INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Compuserve JULY 4, 1996 - by Mark Edwards
IN CONFERENCE AT HIS LONDON STUDIO
Jason Gibbs asks: Why do you think generative systems - like Koan - are so important?
Brian Eno: This is such a profound change in the way people think about music. For a start, it relates to a lot of new ideas about how things organise themselves, and it moves our thinking away from what I call the 'symphonic metaphor' towards the 'generative metaphor. The difference between those two metaphors is quite profound.
Mark Edwards: Switching away from generative music for a second - I think a lot of people will have read in Q that your next album has been cancelled or postponed. What's happening?
Brian Eno: What's happened is that I have become nauseated by the stacks of CDs accumulating in the dusty corners of my studio. I always wanted to be part of a conversation that people were paying attention to, and my feeling is that music has slightly died, stifled by oversaturation. So for me it's a little dull to make records at the moment... though I might change that thought.
Mark Edwards: If music has slightly died, what music are you listening to at the moment - if any?
Brian Eno: I'm listening to vinyl a lot - mostly because you get less music on a record - it just doesn't last so long. I hate the way CDs just drone on for bloody hours and you stop caring.
Graham Harrison asks: What do you feel is different in your compositional method, compared to other composers who use and have used chance in composition, e.g. Stockhausen, Boulez, Cage?
Brian Eno: The difference is that I reject the results of chance if they don't excite me sensually - whereas the composers you mentioned were rather more doctrinaire about it. Their feeling was that they 'believed' in chance as though it had a sort of mystical dimension. I don't. I think chance is what you use when you can't think of a better basis on which to make a decision, or when you want to take yourself into territory that you haven't been before.
Mark Edwards: So what do you believe in?
Brian Eno: I don't believe in much. In fact I was thinking of doing a version of that Chris Andrews song, but mine would be 'I'm not a believer'.
Mark Baartse asks: With the never ending popularity of Black Dog, Smoke On The Water and other songs that have been played far more often than we all would like, do people really want music that changes? It seems people in general prefer things that stay the same.
Brian Eno: People want a lot of different things. One of them is music that sounds identical from play to play. Another, I've discovered, is music that never repeats. I'm not suggesting that generative music will replace anything - but add to it.
Kaon Koo asks: Do you have any plans in the near future for more generative albums? And what other future applications for this type of music do you envision?
Brian Eno: The best future applications probably have to do with relieving the unutterable tedium of CD-ROMs. There is an example of a medium totally without a message. But what is really interesting is the future in generative - generative graphics, generative narratives, generative architecture - there is a place for forms of culture that are also evolutionary, which somehow pay attention to your interests and modify themselves accordingly. I can see this happening with generative work - it needs to be able to complete a feedback loop with its users.
Mark Edwards: What would 'generative architecture' be?
Brian Eno: The idea of generative architecture is to suggest a way of building which first of all responds to its users. And which accents that the architect's job is to set in place a grammar of possibilities which the users then articulate into meaningful structures. This will be a bit of a blow for most architects, who currently are completely stuck in the 'symphonic metaphor'.
Mark Edwards: So you mean easily customisable houses.
Brian Eno: I mean a way of thinking about building that accepts that what is there when the architect leaves the site is the beginning, not the end, of the process. For example, most buildings change their 'services' - bathrooms, kitchens etc - very often - like every ten years. Yet architects continue to design and build as though this is never going to happen. And make it bloody difficult for it to actually be done. My feeling is that building a house should involve setting in place all the things that would make it easy to change it, adapt it.
Mark Edwards: Most people who create, well, anything want to believe that the creation is in some way perfect. You're quite unusual as an artist who's happy to see his work manipulated after its left you - the album with Jah Wobble springs to mind, just as an aside.
Brian Eno: I don't accept this. I want to believe that what I make is a good start, a strong place to begin. I then hope that at least it will be better in the user's (listener's) mind than it is in mine. I want to plant seeds that will grow when they leave me. If I thought the music was only going to remain as I left it, then why would I want to release it? You released things so that they will grow. And have interesting other lives without you. Just like kids...
Mark Edwards: We've got a question here asking you to finish the Turner speech. That's a huge answer. If people want the full answer, you've written an essay in the Waterstone's magazine, I think. Maybe you could give the three sentence summary (the question was from Mark Harrop by the way).
Brian Eno: 1) If you ask a scientist what he's doing, he'd probably be able to answer that it has something to do with learning about the world, how things work. 2) If you ask an artist the same question, you would get a thousand muddled answers. My feeling is that the conversation about art is about in the same place as that about biology was before Darwin: we have lots of observations but no single frame in which to locate them all and make sense of them. 3) I think it is possible to discuss all culture in one language (in the same way that evolution theory allows you to discuss all living things in one language). I look for a theory that will unify cake decoration, Cezanne, and Little Richard.
