Wired MAY 19, 2008 - by Steven Leckart


When Brian Eno landed on our May 1995 cover, he proclaimed: "Gossip is philosophy." Since then, his name has appeared in sixteen issues, and today the "prototypical Renaissance 2.0 artist" is as busy as ever. He co-produced Coldplay's album Viva La Vida (out in June), composed the score for Will Wright's mega-game Spore (due in September), and is working on new stuff with U2 and David Byrne. We pinged him for some fresh dirt.

Wired: At the showing of 77 Million Paintings in San Francisco, people would see other people lying on the ground of the exhibit hall, and then either join in or stand off to the side. Had this been another artist's exhibit you were attending, would you lie down in the thick of it or stand in the back, and why?

Eno: The horizontal participation was unusual: I normally provide seating so that people can sit, which they sometimes do for hours and hours. I tried lying down on my back but didn't find it comfortable - got a stiff neck - so I ended up at the back of the room. I don't usually prefer to be in the thick of it, wherever that is, unless the thickness is part of the point. In a cinema, for example, I try to find a seat away from anyone else. Some experiences benefit from being communal, others are best enjoyed solitarily.

It always surprises me that in most galleries there are few provisions for people who might want to stay for longer than a cursory glance. The assumption is that people visit galleries like sightseers - a quick glance, read the label, and then you're away. You aren't expected to stand in front of one painting for very long before you move onto the next thing. My shows aren't like that - partly because there isn't a "next thing." I want to encourage people to stay in one place for a while.

One of the things I enjoy about my shows is that they produce a type of behavior I haven't seen before - lots of people sitting quietly watching something that has no story, few recognizable images, and changes very slowly. It's somewhere between the experience of painting, cinema, music, and meditation. I've noticed two things: If you make something that is the right slowness, people are very happy to slow themselves down to meet it. And if you accompany that with music which is the right quietness, people are happy to quiet themselves down to listen to it. I dispute the assumption that everyone's attention span is getting shorter: I find people are begging for experiences that are longer and slower, less "dramatic" and more sensual.

Wired: During your chat with Kevin Kelly for the cover of Wired in 1995, you suggested the future of music might be something on the "cusp between music, game and demonstration." Are 77 Million Paintings and Spore, essentially, the clearest manifestations, thus far, of what you were envisioning?

Eno: They are certainly going in that direction. I imagine more and more that we will be enjoying merged art forms in the future - that's one of the consequences of digitalism, that when all media can be encoded in the same way they tend to spill over into one another and become inseparable. But it isn't as far along as I'd imagined yet. I think what's missing still is the "demonstration" side of the recipe. Spore has some of that (in that it gives you some sort of feel for how evolution might work), but I could imagine going further in that direction.

For example, a few years ago I found myself wondering, "Why do the leaves of trees take all the different forms that they do?" If you accept the theory of evolution, then you will also accept that these shapes aren't just arbitrary designs that God came up with in an idle moment, and so they must be the result of climatic conditions and physical forces and structural constraints and materials issues. So I could imagine a piece of software that would allow you to specify a climate - such as "tundra with powerful winds," and to see what possible leaf shapes that might allow. For instance, it couldn't be big, wide stiff leaves, because they would get shattered by the wind or weighed down by the weight of snow. And so it has to be a spiny form of foliage, but held on the tree in such a way as not to collect snow. And, since it has to photosynthesize in a northern climate, it has to keep its foliage Now imagine that you could interact with this model: Try increasing the speed of the wind and see what has to happen to the foliage to deal with that. Or introduce global warming into the picture! Now what sorts of leaves are possible? I could imagine something like this being right on the cusp between an "art-experience" and a "science-experience." Such things could perhaps result from genuine and meaningful collaborations between artists and scientists. The only place I can think of that regularly attempts stuff like this - and often succeeds - is The Exploratorium in San Francisco.

By the way, it's not that I'm obsessed by leaves specifically - I just like to think about how things come into being the way they do.

Wired: Talking to Kevin in 1995 you also suggested the future wouldn't be "interactive" music, but products that are "permanently unfinished." Since 1995, due to remix culture and the further democratization of tools, many consumers now view all products as unfinished, regardless of artistic intention. On some level, is such inevitable deconstruction enough to prove your prediction came true?

Eno: I just dislike the word interactive. It implies that there are forms of art experience that are somehow inferior because they don't have you physically engaged in them. But the physical engagement is not the interesting part for me. It's the mental engagement, and that's something we get with all art experiences. So unfinished is a better word: It implies that you, the user, are also the maker of the experience.

Wired: Much has been made about the way tech (MySpace, digital distribution) has sped up the whole hype/buzz process. Had your career gone from 0 to 160mph the way it could today, how might that have influenced your development as an artist? What effect has Internet technology and culture had on art and artists?

Eno: That's an interesting question. The effect of highly accelerated careers could be this: Ideas are put out into the public sphere much earlier, and less completely formed, than they would have been in the past. This is an invitation for other people to cherry-pick those ideas and finish them in various different ways. I think this makes culture a more widespread conversation, the result of a host of untraceable contributions webbing together to produce new things. It erodes the image of the artist as a lonely genius and puts us into a more "folk music" situation, where anyone can have a go and ideas spread out in all directions.

