Los Angeles Times NOVEMBER 6, 1997 - by Kristine McKenna


Ambient pioneer treads into Disney and Russian territories.

Brian Eno has a restless mind, and if there's a lot of something around - a musical style, for instance - he'll be on the hunt for something different. Credited as the inventor of ambient music - atmospheric washes of sound that settle in like weather rather than employing a linear structure - Eno helped pioneer the use of computers in the recording studio, has contributed to a hundred-and-twenty-four albums as composer, performer or producer, and has overseen the making of critically acclaimed works by U2 (The Joshua Tree), David Bowie and Talking Heads. A visiting professor at London's Royal College of Art since 1995, Eno has also been creating audiovisual installations for nineteen years at various sites around the world.

Born and raised in England, where he lives with his wife, Anthea Norman-Taylor, and their two daughters, Eno visited L.A. recently to confer with the research and development team at Disney. He then headed to San Francisco to offer his thoughts to G.B.N., a think-tank established by Stewart Brand (publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog), and Interval Research, a company attempting to develop electronic instruments more responsive to the human body (i.e., you can move while you play them). Recently back from a six-month visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, Eno spoke about his time there and of the new direction his music is taking during an interview at a Santa Monica hotel.

You played a key role in popularising the use of computers in the recording studio. What are your thoughts on the current applications of this strategy?

Lots of records now are generated in the "modern way" - you go into the studio without an idea and hope for the best - and that's something I advocated for years. Fiddling with computers, it's easy to concoct something that sounds like music too, but people are generating all this background then finding they have nothing to put on top. Writing a song, on the other hand, is as hard as it ever was, and I've begun writing "proper" songs and singing again.

I cut back dramatically on my use of computers after I noticed something about the music made by people who are computer-based. When a musician sits in the secretarial mode required to work at a computer, the resulting music tends to be very dense. If you tell him to work standing up - which is my only message to musicians lately - he starts moving, which is another kind of musical expression, and he puts much less sound into the music.

My reservation about the use of computers now also has to do with the fact what you often see in studios is a band sitting around leafing through magazines while some guy in the corner is pasting stuff together and basically making the record. He shouldn't be the one making creative decisions, but he's the only one who understands how the equipment works.

Computers, of course, are central to Disney's creative practice. What did you find inside the walls of Walt's citadel?

I liked the people at Disney and found them committed, bright and creative. You can really do things at Disney too because the financial resources are there, and there's a lot of ingenious experimentation going on. It's all quite admirable, but for the layer of bad taste that goes on top of everything.

What prompted your sojourn in St. Petersburg?

Once you reach a certain level of celebrity in England you can coast for the rest of your life without having another idea, and the prospect of that distressed me. I turn fifty next year and going there was a way of finding out what was left if I eliminated all the distractions and flattering invitations that fill my life. I spent a lot of time just walking around St. Petersburg by myself, and though the place looks a mess, the more you scratch at it the more intriguing and rich it becomes.

What in particular struck you about life there?

Russians aren't devouring Western culture to the degree you'd expect because they're very into their own culture - they're so well-educated they're not going to be swept away by the influx of pop culture. There is a stratum of society known as "new Russians" who've bought into the consumerist cult of buying things, but they're disliked by most Russians, who see them as naive.

Anything forbidden by the communists came to represent freedom, and the church has come back in a big way, as have all forms of occultism and mysticism. The situation is, of course, chaotic, but chaos can be a form of potential in that things aren't all locked into place.

The bad side of the chaos is that these people lived with a system they resented but understood; now it's gone and they don't know what they're doing anymore. If the country had gone completely free market there would've been a lot of unemployment, and the government knew that would be catastrophic. So what you find instead is people with pointless jobs like sweeping streets that don't need sweeping.

How have the changes there affected the creative community?

In a peculiar way. For decades you were either an official artist - which meant you were in the artists union - or you were a dissident. It was easy to give your art meaning by identifying it with the dissidents, but once the system collapsed, artists who'd kept themselves morally afloat by clinging to that idea suddenly lost confidence in their work.

What was the most surprising thing you found there?

That Russia has the most beautiful women on Earth. Russian women exude this aura of "we've survived and we look great," and they have a strong, tempered character that's very attractive. Russians believe they have a deep resource that can see them through anything, and given what they've been through this century, there's good evidence that they're right. They carry themselves with a confidence that says, "Even though everything's a total mess right now, underneath it all, we're solid."