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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Sense of Doubt

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The album "Heroes" follows the blueprint of its predecessor Low, with side A dominated by regular songs and side B dominated by ambient instrumentals. But the music is very different, and never more so than in the instrumental 'Sense of Doubt'. While the Low instrumentals were very passive and felt like they make you dissolve in the atmosphere surrounding you, 'Sense of Doubt' is dynamic and feels like representing an inner turmoil. The heavy four note phrase that dominates it is ominous, frightening, gripping your heart and filling it with dread, and matches very well the emotions of the side A tracks. The swirling electronic sounds that surround it feel like an awakening of emotions, those emotions that have been so numb in the previous album. We get the sense that after his self-imposed solitude, Bowie is once again ready and yearning to overwhelm the world.

The effect is apparently the result of chance. Bowie and Brian Eno were using Eno's deck of "Oblique Strategies" cards, each drawing a card and agreeing beforehand not to show the other what they drew. Chance had it that Bowie's card said "Emphasize differences", while Eno's read "Try to make everything as similar as possible". So each was working with a diametrically opposed strategy, and the result is a piece that manages to remain whole while simultaneously trying to burst out of its skin. In an album dominated by themes like soul searching and inner struggle, it fits perfectly.

A year later, Brian Eno put out his first fully ambient album, titled Ambient 1: Music for Airports, with the expressed aim to create background music to replace what until then was played in places such as airport lobbies. The liner notes read: "The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak. The connotations that this term carries are… familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner. Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music as an idea worthy of attention. Over the past three years, I have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised… My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres. Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. 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. And whereas their intention is to `brighten' the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and leveling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." For Eno, then, ambient music's job was to instill a "sense of doubt" into environmental music, to make it mysterious and troubling. While muzak's aim is to pacify the subconscious by keeping it occupied with trifle niceties, ambient wants to stimulate the subconscious. 'Sense of Doubt' is an example of this approach, and Eno's use of the term in his manifesto shows that he probably had something to do with choosing this title.

For Bowie, however, the title 'Sense of Doubt' probably had another meaning. The opening track of the album, 'Beauty and the Beast', shows him torn by doubt, afraid that the way of life he chose is leading him and his generation to oblivion. Here he remains silent, but the music lets us know that the doubt is eating at him and the fear of doom grows. Again there's a duality here, there are sounds that suggest hope and joy, but the main motif always returns to trample oppressively on everything as if none of these directions can overcome the doubt. He needs to find a way out, or rather in.

'Sense of Doubt' became one of Bowie's most celebrated instrumental pieces, and was used as a dramatic opening to many shows.

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