Music

William Eggleston’s First Album Is Colored by Dream-Like Improvisations

Eggleston often cites Bach as his musical hero, and it shows.

William Eggleston at the piano (photo by Peter Townsend, courtesy Secretly Canadian)

Last fall, renowned septuagenarian photographer William Eggleston put out his very first record. Titled Musik, the album consists almost entirely of original improvisations, recorded in the 1980s on a Korg OW/1 FD Pro synthesizer. According to the Guardian‘s Sean O’Hagan, a few years ago, music producer and co-founder of the Numero Group, Tom Lunt, a friend of Eggleston’s son, showed an interest in the photographer’s recordings and began recovering them off of 49 floppy disks, paring down 60 hours of music into what would become Musik. Eggleston, who has been playing the piano since the age of four, explained: “When I play, I’m really playing for myself. If friends are around when that happens, they often say: ‘Oh, Bill, it’s so beautiful. I’d love to hear that again.’ And I say: ‘Well, I didn’t write it down.’ It’s here and it’s gone — like a dream.”

Album cover of William Eggleston’s Musik (image courtesy Secretly Canadian)

This dream-like atmosphere pervades the entirety of Musik, and although the synthesizer sounds almost tacky at times, the eclectically jumbled melodies that come out are very much in keeping with Eggleston’s aesthetic of democratization and elevating what’s perceived as a “low” art form — color photography in the 1960s and ’70s, and synthesizers in the 1980s. To give you a flavor of what to expect, in his first improvisation after the introduction — like many of his photographs, Eggleston’s musical creations are left untitled — Eggleston sneaks in a bit of “Deck the Halls,” as well as references to J.S. Bach’s keyboard works.

Eggleston often cites Bach as his musical hero, and it shows. Bach references weave throughout the whole album. Not only are the melodies reminiscent of the 18th-century German composer, but even the synth settings Eggleston chooses, imitating an organ or a harpsichord, are in keeping with Bach’s musical aesthetic. Continuing Eggleston’s idiosyncratic democratization, his album includes two show tune covers by Gilbert/Sullivan and Lerner/Lowe, the only Musik tracks that aren’t original improvisations. Yet the way Eggleston plays the songs, even they begin to sound like Bach.

Although the whole of Musik is highly original and interesting, I just couldn’t get past the often grating sound of the synthesizer, which makes Eggleston’s improvisations sound like something out of a science fiction soundtrack, or an old Western film, or fire alarm bells, or whale songs, or New Age yoga music. In fact, the improvisation I enjoyed the most was the one that sounded like it was actually played on a real piano. (It’s also the longest track on the record at a little over 16 minutes.)

While Eggleston likely won’t change how we listen to music the way he changed the way we look at photography, after all these years, he’s clearly still constantly searching for beauty in the mundane — and all through the perspective of sheer randomness. It’s very fitting that the same photographer who famously “shot from the hip” also enjoys improvising on the keyboard, capturing a fleeting moment in time, knowing full well he’ll be unable to recapture it ever again.

William Eggleston’s Musik is out now from Secretly Canadian

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