Pulse! OCTOBER 2001 - by John Diliberto


The patron saint of ambient music, Brian Eno, is now grounding his music in real life.

Rain is beating down on the large skylights of Brian Eno's otherwise windowless studio in London. You'd think that for the musician who created ambient, environmental music, this would be the perfect backdrop. But for Eno, it might be an intrusion.

"The most important thing is that I don't have any windows, and the biggest disturbance for me is when there's another world to look at," he claims. "I like a situation where I really can inhabit just the place that I'm making, so I'm not keen on studios that have wonderful views and beautiful gardens. They just want me to give up music."

Those seem like the words of a musician whose music comes hermetically sealed, isolated from the world, shorn of life. But with Eno, it's just the opposite. He's making music drawn from life, as his new album title suggests. Drawn From Life (Astralwerks), recorded in collaboration with German composer J. Peter Schwalm, is a more organic, free-flowing sound born in improvisation, than were his electro-excursions of the '90s.

"A lot of this record arose out of Peter and I jamming together," reveals Eno.There are many different perceptions of Brian Eno, but one of them is not as a musician who jams.

"I know what you mean," agrees Schwalm, speaking from his studio in Frankfurt. "This is something he doesn't think about himself. He told me that he hadn't jammed for about 15 years."

But Eno doesn't jam in the accepted sense of the term. Although in July he gave his first live performance in years at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, he's not about to get onstage with Medeski, Martin & Wood or Phish and whip out a blues.

"It's not a typical way of jamming," says Schwalm. "We start to jam with atmosphere. I have a sound and it's a very fragile, thin sound and he keeps adding to it from his CD player with prepared atmospheres. So actually, our jamming is based more around building up atmospheres, and sometimes a melody appears."

"We just sit down and we start playing, and we both have quite elaborate little jamming setups," echoes Eno. Of course when he talks about jamming setups, he doesn't mean guitar, bass and drums, but DJ CD players, audio-processing equipment and keyboards. Even Schwalm, who used to be a drummer, plays the rhythms on his keyboards.

Improvising over atmospheres, feeding back improvisations through loops, Eno and Schwalm found themselves in cyber-noir terrain. "We found that we drifted into these rather dark, still landscapes and we liked being there," says Eno. "I think it's trying to imagine a music that comes out of 21st century cities, but cities that are as complex as real cities, that are not simple images of cities, not Blade Runner, not Le Corbusier's machines for living, not Concrete Jungle, but all of those things and people living their lives and being emotional and having children, and all the other things that people do. So it's trying to make something that takes as its context this modern life that we lead, with all its hard edges and sharp corners, but also have something of the softness of human beings in it as well."

Soft human beings appear on 'Bloom' in the form of Eno's two young daughters, babbling in the background along with their dad during what sounds like breakfast.

"Interestingly, fake!" says Eno with a laugh. "Because they both appear in that piece as the same age, about a year and a half old. They are in fact a year and a half different in age, so it's sort of collaged together from two different recordings."

Eno's daughters reveal an underpinning of nostalgia to this otherwise off-center slice of junk electro-abstraction as they recite the nursery rhyme 'Peas Porridge Hot'.

"I love the way she says 'nine days aawold,'" says Eno with a touch of wistfulness. "Old! That's such a difficult word for a child."

Eno often seems like a slingshot. He pulls himself hard in one direction, is propelled on the exact opposite course, only to return again once that avenue is spent. But actually, Eno is a tumult of impulses, interests and distractions, all working their way to the surface, usually in some recombinant form. The patron saint of ambient music, Eno says his current method of live playing is born of frustration from hearing many musicians who are probably his disciples.

"I noticed that records I like listening to are almost without exception conspicuously performed by people," he explains. "Old soul records or African bands. I don't tend to listen to the kind of music that sounds like it was made almost entirely free from any human interference. I enjoy making that music as well. I don't dismiss it, but as a listener what I want is music where I sense the presence of the person, I sense someone alive at the time that the music was being made."

That's what has attracted Eno toward old fusion jazz, in particular early '70s Miles Davis and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. "I'm very reluctant to call my music jazz because I don't like jazz that much," he confesses, with the notable exception of Davis. "I think his '70s-onwards work was very much an influence on what we were doing in this record."

It was already an influence for Schwalm. Working under the name Slop Shop, he's made two self-produced CDs, Makrodelia and Makrodelia II (Poets Club Records) that sound like a launching point for Drawn From Life. "Yeah, definitely," Schwalm concurs. "The idea of doing a record which would be developed like Miles Davis' Bitches Brew is exciting to me."

Some of Eno's interest in a live performance model can be traced back to the version of his Music For Airports that was performed by the New York avant-garde ensemble Bang On A Can. It took Eno's ambient opus and transferred its overlapping loops and fog-shrouded sound to acoustic instruments. Experiencing the piece anew, Eno found an emotional resonance that he didn't have with his own version.

"For a start, their version was incredibly painstaking," he observes. "To make a copy of something is much harder than making the original. So you have all of that weight of human effort and engagement in there, and you cannot help but hear it as an emotional expression, which, if you know about how the original was made, you know that couldn't have been an emotional expression in terms of its performance. It's a bunch of loops of tape. So I found their version very, very moving. That may have been one of the reasons that I started thinking about what people can do when they're playing, and when it makes a difference when they don't have the chance to say 'Oh, can I do that bit again?' when they have to make it count."

Most Eno ideas usually extend to new destinations, including his productions, which in the past year or so have included U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind and James' Pleased To Meet You. James' CD was recorded mostly live, right in Eno's studio, directly to disc.

So is Brian Eno going rustic? Is he about to sit out on the back porch plucking his guitar and sipping tea? Not likely. He's also still working on his generative music, using a program called Koan, with which the composer sets up some broad parameters and then lets the computer do the heavy lifting. Like most of Eno's work, it has its roots in the '70s when he composed Discreet Music, in which he let a tape loop feedback system generate musical patterns. In the '90s, Eno's art installations featured infinitely shifting soundtracks made from multiple cassettes on auto-replay, which constantly realigned themselves in theoretically un-repeating textures. He does the same thing now with CDs. Koan responds to similar concerns and he's been using it for limited-edition releases of his gallery soundtracks through Opal.

There would seem to be an inherent conflict between Eno's generative music and his desire for live music.

"Yes, I agree, it appears quite contradictory," he admits. "The only thing I would say is that both extremes interest me. The extreme of really live music is interesting to me, but also the extreme of entirely self-made music, self-generated music, seems to me another fresh direction."

The search for fresh directions has sent Eno into visual arts, the world of perfumes and sometimes just about anything but music.

"I sometimes think if somebody walked into my studio now and said, 'OK, that's it, by governmental decree you are not allowed to be an artist anymore, and all this stuff you've got in here, just clear it out, you're going to do something else with your life now,'" he says with not a little enthusiasm. "I think I'd say, 'Wow! That's exciting, let's do it.' A governmental decree, that's what I need, then I'd see which bits remain, which bits I really have to do."