That doesn't mean there's no difference between the participants. It means that every participant is different, and it's almost impossible to know which participants are going to turn out to be the critical ones. The whole field now is characterized by what Per Bak called "self-organizing criticality": You have no way of knowing which particular grain of sand is going to start the avalanche, and no way of knowing whether that grain was intrinsically more important than all the others.

I'm not saying that we're in this situation - it's just that we're much closer to it than we were twenty years ago. The primary effect of new digital media is to introduce a lot of new voices and skills and perceptions to the conversation, and to make far more cross- links between them.

On top of that, of course, there still exist the remnants of a business structure that want to try to make a living out of things, like we all do, and therefore in whose interests it is to promote the classical idea of "genius": to make the claim that the people they are marketing are special and different and important. Which they might be. Who knows?

The measure of whether somebody is culturally important is really the degree to which they change the cultural conversation. Sometimes it's obvious when that is happening - Radiohead, The Sex Pistols - but sometimes it isn't so obvious. Scott Walker, for example, influenced other artists more than audiences, and his approach was taken up and recycled into successful records for them.

Wired: Do you ever find yourself too dependent on technology or software? Is there even such a thing? If so, how do you reassert your ability to create without it or, at least, with the understanding that you can, at any time, regain control of it? Or is your job merely to guide it?

Eno: I've always been fascinated by technology. You could call it a dependency, because I wouldn't even be a musician at all were it not for modern recording technology. But then again Jimi Hendrix wouldn't have been a guitarist without electric guitar technology. A lot of my ideas start with looking at a tool and thinking what else you could do with it other than what it was intended for. Which is to say that technology produces ideas, just as much as ideas produce technology. Most new technologies are invented to do old things better or cheaper or faster... so film was a way of making theater portable, and TV was a way of making film domestic. But almost as soon as each new technology appeared, people started to realize that you could do things that nobody had ever thought of doing before. The film camera and the possibilities of editing, for example, made it possible for the audience to experience a moving point of view, or a physically impossible point of view (think of Citizen Kane for example), or to jump between different times and places.

The problem comes when you find yourself doing things just because they are now technologically possible. An example of this is "correcting" drum takes in a song. Few drummers are really constant and accurate, and there is a ridiculous temptation - because it is now possible - to correct them, to make sure that every beat falls precisely in the right place. I hate this approach and would rather use a good, honest rhythm box than convert a living drummer into one.

What do people want from Art? I don't know the full answer, but one thing I'm increasingly sure of is that they want life. They want the sense that there is something going on, that something real and exciting and of its moment has been captured - from a performance of a Chopin Nocturne just as much as from a Bruce Springsteen song. As John Cage used to say, "Art is a verb" - and as I always say, "So should be the experience of Art". In an age of digital perfectability, it takes quite a lot of courage to say, "Leave it alone" and, if you do decide to make changes, [it takes] quite a lot of judgment to know at which point you stop. A lot of technology offers you the chance to make everything completely, wonderfully perfect, and thus to take out whatever residue of human life there was in the work to start with. It would be as though someone approached Cezanne and said, "You know, if you used Photoshop you could get rid of all those annoying brush marks and just have really nice, flat color surfaces." It's a misunderstanding to think that the traces of human activity - brushstrokes, tuning drift, arrhythmia - are not part of the work. They are the fundamental texture of the work, the fine grain of it.

Indeed, in some sorts of music they are the primary content. A lot of music doesn't seek to innovate structurally or compositionally, but entirely in terms of the individuality of performance. Think of the blues: the same three chords in pretty much the same structure, and with little variation of lyrical content (Robert Wyatt once described the blues as twelve thousand versions of the same song). What listeners treasure about blues performances are the textural and performative differences from one to the next, differences that come to seem very important and huge as we become accustomed to the restricted vocabulary of the medium. Similarly, connoisseurs of piano sonatas will hear enormous differences between Alfred Brendel's version of a piece and the same piece played by Arthur Rubinstein.

But if you're sitting in a studio, listening to things over and over and over again, and there's a big Pro Tools rig sitting there, and an engineer itching to show his chops, it's hard to resist saying "OK - straighten those drums out." And indeed, when you first do it, it sounds better. And so you do more of it - fix up the guitar riffs, get that vocal really in tune, replace some indistinct bass notes, sugar the whole thing up so it's sparkling like a Christmas tree. Ah - it's all so wonderful... until you finally realize you've reached not audio Heaven but audio Hollywood - bland, tasteless, entirely indistinguishable and standard product. Brendel becomes Liberace.

Wired: How do you determine when a piece of software or equipment is sound enough to carry out your vision? How often do you find yourself waiting for tech to catch up to one of your ideas? Do you regularly work to the limitations of what's possible? What's one idea you'd carry out if there were adequate technology to accomplish it just right?

