Fairlight sample. In the following steps, I ran my guitar through reverb/delay into PrimalTap and froze a slice of audio from the reverb tail.
Once the audio is frozen, it can be repitched within PrimalTap. Setting the Multiply control to a higher setting (such as from x1 to x2) will raise the pitch by an octave, while also doubling the playback speed. Although this is similar behaviour to manipulating tape speed, the digital character of the PrimalTap delays gives a different character. Unlike tape speed manipulation, PrimalTap retains tuning perfectly. Decreasing the Multiple control (such as from x2 to x1) lowers the pitch, resulting in deep drones.
- Guitar Chord 00:00
- SoundToys PrimalTap Freeze 00:00
- PrimalTap Repitch 00:00
- PrimalTap Layered 00:00
Thursday Afternoon Deconstructed
Below you can play with recreations of the Thursday Afternoon loops. Harmonically, all the notes belong to a G dominant 7th chord, with an added C note to create melodies. The piano and synth instruments play the same notes, and the drone plays a G triad. All the all loop times notated below are approximations, and are randomised slightly upon each repeat, to add variation. Pressing the ‘Play All’ button will start the loops in the configuration heard at the top of Thursday Afternoon, and the randomization will generate new variations on each loop.
Note that this deconstruction lacks the live mixing present in the original, as well as different groups of loops that are introduced later in the piece.
Drone & Piano Loops
In the download for this article you’ll find all the raw piano, synth and drone samples used for the player on this page, as well as the Ableton Operator patch used for the sine synth sounds. Enjoy and send me a link to any music you make using these concepts & sounds!