Wired JUNE 2013 - by Tom Cheshire


There's only one place you can hear Brian Eno's latest album: a meditative "quiet room" in Brighton's new Montefiore Hospital. The audiovisual installation, called "Quiet Room for Montefiore", is meant to help chemotherapy patients recover from treatment. ( Studies carried out at London's Chelsea and Westminster Hospital have shown that patients who had access to live music and visual art, post-surgery, required less analgesia than those without.) Unfamiliar territory is where Eno works best: over the course of his career he's created new music genres, produced albums for David Bowie, Talking Heads and Coldplay, exhibited ever-changing paintings and, more recently, published three iPhone apps of generative music. Wired's Tom Cheshire visited Eno in his Notting Hill studio.

Wired: Your art and music has been taken to many different places around the world. But a hospital must be a first...

Brian Eno: I used to call my shows quiet rooms. I'd been playing with the idea of these shows being a way of hitting a different pace in your life, a different speed of things. And there is a certain amount of history: an early album of mine, Discreet Music [from 1975], is used in maternity wards. Apparently, a lot of people like having babies to Discreet Music. I've met many of the babies now. Some of them are adults. And they all have very strange eyes.

What was important about it was that it had this evenness, a consistent atmosphere without any narrative, without any surprises. It provided a landscape in which you could feel comfortable. I suppose that was the genesis of the idea of a functional type of music, which of course [1978 album] Music For Airports was - it was a deliberate attempt to say, here's a situation where people want to hear music; there isn't any music that has been designed for that situation; and what's normally used clearly fails to do the job - because it's annoying.

So I was working with the functional music idea for a long time. And then I started doing more of my visual shows, and I noticed that this was a magnification of the same effect. It seems obvious to me that there's a need for this, that people want some place where they can go into a different mode.

Has demand for clubs like this increased?

Yes. And there are quite a lot of reasons for that. For a start, the stimulus rate we're exposed to has increased exponentially. Think of yourself twenty years ago, without a mobile phone, without email. It was such a quiet life. Occasionally, you'd write a letter... and get one. A letter! So it's very exciting being alive now - there's so much going on. But it keeps you in a certain part of your mind.

You know, our autonomic nervous system has two sections - there's the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic is the part that deals with fight and flight - it's the alert part, the part that has to take control of situations, that has to be ready, and can make decisions. It's the part of your psyche that is contributing to stress - that's not useless, you very much need it. But you don't want to reside there all the time because the parasympathetic nervous system does something else. It's sort of the rest-and-digest part of the nervous system.

I feel that when you go into one of these rooms, you're shifting from sympathetic to parasympathetic. This is just a theory, though - a neuroscientist might say it's total bollocks.

It almost seemed a throwback when you released an album of recorded music, Lux, in 2012: before then you had been working with installations and mobile apps. Do you think that recorded sound has a future?

I don't think anything ever disappears - there will be recordings for a long time, just as there are still orchestras. Everything hangs around. But new ideas are certainly appearing. For instance, generative music has only really been possible recently, because of the technology. In the past, it was clumsy, but now it isn't clumsy at all. And [iPhone app] Bloom is an example of a very simple piece of generative music that has sold more than any of my albums. Most people would be surprised to hear that.

Do you use the granular data and feedback you can get with interactive work?

No, but people write in. When [iPad app] Scape came out, one guy was incredibly enthusiastic. Within a month, he'd done seven-hundred-and-eighty pieces on it. That's a lot of work.

Are people sharing this stuff?

Yes. We haven't actually included the feature yet, but they are.

In the past, you've spoken about a machine-based approach to art. But has that idea of networked machines sharing information changed your conception of a machine from something mechanical to something more like a swarm?

It's a complexity issue for me. Things change in quality when they change in quantity. When the interconnectedness of machines reaches a threshold, you realise you're dealing with a system you don't understand any more.

Some people, like [founding editor of US Wired] Kevin Kelly, who I've been friends with for a long time, think that will be great; some, like [author] Evgeny Morozov, say otherwise. This is one of the most important things happening at the moment - whether we allow ourselves to surrender to this developing world brain, which can behave in very unpredictable ways. You remember that flash crash [a 2010 one-day stock-market crash linked to high-frequency trading]? That was unexpected synchronicity in the system, which had a very dramatic effect.

Luckily, it was only numbers - although some people lost several million dollars' worth of those numbers - but it could have happened with the food supply chain, and that is more frightening. We're only just starting to understand complexity theory, and we need to understand it better. The science is behind the reality at the moment.

What does the music for the world brain sound like?

I listen to 6 Music a lot. I like it because I hear songs I don't expect to hear. One of the surprises is the result of us being at a certain stage in the history of the culture of pop music - what I call the digestive stage.

The first fifteen or twenty years of pop music produced a huge variety of stuff. This happens at the beginning of every art form - a huge number of ideas are thrown out in every direction. Then there's quite a long period that can look unoriginal but isn't at all, where people say, "What happens if I put that genre with that?" I call that digestion. I think the results are really interesting.

Is that a function of the technology? On Spotify or YouTube, all eras of music are available simultaneously.

I think it's very much a function of it. And the way we listen to music now collides things together in ways that you never got if you put it on LP, where the sequence was chosen to be together. Now we have this random shuffling. You'll hear one era, with its style and its technical limitations and oddities, next to another. And this makes people aware of things like recording techniques - they know something recorded in 1975 in Detroit has a sound from this mic, those compressors and so on.

People are now doing that not only with stylistic elements, but also technical elements. The music software you buy is now styled to look like a remake of some ancient piece of technology. You can try it with a 1971 Vox AC30 amp, but with speakers from a 1982 Orange amp. It's a deliberate quotation, not of a melody line or a chord sequence, but a quotation of technology.