INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Australian Broadcasting Commission MAY 30, 2009 - by Andrew Ford
From art-school band Roxy Music via 'ambient' music to superstar record producer and sound theorist, Brian Eno is modern music's most unlikely pop star.
ANDREW FORD: Brian Eno, welcome to The Music Show. I was very struck by something I heard you say on the telly the other day, on the news actually, about how you were into seduction. You believe that you weren't interested in the idea of art being some sort of existential challenge, you wanted to do something irresistible in a way. Maybe that's a place to begin, with the idea that art is something which seduces you.
BRIAN ENO: Yes, I think that until the twentieth century, that's completely taken for granted, that art had to be something that was irresistible, that overwhelmed you, that you felt 'Oh my gosh, I've got to stop and listen to this.' It was only sort of in the twentieth century that the idea came up that the middle classes needed to be shaken out of their torpor, and the way to do it was by smacking people around the face with kippers. And OK, that has its place, it's just not what I want to do.
ANDREW FORD: Right. But Beethoven's Fifth Symphony doesn't really seduce you does it? It sort of comes and grabs you by the throat.
BRIAN ENO: Well it's very grand, but yes, I think it does seduce you. It says 'Here I am, I'm big, I'm powerful and I'm beautiful. Better pay attention. You know, if you like it at all you like it because you surrender to it, and it offers you a chance to just stop being you in your little life, and suddenly you're part of a huge big thing. You feel you are, anyway.
ANDREW FORD: I promise I'm not just going to throw quotes at you, but there is another one which goes back quite a lot further. It's 1978 actually in David Toop's book, Ocean Of Sound and he quotes you, saying that you believe we're moving towards a position of using music and recorded sound with a variety of options we presently use colour to tint the environment. This sounds pretty seductive too, actually. And I wonder whether this is an idea which has lasted in your work, the idea of creating an environment or perfuming an environment.
BRIAN ENO: Funny you should use the word 'perfume' because that's also something I'm interested in, working with smells. As I often say to people, I think that there really ought to be a different name for all the stuff that happened since recording. You know, we still call it 'music', but we don't still call cinema 'filmed theatre' or something like that. We realise that there's a difference between theatre, live theatre, that you go to, and between films. Cinema has all sorts of possibilities and all sorts of conventions that are quite different from theatre, and in fact are impossible in theatre. There's a similar relationship I think, between performed music and recorded music. Recorded music is something completely different, and really deserves a different name, and then a lot of confusion would disappear if that were the case, if you just sort of accepted that it doesn't really have to have much to do with performance.
So one of the things I realised I guess in the early '70s, with a lot of other people, was that I was using music in a different way from how music had been used before recording, which is to say I was using it as part of my landscape. The thing about a record is that you put it on when and where you want it, you adjust the volume, you fit it in to your world. It's the opposite of going to a concert hall actually, where you fit into its world. You completely submit to the terms and conditions and in fact you're told to shut up, and only cough between movements, and so on. That it's very much a reversal of that; in the traditional instance, you're completely controlled by the music, by the situation of the music. In the second one, you create the situation and you use the music as a way of doing that.
So I became aware that music was part of people's lifestyle and of course composers weren't working at the time, for that idea. If you bought an album, you'd have a fast track, then a slow track, then a sad track, then a happy track etc, etc, and the whole idea was variety. Well, if you're trying to create a space, you don't want variety, you want the opposite, you want consistency, you want something that you can make part of that space reliably, just like you would with light, you know, if you're trying to light your flat, you don't want the light to constantly be changing colour and going on and off. Well, you might do, but that's an advanced usage, that's a choice you want to be able to make.
ANDREW FORD: But you make it sound a bit like interior decorating, and it's not that, is it? I mean it's not just creating (I was going to use the A-word) not just creating an ambience, it's more than that, you're inviting people in with your work. So you're in fact actually, you've got a foot in each camp it seems to me because on the one hand you're doing seduction in confronting people with the music, in making some demands on them you are being like a classical composer in the concert hall, and then you're saying also that 'but you can use this yourself, you can tailor it to your own needs'. So it's a bit of both.