Mark Edwards: Maybe part of being an artist is not knowing why you're doing it. Like a child playing - it's important, but they couldn't verbalise why - except maybe it's fun, which would be a good answer for an artist to make, although funding to the arts might get cut.
Brian Eno: I think this is a load of old bollocks, actually of course it should be fun, but why shouldn't you ask why you're doing it? It doesn't matter if you can't come up with an answer, but not to even ask the question strikes me as rather bizarre.
Mark Edwards: We've got another question that would take several books to answer. After this maybe someone there has some simpler ones.
David Addison asks: On p61 of diary you ask What will we leave behind that future generations will be this impressed by? What about space exploration as a cultural activity?
Brian Eno: I said in the diary that surely our most notable activity in this era is defence spending. Have you any idea how much of our money and talent is bound up in that? And the internet is just one of its little spinoffs. So, like it or not, all those wonderful Damien Hirst cows will fade away to nothing and the people of the future will be admiring our wonderful surface-to-air missile systems.
Mark Edwards: Back to the Turner speech - do you know any individual artists who have a decent answer to the question why they're doing it? (That's surface-to-air in Brian's last comment, by the way, not a system to attack school teachers).
Brian Eno: I don't know many artists who even want to have this conversation. There's a feeling that we might turn over a few stones that we wish we hadn't.
Mark Edwards: That's what my question that you referred to as bollocks was all about, maybe the artists motives aren't as wonderful as those of the scientist - maybe they're more selfish.
Brian Eno: One of the problems is that any theory that unifies all of culture - from haircuts to Hokusai - is in danger of reducing the 'dignity' of the fine artist. Just as Darwin reduced the dignity and separateness of humans from all other creatures. And of course this has dire economic questions. After the Turner speech - which was after all to a roomfull of dealers and curators who depend on that dignity - I got a few rather cold looks.
Tony Walsh asks: The GM I've heard so far has been instrumental. How do you see lyrics, or the human voice in general, fitting into this chance methodology? Is it a thing of the past?
Brian Eno: To answer what you said, everyone's selfish but some people's selfishness pays off for other people. No, I think song is the thing of the future. I love the idea of songs and voices. I despise most song writing as lazy and pathetic. There are so many other things we could be doing with voices. Thank God for rap artists. At least they annoyed everyone. I didn't really answer the question... can I come back to that?
Mark Edwards: Andrew Sigal wants to know if putting generative music on CD defeats the purpose.
Brian Eno: I can't see any reason for not putting it on CD if you happened to want to hear a particular performance of a piece over and over. I have recorded several of these pieces and enjoy listening to them off tape but the thrill is not knowing what is going to happen, so I go back to the clunky, under-developed piece of junk that is called 'my computer'.
Peter Gunn asks: Should we not sack the architects if they aren't working?
Brian Eno: Yes, what's more, I think there should be much more public attention paid to architects who build ugly and stupid things. Just as their should be more credit to those who build well.
Mark Edwards: Let's talk about your diaries (recently published). On the back cover is a list of words or phrases describing yourself. One of them is 'a drifting clarifier'. What is that?
Brian Eno: That was Stewart Brand's description... He meant to describe me as someone who generally helps out in thinking situations, but is not stuck to one in particular. It's flattering but I hope it's true.
Mark Edwards: Are you spending more of your time doing that - being in thinking situations of one kind or another - rather than doing the work you're better known for, eg being a musician or a record producer?
Brian Eno: I spend a lot of time talking, lecturing etc. I like it - sort of cuts out the middle-man.
Alex McCourty asks: You seem to be deeply involved in change and directions for the future, but what's your view on history?
Brian Eno: History... it's out of date. In broadcasting this it's called dead air - people live in total fear of it - executives get fired for it - sent back into the gutter.
Mark Edwards: Tell me - are you happier collaborating or working on your own?
Brian Eno: I'm happier working with other people. I get further working on my own.
Benjamin Cohen asks: You said earlier you were listening to music on vinyl, but you didn't say what exactly. I'm curious to know how you perceive the current dance music scene, particularly techno and drum-and-bass. Have these genres influenced you at all?
Brian Eno: By that I mean I sometimes touch something that I wouldn't in company. Because it might fail too dramatically. Dance music... oh God... I think I used to be able to dance once. I can't remember.
Mark Edwards: It's true. I've seen you do it.
Brian Eno: Indeed, with the princess of somewhere wasn't it?
Mark Edwards: What were you thinking about up there on stage with Pavarotti, and were you miming or really playing the omnichord?
