Tokion JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2005 - by Carlo McCormick


As a performer and producer, Brian Eno approaches music from a unique theoretical perspective, which is perhaps why he has arguably been the most important musician of the past thirty years. His discography ranges from glam to Ambient to New Wave to pop, but his work has remained intriguing and challenging no matter what the genre. At one point during his discussion at the conference of the ideas behind his work, he offered to keep talking all day, and frankly, we would have been more than happy to listen.

Let's talk about how, with ambient music, you brought the background to the foreground...

Brian Eno: In the early '60s I was very impressed by the period when rock and roll first noticed that the recording studio could do something other than reproduce sound. There were a generation of producers - Phil Spector the most notable among them - who were using the studio to create the sense of a new environment that didn't actually exist. What I really liked was that when you listened to his records, you heard not just a song, but you heard a place as well. To me that was something new in music.

And I was very interested in abstract painting. I was studying painting and art history in college, and the period that most interested me was Russia from 1906 to 1927 - Constructivism, Supremitism, Royanism, and all the other 'isms' of which there were so many in Russia at the time. What fascinated me about that kind of painting was not just the fact that it wasn't figurative, but the fact that it created the possibility of other worlds with different gravities and different physical rules. Both of those feelings coalesced - the idea that music created new spaces and painting [created] a new physics.

A big part of the Abstract Expressionists was the idea that [the painting] ran right to the edges. It was flat - 'all over painting,' they called it. One had the feeling that the painting was a slice of the universe that this painting represented. I liked this thought very much, and I thought, 'This is how I want music to be.' Music has started to be like that anyway because people had stared experimenting with fade-outs and fade-ups. Now, the impression that the fade-out and the fade-up gives you is that the music started a long time earlier and ends at some indefinite point in the future. This is quite different from the classical idea of composition, where the piece has a typical progression, with a beginning, middle and end. What was happening in Pop music in the mid-'60s was the idea that what you were listening to was just the slice that would fit onto a record, but actually the music was a much longer continuum. I liked this idea very much.

I also wanted the feeling that the music was not all presented to you on a flat canvas or equal plane. I wanted the feeling that music had an edge you couldn't hear, but beyond which it still existed. So I started experimenting, quite early on, with very, very, very quiet sounds, because I wanted to give the impression of the music being a part of something that you could only apprehend a part of.

I can't help but note that a lot of the Russians and the Abstract Expressionists were after 'the sublime.' They're actually two of the most spiritual moments in Modernism...

BE: Well, I'm a militant atheist. The experience with the sublime isn't necessarily a religious experience. It can have anything to do with surrender, essentially. It's allowing yourself to be out of your depth and aware that you're not in control of things. People normally equate that with a religious experience, but I don't. I think it's an experience that many people have, for instance, when they're dancing or playing sports. Those, for me, are all versions of the sublime.

Time is one of the things I think about a lot. One of the most important musical experiences of my life was Steve Reich's early tape pieces. Particularly one piece called It's Gonna Rain. Objectively, it's a very simple piece of music. There are two tape-recorders, each playing the same loop. The loop is a preacher saying it's gonna rain! One of the recorders is playing it at a slightly different speed. So what happens is you get an auditory effect where two identical things keep crossing each other in different ways. It sounds very simple, and you'd think that not very musically interesting, but such a lot happened in the course of this piece. It became such an economical way of composing. The only thing that's happening, compositionally, is that there's a slippage in time. The basic material never changes. I was very impressed by this idea, and I started making quite a lot of pieces which, in some ways, were more ambitious than this one. [Shows a diagram on the screen onstage.]

What you have here are a number of musical events which simply are allowed to run out of sync. The music is really a machine, basically, that you design, and you put these inputs into it, and the machine produces this result for as long as you want. I like this for two reasons: one, it made life very easy as a composer, in the sense that all your attention went into the design of the inputs. The other thing I liked is it gave you the possibility of endless pieces of music. That's always been an ambition of mine - to make music that exists like paintings. You don't switch a painting on and off. You look away from it or look at it. I wanted to make music that hung in time the way paintings do. Discreet Music was the first place I tried this, in 1975. It was cut as long as you could possibly cut a record at the time, thirty minutes and thirty-one seconds. I did that to indicate that was as much as I could get on [the record], but I would have put on more if I could have.