BRIAN ENO: Yes, I think it is a bit of both. So I certainly didn't start out on the ambient path with the idea I was inventing a totally new music, or destroying old music or anything like that. I was really, I felt, responding to the way in which people were listening to music then. I think ambient really as an idea is more about how you listen than what you make as a composer. And it started really with a particular incident. I was in an airport in Cologne, a beautiful airport, lovely architecture, and everything very well designed, and it was a lovely Sunday morning, with the sun streaming in through the windows. And I thought, 'Wow, this is great, this is modern life, this is what it feels like to live in the twentieth century.' Except that there was a crummy cassette playing terrible music over the PA, some German pop music, and I thought, it's ridiculous that this aspect of the design of the place hasn't been considered. They've spent so much money on the architecture and the interior design, and every aspect of the visual side of the airport, the sonic side has been left to whoever happened to bring in a cassette that day. And I thought, it's ridiculous that us composers aren't addressing this type of issue. We know this is what people are doing with music now. Why not give them the right music to do it with? Why not give them something that's designed with the same sort of sense of scale and space that the architecture is? So that's what gave rise to Music For Airports. And that was deliberately a response to two things: one, people are listening to music in a different way and there ought to be music to satisfy that wave of that kind of listening. And secondly, we are now in a new technological environment where there are speakers everywhere. There are PA systems, people are going to be playing music in big open spaces like that; what's the right music for that?
ANDREW FORD: One of the things that is quite striking about what Music For Airports is a very good example but I speak only of music in general, that the listener is in control. You can ignore it, I mean I suppose most of the time at airports, the music is ignored, whatever it is. But you could also focus on it, and if we use the same example of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, that's a very hard piece to ignore. You can't really shut it out, you can switch it off, but it's pretty hard to have a conversation with Beethoven's Fifth going on in the background, so there is a difference, isn't there?
BRIAN ENO: Yes, that's an important difference, and one of the reasons for that difference is because the Beethoven piece is kind of narrative, in the sense that it has development. It has a beginning, a statement of themes, an argument, an investigation of those themes, and a climax and an ending. So it's a story really, in some sense.
So that of course doesn't work in the kind of listening situation I was in actually in the airport. People don't have time to sit and listen to a whole story, and they've got other things to do, they've got to get on a plane and listen to announcements, and there are going to be announcements . So I was thinking what can you make that can be interrupted? What can you make that can be the edge of people's consciousness and not disturb them if they have something to do, but which is also nice enough so that if they do want to listen, it's there and they can go, they can have a proper experience with it, it's not some cheap thing experienced, like Musak was. So I thought for a composer this was a very interesting set of demands. And that's what I want to address. But you're right, the main issue for me was, as I said on the cover notes of that record, was to make something that was as ignorable as it is interesting. So now we find this odd in music, because we're used to the idea of music being at the foreground of our attention, we don't find it odd with paintings. If you have a painting on the wall, you don't feel that you've done the painting a disservice by turning away looking at the television, or having a conversation with your friend. A painting is always there, sometimes you pay attention to it, a lot of the time you don't. So I was sort of thinking of a music that moved towards the position in our lives, the paintings, of being there when we wanted it, and being ignorable when we didn't want it.
ANDREW FORD: So you need to keep doing the same thing pretty much then, doesn't it?
BRIAN ENO: Exactly.
ANDREW FORD: Because otherwise you'll miss something important.
BRIAN ENO: Yes, that's exactly right. So you want something that is fairly steady-state. Of course since it moves in time, there will be variation, in fact the Music For Airports, and the ambient experiments, led on to what I call generative music, which is a construction of machines and systems that constantly generate changing music, but it doesn't change much, it changes in the same way that a river changes or something, where you sit there, you know it's the same river, but it's always a little bit different from moment to moment. So this was my intention, to make a sort of kind of organic communalism of some kind (that's a nice phrase, I never thought of that before!)
