"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
In Your Speakers JANUARY 2, 2013 - by Stephen Hayward
BRIAN ENO: LUX
To a certain extent, by virtue of the clarity and precision of its production, Brian Eno's music has always been about creating virtual spaces. Many of his sounds seem to possess a volume, and weight, that we don't usually ascribe to "immaterial" sound. They come close to being objects, like those of tangible substance (tables, chairs, and the like), in the midst of which we exist. Eno's music doesn't play "at" the listener as if it were a phenomenon "out there" to which we turn our attention. Rather, it seems a constituent layer of our life-world. It is appropriate then to say that I have spent a considerable amount of time "in" Lux this past week. This effect is due in part to Eno's minimalism, a style that, to paraphrase Eno, "rewards attention but does not demand it." It fades into the background and waits to be discovered. But there is something more here, Eno's link to the virtual, that I would like to explore.
If we are to approach Brian Eno's music on his own terms (and apparent innovators like Eno should be met with at least a minimum of deference until proven otherwise), we would be better served to read his thought on the subject than to listen to its sound. Eno himself stresses the priority of the concept behind a song, album, or technique, over the sound produced in compliance with this concept: "[Artists] produce work that gives you the chance to experience in a safe environment [...] what might be quite dangerous and radical ideas." And music, for Eno, is just one material in which ideas can be actualised. So what idea is Eno attempting to explore in his music? Here's a hint: I already mentioned it. But first, a little history.
In the 1960s, a movement now known as minimalism emerged within contemporary music composition, led by composers Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. During the previous sixty years, modern composition had been dominated by atonalism, which utilised harmonic structures that were not predicated on a single, central tone, or key. Atonal works, perhaps by definition, tend toward complexity, and emphasise texture over a traditional notion of melody. The minimalists arose as a reaction to atonalism and their musical language appears radically simplified in comparison, stressing recognisable melodies and traditional chord structures. But the minimalists were not conservative; they did not attempt to reattain some lost state in musical history (however, there were precedents; it was Erik Satie who wrote: "there's a need to create furniture music; that is to say, music that would be a part of the surrounding noises and that would take them into account. I see it as melodious, as masking the clatter of knives and forks without drowning it completely, without imposing itself").
Unlike its predecessors in tonal music, minimalism was informed by developments in psychoacoustic research. An example will make this point clear. In 1965, Steve Reich made his first major work, It's Gonna Rain. Reich took a short snippet of speech he had recorded, copied it, and played both copies simultaneously on separate tape reels. Because of minute variations in the reels' running speeds, the identical recordings gradually go out of sync, or phase (and this is now known as "phase music"). Eno has described the experience of listening to It's Gonna Rain: "[the two recordings] start to sound like an echo. Then they sound like a cannon, and gradually they start to sound like all sorts of things. The piece is very, very interesting because it's tremendously simple. It's a piece of music that anybody could have made. But the results, sonically, are very complex. What happens when you listen to that piece is that your listening brain becomes habituated in the same way that your eye does if you stare at something for a very long time. If you stare at something for a very long time your eye very quickly cancels the common information, stops seeing it, and only notices the differences. This is what happens with that piece of music." The importance of this piece for Eno is that nothing is happening to the source sound material; the two identical recordings remain unaltered throughout. What changes is their relation to one another. But from this minimal difference comes a host of compelling sonic effects, all of which occur "in" the listener rather than in that to which we listen. From very simple means arise tremendous effects. This economy is thrilling to Eno.
We can now begin to see that we must redefine the composer's role in relation to "their" music. To predict myself, the artist will no longer operate as a terminal point of authority, but as a germ, a facilitator of artistic production. The minimalists will help us make this move, through what is termed "generative" music, and Eno can again preface our discussion: "classical music, [...] like many other classical forms, specifies an entity in advance and then builds it. Generative music doesn't do that, it specifies a set of rules and then lets them make the thing." There are several types of generative music, and an illustration from "behavioural generative" music will best serve to clarify this concept. In 1968, Terry Riley premiered his work In C. As written, the piece is composed of fifty-three relatively short musical phrases ("patterns"), in the key of C. The patterns are numbered. Riley directs performers thus: "patterns are to be played consecutively with each performer having the freedom to determine how many times he or she will repeat each pattern before moving on to the next [...] one of the joys of In C is the interaction of the players in polyrhythmic combinations that spontaneously arise between patterns. Some quite fantastic shapes will arise and disintegrate as the group moves when it is properly played." Riley's instructions highlight an essential element of generative music (and phase music): the minimal role a piece's "composer" takes in its actualisation. In generative music, a work's final determination (the sound/s we actually hear as an art object) is less the product of its titular author, the realisation of some genius idea that previously resided in Riley's head, than a thickly-layered texture of contingent events. Thus the role of the composer is diminished, as the agency to realize a piece is wrested from their hands and placed in those of an intersubjective community (hence, "behavioural" generative music). Generative music thus poses the question of intentionality, a question that has preoccupied Brian Eno.