By the mid- to late-'70s I came up with the idea of Ambient. What I noticed happening was that myself, and a lot of my friends, were compiling cassettes for each other of music that retained a single mood for quite a long time. We wanted music that created an atmospheric condition rather like decor or lighting does. This connects with the 'all-over' painting idea of the '40s and '50s. We wanted this same idea in music, and it didn't really exist.

One of the things I thought about from the very beginning of making records is what do you do with voices in records? For me, the voice always seemed to command too much attention. Critics, when reviewing records, always wrote about the words, which I always thought of as the least important part of the music. Most of the songs I love, I still don't know what the hell they're singing about. I have no desire to know. In fact, I'm nearly always disappointed when I find out [referring to diagram], traditionally you have a singer at the top of the pyramid, then you have melodic instruments supporting, with the rhythmic instruments underneath. And that's a sort of western 'pop' model. When I started listening to African music, there was no longer a hierarchy - things really mushed together so that the voice could become a rhythm instrument, the drums could be melodic and so on.

What I noticed about a lot of post-Spector production was that what was called the 'background' was consistently becoming more interesting. It was no longer connected to anything we'd ever heard before in music. It was manufactured studio sound. And by the late '60s when synthesizers came around, it didn't even use instruments that we recognized. That's what I liked. And so, if you look at my song records, they gradually drop the voice more and more. Like Another Green World, which people think of as a song record, had fourteen pieces but only five of them have voice in. That was a good piece of slight-of-hand, because it was still thought of as a song record and in the '70s it was very hard to sell anything that was instrumental. People tended not to review it because critics only think about words and don't know how to write about music.

Were you influenced by John Cage at all? 4'33" was all about making the audience acutely aware of surface noise...

What became very clear with pieces like that Steve Reich piece that I talked about and a lot of the La Monte Young work and the Cage work [4'33"] was that everything interesting that happens is because of some kind of confusion your brain has in dealing with repeating information. I'd just been reading an essay called What The Frog's Eyes Sees, and it's about habituation. Habituation is what happens when our eyes move all the time. We don't keep our eyes still. We scan all the time. We do that so that the rods and cones don't habituate. So, to habituate is to become saturated and to cease to give any signals. What frogs' eyes do is they stay absolutely still, and so any parts of the environment that aren't in motion cease to become visible to the frogs. Now, the big advantage of this is that, assuming something does move, like a little fly, it's the only thing the frog sees. I realized that one's ears are like a frog's eyes. You can't scan with your ears in the same way that you scan with your eyes. So, your ears tend to habituate with drones and repeating information. Therefore, in habituating, they start to ignore the common information, and start to hear more and more exotic sub-particles of information that are the changing parts.

I thought that was very, very interesting because it was using a process of the brain as a method of composing. It's very, very different from the classical idea of composing where the composer is a sort of architect who specifies something in full detail, down to the faucets in the bathroom. It's much more like a gardener might do: planting some seeds and letting them come up. This gives a whole new idea of what art is and how it works. It makes me question a lot of what have been rather basic assumptions about art, which are that it's automatically culturally transferable. You know, that something that is great art in one culture must automatically be so in all other cultures. I don't see why that is true.

The record you did with David Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, weren't you looking for a more universal musical language?