ANDREW FORD: I suppose the quality of the sound that you create is as important really, in this music, as the content.
BRIAN ENO: In fact in my case I think it's more important. That really is the issue. It's like some painters are obsessed with colour. Colour is the thing that as in the work of your best Australian painters, Sidney Nolan; I would say is one of those whose real interest in colour, so he uses form as a carrier for what he wants to do with colour. I would say I'm rather like that musically as well. I do use form, obviously - there's no choice - but it's there really to cut to, as a carrier for sonic texture.
And one of the other things that people don't realise about recording and electronics is that the effect of those for composers has been to suddenly broaden the palette incredibly. It's a little bit like if you went up to a painter and said, 'OK, you've got these seven basic spectrum colours you've been used to using, here's another four thousand.' That's about the scale of expansion that we've had. You know, if you think of classical instruments, let's say there is the clarinet, there is the violin, there is the grand piano, the oboe and each one of them describes, each one of those words describes a little sort of island of possible sounds. Which of course people became very good at exploiting and understood very well. But nonetheless they were a distinct definition to what an oboe was and could do. If you say synthesizer, it doesn't describe anything, except huge, huge, ever-expanding landscape of sounds, not an island at all, it's a universe of sounds. And even electric guitar is like perhaps, even voice now is becoming like that, as we find new ways of processing voices. So we're now in a world where the palette is absolutely enormous, and increasing every day, literally every day somebody's coming up with new technologies to do things, song included, we couldn't do before.
So that seems to me really to be where a lot of the energy of innovation is in music now.
ANDREW FORD: I first encountered your name, Brian Eno, on those gorgeous green-tinted, Obscure LPs that came out in I suppose late 1970s, containing certainly ten of them I think. But they contain such a lot of very interesting music, much of it rather prescient on your part, because some of these composers who one had never heard of at the time, have become quite big names, like Gavin Bryars for example.
BRIAN ENO: John Adams, Michael Nyman. Yes. They made their first albums there.
ANDREW FORD: Maybe we could do a bit of history and talk about not just the Obscure record label but that sort of whole area that you came from, that was part of your own musical education and that sort of I suppose helped to form your ideas, which as experimental music in general, and in particular a kind of rather quirky English take on experimentalism.
BRIAN ENO: Well it of course all came out of the '60s. And the '60s of course all came out of the '50s . But in the '60s in England there was a very exciting scene. It was quite small, but it was very lively indeed. There was a real crossover between art schools and experimental music. In fact, one of the only places that experimental composers like Cornelius Cardew and Christine Wolf and Tom Phillips and so on, could find a job was in art schools. It was art schools, not music schools who were employing them. Music schools wanted absolutely nothing to do with them.
So it was art schools that took those people in and said, 'Oh, we think there's a kind of overlap between what you're doing and what we're doing', and Cardew was a very important figure. He created something called the Scratch Orchestra, which I belonged to. The Scratch Orchestra was mostly art students, I think there were about eighty of us in it at the peak, and it was very, very experimental. There were extremely strange scores of directions for how to make pieces of music that really were nothing like conventional music scores, they didn't have any notation for instance, they would have a description of something, some action that we should do typically, cover a surface in pencil or something like that might be a score. And we said, 'What does that mean? How does that make music?' So each one was a sort of riddle or a problem, and it kind of created a way of thinking that I think did energise English music, off into a different direction, because there were two very strong international schools going on at that time. There was the European one the Stockhausen and Boulez, people like that, which looked very much like a sort of logical extension of twentieth century avant garde music. You could sort of trace the lineage through Schoenberg and Hindemith and so on and so on. You could see how that turned into Stockhausen, Boulez and so on.
ANDREW FORD: And back to Beethoven, for that matter.