Brian Eno: I was in a strange bliss... are you miming?
Mark Edwards: Yes, I'm miming. Jimmy Page plays all my parts.
Brian Eno: Doesn't play them very well.
A question from Loony Laura: Do you see silicon evolution superseding carbon evolution? Is generative music the first step in handing over the keys to the generative motor?
Brian Eno: I see co-evolution, but I think silicon is just a phase. We might not be working with electricity even in fifty years time. Think of what happened to steam - 100 years ago it must have seemed absolutely irreplaceable. But yes, we are and have always been beings who add things to ourselves. It used to be sensory things we added - extensions of our strength and senses. But now we've learnt to build our intelligence and incidentally, our abilities to cooperate and deceive (the same ability, actually).
Mark Edwards: How does this experience compare to being interviewed for a magazine or on the radio?
Brian Eno: It's awful - frantic, everyone talking about something that you're not thinking about. It's extremely primitive, especially when you've been spoiled by getting a journalist's full attention (or the pretence of it). This is like shouting in a market in Marrakesh with a sore throat on a public holiday...
Graham Harrison asks: Do you think Prince Charles will appreciate generative architecture?
Brian Eno: I think he's certain to - the people who've been working towards this include some of his favourites (Leon Krier, Chris Alexander) but there are also several he might not like so much. I'm not down on PC for his stand on architecture. I think he's perhaps a little simplistic, but someone had to say it.
Jason Gibbs asks: Does your inspiration mainly come from music or the visual arts?
Brian Eno: From the visual arts, actually. I always wanted to make things that felt more like paintings than music.
Mark Edwards: What are you working on at the moment? What Eno products will we see soon?
Brian Eno: This is the question I dread when I meet people at dinner parties. I can never remember a thing I'm doing unless I was doing it today. What was I doing today? I went to talk to Michael Morris of Artangel about the possibility of doing a show that works by hi-jacking other existing shows - visual shows, I mean.
Mark Edwards: If your inspiration mainly comes from the visual arts, what have you seen recently that you really liked?
Brian Eno: I've seen an amazing photographic book today by Richard Billingham - just pictures of his family who live on a council estate. It's the best photo-book I've seen in years. His family is an alky dad and a tattooed mother.
Mark Edwards: A show that hi-jacks other shows. What? You go to one show, but something else is actually happening there?
Brian Eno: It's called Ron's A Laugh. I think [Ron is his dad]. Hi-jacking... imagine, for example, just replacing all the labels beside existing paintings so that you change the reading of them completely - most people spend longer on the label than on the painting, by the way - similarly, parasitize TV shows etc., etc.
Mark Edwards: The world is divided between those who read the labels first to find out what it is they're supposed to be seeing in it and those who look at them afterwards.
Will Lawless asks: Where in the past would you wish to go to experience art at its best.
Brian Eno: I wouldn't mind being in Russia between 1906 and 1917.
Polina Barshteyn asks: Is not the reason, the ultimate reason for doing anything, to find out, in vain it might seem, what we are doing here, here in existence, why life?
Brian Eno: I don't know if I'd say we are looking for purpose in the sense you imply. But what I do think is that we are inveterately fascinated by our subjective experiences, and it's those that also yield the scientific and technical results we depend on. What I mean is: our tendency to attempt unanswerable questions is the same tendency that makes us invent things.
Mark Edwards: Jim Dodd wants to know if you have a scientific education.
Brian Eno: I don't have a scientific education formally, but for years - since my teens - I've been fascinated by the conversation that's been going on in the sciences - particularly the life sciences and the computer sciences. That conversation has put the arts to shame, in my opinion, and we really ought to try a bit harder to get something like the same kind of openness and clarity. Why? Because to include more people is to include more intelligence and that's what art needs.
Mark Edwards: We're wrapping up now. We've got one last question, a suitably calm and chilled one to end on.
Jenny Minjung Kay asks: Describe your ideal environment for being relaxed and having a clear mind... Are you at your most creative in this kind of atmosphere?
Brian Eno: I have a nice studio. I sometimes get here early (3 or 4) and work in silence for several hours. That is very nice, especially in early winter.
Mark Edwards: There's a competition question. You can win a copy of Koan Pro and a signed copy of Generative Music. You need to send your e-mails to 76004,3476. The draw will be picked at the end of the month. And that question is... Where does the title Supporting Circle come from?
Brian Eno: When you've sorted that out, send it in. Meanwhile thanks a lot for your questions - bye now.
Mark Edwards: Thanks for your time, Brian. And for the typing lessons.
Charon Wood: Thanks everyone for attending. Don't forget to post your answers to Mark's questions to that e-mail address.