When Brian Eno made his classic semi-ambient 1983 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, he probably didn't mean it as a requiem. But that's how it came off Friday night at a live performance of the album at the Winter Garden in New York City.
Composed for a documentary about the Apollo space program, the music was originally recorded by Eno on a variety of heavily processed synths, accompanied by his protégé, pedal steel virtuoso/guitarist Daniel Lanois, and Eno's brother Roger. This time there was a core band of pedal steel guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, violin, and a vintage Yamaha DX7 synthesizer (which host John Schaefer pointed out now qualifies as a historical instrument). As a large screen behind the band displayed stock footage of space missions and lunar landings, some guest guitarists — David Torn, Noveller, and Tortoise's Jeff Parker — wandered in and out of the soundscape.
The vast, reverberating Winter Garden is tailor-made for long, slow tones such as these, and the music produced apt sensations of weightlessness, distance and stasis. The accompanying footage of spacewalks and booster rockets looks quaint now, and although the musicians were funneling their instruments through what must have been a battery of digital effects, the gesture of painstakingly rendering this synthetic music by hand seemed an appropriate way to evoke a thoroughly bygone era.
Apparently some of the Apollo astronauts brought along Buck Owens and Merle Haggard tapes, hence the pedal steel, played by session ace and longtime Dylan sideman Larry Campbell. But the instrument's distinctly country flavor also recalls those Texan accents from Mission Control and the uniquely American nature of the achievement. More profoundly, it conveys a sense of, appropriately enough, wide open spaces, the frontier. As that quintessential rural American sound brushed up against the otherworldly, Campbell's pedal steel softly sang like a space cowboy.
But that night, the pedal steel, along with the Apollo footage, seemed even more poignant than it usually does. The last manned lunar landing was in 1972. Well over half the current population of the United States was born after that, and has no memory of people walking on the moon, or of any really colossal feat of human exploration. The Apollo music, with its long, tolling waves of sound, became an elegy for the ghosts of American astronauts.