INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Sydney Morning Herald NOVEMBER 9, 2010 - by Bernard Zuel
MASTER OF THE EVER-EVOLVING SOUND OF MUSIC
Brian Eno, a man widely considered, not least by himself, to have one of the larger brains in contemporary music and to be the nabob of new technology, is having a hard time with said technology as our interview begins. In London he's struggling with the phone headset, clunking and banging initially as he talks, grumbling that "I've got the smallest ears in the world, I think".
Ah, but at least he's put those little things to good use in four decades of making music, producing music, creating art, curating last year's Vivid festival at the Opera House and provocatively posing questions.
Questions such as can you make music which moves so little that it is almost like aural wallpaper but still have it fascinate? Or, can you turn uptight New Yorkers into Afro-funk giants?
Or, does a computer limit art or actually expand every possibility?
The latter question is particularly relevant on the eve of a new album from Eno and collaborators Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, called Small Craft On A Milk Sea. In this mostly improvised album, which canvasses the ambient music that Eno helped invent in the mid-'70s and more rhythmic and almost pop moments, technology is, as ever, a boon companion because "you can do a lot more with numbers than you can with pieces of wood and string".
"The interesting thing about digital [technology] is what you are playing with are not atoms, which is what you are using when you are playing real instruments, or transistors. You are playing with information and as such you can do anything you can do with any other form of information, for instance, with a word processor where you cut and paste and turn things around and change typeface and that sort of thing," says Eno. "Something strange will happen, something you didn't expect."
The technology may have changed but this is a principle that has always applied in Eno's career: changing the path of sound and technology to present the unexpected.
"My whole entry into music comes from that set of possibilities that were presented by electronics," he says. "I couldn't have been a musician a hundred years ago. There wasn't a way of being a musician in the way that I am now."
Eno, who appeared in his first musical venture with Roxy Music as something of a New Age tape operator, even resisted the term musician for many years.
He says he wanted to make a distinction between the traditions and the manipulations he was attempting, though now it is all subsumed under the title of music and he has reluctantly accepted that.
Does that difference apply to audiences too? We engage with music differently now to how we did even ten years ago and certainly compared with when he began making music in the late 1960s.
"That's a very interesting point and it's something that we probably won't know for a few more years," he says. "Music always changes to occupy the niches that are provided for it."