"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Wired AUGUST 1996 - by John Alderman
AMBIENT WOOD: ENO ON PAPER
When Brian Eno created the soundtrack of For All Mankind, a 1989 film about the NASA moon flights, he wrote in the liner notes to the disc that he was trying to create music that would resonate with a unique set of human experiences. That's how I approached A Year With (Swollen Appendices), Eno's diary of 1995 - as an interesting document from a person with a unique cultural vantage. Written to give what's probably a pretty realistic picture of his life, A Year has plenty to satisfy the voyeuristic urge of which diary reading is a clear sign.
Because the book doesn't attempt any cohesive arguments - there's certainly no central thesis - it's much like Eno's ambient music. You can open it at any point and get a slice of Eno's world, an observation, an idea for cooking, whatever. Will this be interesting to everyone? To anyone? I'm sure Eno's hoping that more than just fans might be interested. He said in a recent interview with me that he hopes he doesn't become some fan's obsessive collection of facts. Whether or not you might be affected by his diary is, like music, a matter of taste, chance, or overlapping fetishes.
There's a list in the book titled simply "I am" - 30 nouns, 30 roles that Eno must fulfill: "a mammal, a father... a celebrity, a masturbator... a cook..." This list provides a good starting point for gauging where your interests intersect Eno's. Like Eno, I am also a cook, for instance, and enjoyed reading how he prepares risotto. He doesn't include as much about masturbation, however, except a very few prurient tidbits, and some mildly provocative descriptions of the women he encounters ("how excitingly dominant these wealthy, healthy, modishly dressed and highly perfumed German ladies look!").
As a rambling disjointed collection of thoughts, memories, and events, A Year is a mixed bag. But the unevenness, natural in a year-long exercise in spontaneity, feels here like honesty. Because the jumpy, segmented style of the book mimics how people think, one gets to know Eno in much the same way one knows, or sometimes doesn't know, one's self. Left to my own devices, like the Eno of this book, I usually don't craft big arguments or lengthy soliloquies, but rather exist in a continuum of memories, observations, and dinner-planning. Big soul-searching usually only comes when it's forced, and not much forces Eno.
Eno's open schedule, which would be the envy of most people, seems to make him confront his natural human laziness in ways that we employed unfortunates never have to. Many of the games he describes deal with various forms of rewards and punishments to encourage work. In the margins there are sketched ideas for motivation, such as: "Every day you visit the (health) club, £1 of your subscription is sent to a particular child in an impoverished part of the world, so that your attendance at the club is largely responsible for this child's welfare." Playful ideas such as these are the humorous glue that holds the book together.
There are quite a few good ideas and observations, as well as some rotten apples. Eno's tendency to describe outlooks and philosophies with world geography, for instance, can be maddening. It might be convenient shorthand to say that computers need more Africa, but it's patronizing. (Few would feel comfortable hearing something like "you know Fred, he's always had a little too much Africa in him.") Also suspect, but in a funny way, is when Eno mentions he should give U2 a lecture in return for showing him such a good time at one of their homes in Ireland. One imagines Eno thinking "Oh, I think I'll fill up this lovely house with a little hot air..."
But it's hard to be too harsh on the guy, especially if you imagine the gushing pomposity you'd write in your own diary. After a pleasant, but not too jarring or surprising, journey through Eno's days, I just ended up putting the book down and moving on, picking it up again occasionally. Maybe that's when the infection begins.