BE: I moved to New York in 1978, and the thing that most impressed me about America was the radio. I thought it was amazing that people who were quite clearly insane could have radio shows. I loved it, actually. I thought, 'This is like being able to examine the inside of the brain of a culture.' Because you know, I come from England where we have the BBC - which is fantastic, but it certainly doesn't allow any of that sort of stuff through. So, this was like seeing all the stuff that got trapped in the filter. And I was really intrigued by it. I would record religious maniacs raving over the airwaves and political extremists of various kinds. Like, one in particular called Barry Farber, who I suppose doesn't exist any longer. He's probably in rapture somewhere or a special advisor to Paul Wolfowitz. At that time there was what was called the 'Iran Crisis', one of the endless crises that America always seems to be involved in. And Barry farber used to come on the air and say - in an accent that I shan't try to mimic because it was so awful - that he thought Iran should be turned into a parking-lot. This is the sort of generosity of spirit that makes people love America.

And so I was working with Talking Heads, and they had come out of listening to funk and rhythm and blues, as well as white arty pop music. I wasn't at all interested in funk, actually. I was interested in African music. The combination of those interests drew us both back to looking at what was happening in African music, trying to squash the vocal-rhythmic hierarchy. I'd already made one piece like this. I can't remember what it's called. It's a New York radio host with the most oily, slimy voice talking to an indignant man who's calling in...

Audience: Mea Culpa

BE: Thank you very much. I'm glad someone listens to these records. I obviously don't.

I'd made a sort of musical setting for this conversation between these two people, because I thought just the musical differences between their voices was so amazing. The guy who was phoning in was all like [spluttering] 'huv-huv-a-huv-huv-huv.' He's incoherent with rage. And politicians going [murmurs] 'uuuhhh-pyuuh-bluuhhh,' saying absolutely nothing, just basically humming and hawing. So I made a sort of verse and chorus structure from these two voices, just chopped them up, which sounds pretty normal now, but that wasn't something that many people were doing at the time, except, I have to say, Holger Czukay from Can. This was very much part of the Bush Of Ghosts idea - the thought that you could trap stuff that was already there. You didn't have to make it all. There was already a universe of stuff out there. The title My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was actually the title of an African novel, and we chose it because I was thinking of all these voices floating about in the airwaves as ghosts, basically.

Do we have time to entertain questions from the audience?

BE: Could I just say one thing about questions? If you are female and asking a question, the chances of you being answered are about five times better than if you are male. The reason I say this is because men sometimes ask very detailed questions, which are of precious little interest to may people in the audience, and of even less interest to me, actually. So, if you are going to ask a question, maybe you could ask questions that might interest at lest twenty percent of the audience.

Audience: I was wondering, with your cerebral and strategic point of view on music, what interests you about straight pop music?

BE: Arguably, my pop work supports everything else that I do. But, I think what interests me about pop music is that it's a very, very democratic container. It's capable of holding anything that you can put into it. It's much more interesting to me in that sense than, say, gallery fine art. Gallery art, to me, is constantly in a state of defense against becoming too accessible. It was pop and Constructivism that made me want to become an artist.

Audience: What are you listening to now, currently?

BE: One of the difficulties about being a composer is that you can't have the radio on while you're doing it, although I have tried...

Audience: I was wondering if you would comment on how the creative process has changed for you and whether your reputation has sometimes made that a challenge for you?

BE: Yes, I think it's harder to be playful. As my friend Jon Hassell says, 'If you're a writer, you can write magazine articles, you can write poems, you can write novels.' But one of the things that happens with music is people regard everything as sort of in the same frame. So it's a little bit difficult to be light-hearted, and because you can't be light-hearted easily, you can't juxtapose that with other things, where you're saying, 'Actually this one is pretty serious.'

The other thing is what happens when you start to get it into your mind that this is your job. See, I didn't really know that being a musician was my job until I'd made quite a few records. And as soon as I realised that, I became less interested in it. It had always been a sort of hobby up until then. I remember phoning my mum once when I was about thirty-two. I had already bought [my parents] a house with proceeds from my work. And she said, 'Oh, hello, boy, how are you? You know, Dad and I have been talking. Do you think you'll ever get a real job? You could get a good job in the post office.' It set me thinking, 'Yeah, I wonder if this is my job?' I'm very reluctant to admit that it might be, because I would like to think that I could do something else completely different tomorrow. In fact, maybe I will.