There’s a William Eggleston photograph that I think of every time I travel; as memorable and satisfying as the hook of a pop song, it’s been embedded in my subconscious since the moment I first saw it. Eggleston, a Memphis-born photographer known for his color-saturated work, took the photo, called “Untitled (Glass in Airplane),” sometime between 1965 and 1974. It depicts a drink on the tray table of an airplane seat—rum and coke, by the looks of it. What makes the photo spectacular is the play of color and texture: the atmospheric sunshine illuminating the nubby fabric seat back, the ruby liquid in the glass, the graceful hand holding the straw.
In all its gratuitous visual pleasure, “Untitled (Glass in Airplane)” looks almost like an advertisement. But there’s a hint of something not quite right just beneath the glossy surface of the image. Something vulgar, strained—a little louche, or unhinged. The image is too knowing to register entirely as kitsch. It draws you in only to undercut your desire; the glistening colors are like the shine on a poisoned apple. Eggleston suggests that the objects of our desire might not be so desirable after all.
The casually cryptic photograph also came to mind while listening to the 78-year-old artist’s rather difficult first album, Musik, a highly unexpected compilation of instrumental synthesizer compositions. Eggleston recorded it in the 1980s on a Korg OW/1 FD Pro, stored the files on floppy discs, and is only releasing them now, with the label Secretly Canadian. Mostly meandering improvisations, the 13 tracks combine luscious, slippery textures with discordant melodies, moving without going anywhere, fighting easy resolution with every turn. The style makes sense: As the photographer famously said of his visual work, “I am at war with the obvious.”
Eggleston has played the piano since his childhood in Mississippi, and he has said that music is his “first calling,” even before visual art. It’s easy to find videos of him plinking away somewhat ostentatiously on grand pianos at openings for his own museum shows in Sweden and Tokyo. A longtime resident of Tennessee, he also befriended Big Star, providing the cover for their 1974 album Radio City. Still, Eggleston was canonized not for music but his pioneering color photography, which helped legitimize the genre at a time when it was still anathema to the art world.
In the 1970s, the vast majority of photographs printed in color were ads; art photography was always in respectable monochrome. Instead, Eggleston took snapshots that bordered on the mundane (critics called them “perfectly boring”) except for their saturated, almost sickly palettes. His iconic 1969 photo of a tricycle in Memphis settles like a bruise.
Like the ads that his photos resembled, Eggleston’s musical compositions can seem cloying or tasteless. The synths are unabashedly cheesy. “Untitled Improvisation DCC 02.9” (named presumably for the file format, digital compact cassette) is carnivalesque, while “Untitled Improvisation DCC 02.25 3-01” brings to mind the bomp-bomp-bomp theme of underground “Super Mario” levels. The pieces have classical-music pretensions—the Germanic spelling of the title apparently references Bach—but the highbrow was never Eggleston’s strong suit.
Instead, the artist excels at ambiguity. “Untitled Piano Improvisation FD 6.9” is by far the longest track, at 16 minutes of wandering, and its piano sound is the most naturalistic. You wait for the composition to cohere and it doesn’t, repeatedly flouting expectations, dipping into melodies and then dissolving them, evoking nostalgia without embodying it. It induces a Brian Eno-ish ambient stupor, like Music for Airports run through a saloon player piano.
Eggleston includes two standards on the album: Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Tit Willow,” from the orientalist musical “The Mikado,” and “On the Street Where You Live,” by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. In both, the familiar becomes strange, in part due to the synths but also Eggleston’s ponderous hand. There’s no telling where these well-worn songs will go next. In this sense, the album—as much a kind of private sketchbook as anything—is curiously in keeping with his photographs. Even in music, he rebels against the obvious.