Eno ascribes his musical career to chance, chance truly serendipitous but contingent nonetheless; a result of a result of a result of walking into a subway station. Fitting then that he helped popularize the use of chance operations in music composition. Like the Dadaists, Eno wishes to remove himself in some way from "his" music. But while the Dadaists and Surrealists attempted to remove conscious thought from artistic production to unleash the personal unconscious, bringing us in contact merely with another layer of intention, Eno, John Cage, and other proponents of chance operations in the last sixty years have tried to remove intention from artistic production full-stop.
Riley then did not go far enough in this regard, and explicitly retained authorial authority in speaking of In C's "proper playing." More radically, Eno places agency in the circuits of a computer. In 1996, Eno released a floppy disc containing a software program. This was Generative Music 1, an "album" featuring Sseyo's Koan software at its center. Koan allows its user to customise approximately one hundred fifty parameters (like scale, note duration, etc.) and then "improvises" within them. Generative Music 1 is markedly distinct from Riley's behavioural generative music because it is wholly probabilistic. In C coheres because its performers can, in real time, perceive their playing in correlation with that of their fellows and modify it accordingly. The outcome of the performance, its final determination, can therefore be subjected to minimal predicative operations. In other words, the performers can both have an idea of where the piece is going and consciously effect outcomes. Riley compounds this fact in his directions: "it is important to think of patterns periodically so that when you are resting you are conscious of the larger periodic composite accents that are sounding, and when you re-enter you are aware of what effect your entrance will have on the music's flow." This consciousness, this knowledge of an action's effect, is precisely what Koan lacks. And because it lacks an intersubjective, equilibrating dimension, Koan allows for a wider range of possible occurrences. This is the virtual to which I referred earlier, this space of possibility. Because Eno retains control over the conditions of what Koan produces, it is not so much intentionality itself that is being challenged, but the supposedly direct link between an artist and "their" creation. Generative Music 1 is then closer to It's Gonna Rain, to two machines "mindlessly" moving out of phase, than it is to In C. But rather than "tricking" our ears into perceiving this unpredictable variety, Koan actually materialises it.
Lux, along with Eno's other released installation projects, marks another advance in this logic. Lux was originally composed as a sound installation for the Great Gallery of the Palace of Venaria in Turin, one of the largest royal residences in the world, comparable in size to Versailles, a barracks during Napoleon's occupation of Italy, and now an asset of the Italian Ministry of Culture. Incredibly shrewd of Eno then to release Lux as an album in its own right. This change in Lux's intended listening environment gives its listener access to virtuality. If we listen with this change in mind, Lux produces an effect of spatial doubling. There is the real space, here/now in which I listen, these walls, these specific resonances and vibrations, and there is an ideal space, that for which Lux was intended, those walls, those vibrations. This tension opens the listener to a vital possibility, namely "how could the work sound differently?", a possibility that is vital precisely insofar as it is not determined.
Unlike Generative Music 1, the generative aspect of Lux (ie that which is generated) is the virtual itself. Koan produces actual sounds, and the virtual, the proliferation of possibilities, remains unheard on Generative Music 1. Rather, it exists as an envelope of possibilities structured by the one hundred fifty or so parameters that Koan allows one to customise. The sounds created by Koan can only be heard insofar as they destroy their conditions, insofar as they erase the possible to become the actual. Lux reverses this operation, in the manner of a psychoacoustic effect. For on Lux the condition for the virtual's generation is the actual, the sounds that I he(a)r(/e) now. This is all the more powerful for Eno's material being sound, nonrepresentational and immediate. If deployed under the aegis of normative artistic intentionality, Lux would affirm a virtual space (that of its original installation, proper to its composition and thereby to its composer) that I can only imagine while denigrating the real space that I inhabit. But I believe that Lux and Eno ask us to flip this equation, and think the perversion of intention as precisely that which is productive of novelty. It is also a beautiful piece of music.
TRACK LIST: Lux 1 / Lux 2 / Lux 3 / Lux 4