Eno: I work with new technologies to see what they can do that I never could do before, and, even more, what they can suggest that I would never have thought of before. That's the real payoff - when a tool suggests a whole new way of working - a new form. An example of this would be multitrack recording, which moved music away from the idea of performance in real time towards the idea of sound-painting in virtual time. Often I find things don't do what they're "supposed to do" very well, but they do something else - something nobody ever thought of doing before - brilliantly. An example of this was early speech recognition (voice-to-text) software. It was hopeless at translating spoken word into text, but great at producing inadvertent new poetry from even quite dull inputs.

I sometimes think of things I'd like to be able to do which aren't yet possible, as when I got interested in making what I christened Generative Music. I wanted to turn my Discreet Music piece into a system rather than a record, so that I could have an endless performance of it - you set it going and it generates endlessly changing music. I came to California searching for software designers who might be working on something like this, and found none. Back home in England, about twenty miles down the road from my studio, was a small company called SSEYO that was working on a piece of software called KOAN - which did exactly what I wanted.

Mostly I find visions by imagining a sort of art I wish existed, and then trying to make it. I started making ambient music because I wanted to hear a music that was spatial and sculptural and didn't move about too much - and it simply didn't exist yet. The idea wasn't that new - it had a long lineage back to Erik Satie and beyond - but there was no way yet you could have it "in your own home." I wanted to make the personal music experience different - more like the experience of having a painting in your room, or a condition of light. I had to make it, because I couldn't find it anywhere. It was an idea that wouldn't have been thinkable before recorded music: People had become used to good sound systems, and also used to the idea that the concept of "music" was detachable from the concept of "human performance."

Other times I make things from trying to improve on what [has struck] me as brilliant failures: great ideas or approaches that I would have done differently. I often hear things and find myself thinking, that would be so much better if only they had blah blah blah, and sometimes I then try to make what I think would be the better version. It often ends up a long way away from the brilliant failure that started it. And I hope that what I then make becomes someone else's brilliant failure.

And sometimes things just arise out of normal everyday work: You go into the studio with no ideas, but just switch on and start fiddling about, and then notice when you start to feel something that you haven't quite felt before, and then try to make more of it. And then I start wondering why that feeling interests me, where it is going, what else it connects to. That becomes a vision.

Wired: I understand that in collaborating with David Byrne, you email ideas and snippets of music back and forth across the pond. Aside from the obvious transcending of time/space, how has technology changed or enhanced the nature of the way you work together? What can we expect fromyour upcoming collaboration?

Eno: It's been fun doing this: I send him a piece of music, and he sends back a song. There are no snippets involved really: I send as complete as possible a backing track, with all or most instruments already in place, and he returns a complete vocal, with all or most of the words in place. We never made any agreement not to cross these territorial borders, but mostly it's worked out well that way: I do music, he does singing. It could change as the thing goes on, but it might not. Some of the tracks I send have a vocal melody, but I send that separately so that David doesn't have to listen to "my" idea for a melody. In a couple of cases he's used it; more often he's come up with his own (much better) one. We've hardly met at all during the whole process, and there's a certain feeling to this way of working. I imagine that medieval correspondences, between scholars, in Latin, across continents, must have been like this.

Wired: You won a five hundred dollar Long Bet with Stewart Brand (in 2002) that by August 2005, a Democrat would not be president of the US. Would you be willing to go double or nothing that by August 2009 a Dem will be president of the US? Why or why not?

Eno: I would bet the same again this time. I feel that the Rightists in America have almost complete media dominance - and are prepared to play as dirty as they need. They would be very happy with Clinton as the Democratic candidate because they know exactly how to slice her to pieces. A Clinton candidature means a Republican presidency, as far as I can see. Obama is more of a problem, because nobody hates him (as they do Clinton) and indeed a lot of people are genuinely inspired by him. So his candidacy will require the very dirtiest of dirty tricks, and I have no doubt they'll sink to the challenge.

In 2002, I felt that it was important for the Republicans to win. Kerry did not strike me as a charismatic candidate, and I felt that whoever took the presidency next would get blamed for the complete cock-up that Bush and his team had started. If Kerry had won, he and the Democrats would now be getting the blame for the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of your economy. This would have given the Republicans twenty-five years of dominance - as they would continue to point back at Iraq, etc. and say, "That's what the Democrats will do for you." So it seemed to me important that Bush take the can for all that, since it was directly the result of his policies. I imagined that the resulting disillusionment with Bush and the Bushmen would open the way for a new broom - I was at that time hoping it would be Hillary Clinton. I thought the change of a mood in the country would enable her to take a strongly liberal position and not have to apologize for it. She hasn't done that, because she dare not. She knows the knives are out for any sign on her part that she'll be "softer" than McCain - because she's trying to play him at his own game, instead of coming up with a different one.

As it turns out, it's Obama who is playing the different game. I hope that he will be the democratic candidate. I would be thrilled if he became the president. However, I think he will be cut to ribbons by the most disgraceful campaign any of us will ever have witnessed. He has to be discredited, and he will be, somehow. And I worry that the American people will complain about it and then swallow it as they swallowed the fraudulent election of Bush. So, no, I wouldn't bet on a Democrat being president. I dearly wish that would be the case - either Obama or Clinton - but I'm sorry to say that I think America isn't quite there yet. It may require another four years of collapse and chaos under another Republican administration.