BRIAN ENO: Yes, yes, that's right. So it was very much part of a story that had been going on for a few hundred years. But then suddenly there appeared this very interesting group of Californian composers, or American composers, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Gibson, a few other people, who were suddenly doing something that sidestepped that whole story, that narrative, and were using very simple chords that we could all understand, and simple tonalities, and doing a huge amount of repetition which of course was anathema to Stockhausen who hated the idea of people repeating themselves. And that suddenly sounded fresh to me. And so we in England were sort of straddled between those two, and I have to say we took more from Cage and from the Americans than from the Europeans. But nonetheless, it was something different from both of them. And to me, it was really exciting and original, and so I knew about this scene and I knew who was involved, and it amazed me that there were no records of it, nobody was releasing records. And I kind of naively thought, 'God, if you put this on record, everybody would want to buy it, it's so interesting!' Well that turned out not to be true, but in fact you're quite right, that several of the people who were on those first ten albums, ended up being important figures.
ANDREW FORD: And we also should mention since they provide the themes of this show every week, the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. We play just Perpetual Mobile.
And of course, from mentioning Penguin Cafe, I mean suddenly we're taking one step into pop music really, aren't we? I mean they were kind of maybe sort of one part pop to two parts experimental, or whatever you want to call it. And we should talk about that as well, because of some of your major collaborations with the likes of Roxy Music of course and Bowie and U2 and Paul Simon, and we don't have to name them all - David Byrne (we have to name him). I'm interested in the way in which you collaborate; it seems to be something which inspires you to inspire the person you're collaborating with. When you walk into a studio with somebody who's trying to make a pop record, what do you do?
BRIAN ENO: Well I think the first thing is, I'm always excited by strangeness, shall we say, or unfamiliarity. So I think that's the first important difference from other producers, because I think what normally happens when people go into - not always of course - there are a lot of great producers around, but what can happen is that people walk into a studio with the producer, who gets very excited when he hears more of the same, you know, 'Oh, that's like that big hit you had three years ago, let's do more of that.' I'm not that excited when I hear that. I can appreciate that people who like to have hits and so on, but I don't want to be remaking things; in fact I'm not very good at re-making things, I don't know how you do it. So I get excited when I hear something and I think, 'Wow, that's a new feeling, I've never had that mixture of feelings before.' And so I tend to jump on those things and really try to encourage them.
So artists tell me that this is actually what they like, this is unusual for them, because what often happens is that they've got some kind of clumsy new idea, they're not at all sure about it, they don't know how to do it, and it doesn't get very much encouragement. It's much easier to encourage something else that you know basically the destination of. So I'm always madly enthusiastic about the newer sides of someone's work, and I think people like that, because that's where they want to be going, and of course the newer things are always very awkward, they're like new-born babies, they all look like tomatoes, and you can only love them if they're your own really.
ANDREW FORD: So you help to give them personality, do you? You help in their education, in a sense it is a new born baby.
BRIAN ENO: I think encouragement is very important, and I think people thrive on encouragement, and they also thrive on strong opinions. It's really thrilling to have somebody around who'll say, 'Oh, it's the worst trash I've ever heard,' or 'I'm in heaven, play more of that.' It's so much more useful than having somebody around who kind of says, 'Oh, that's quite good,' you know, that doesn't really contribute anything to the situation, you want to put energy into a situation, you want it to come to life, and whether coming to life means having a really good argument about something, not a bad-natured argument but you know, forcing someone to stand their ground, 'If you think this is good, show me why, I don't believe it. Show me what it could be,' and it kind of makes people think, 'OK, I bloody-well will. I'll show him!'
ANDREW FORD: Well in the things you do I think you like to work fast. I'm interested in this because I think obviously it makes things more efficient if you can push ahead. Are you looking for energy, are you looking for spontaneity, in terms of working fast?
BRIAN ENO: I think I'm looking for momentum. And I think momentum can get dissipated very easily if you decide to explore all the options, there are too many options. You end up sort of doing a secretarial job of ticking off, ('You could do that, No, it's not working, that is quite nice, and you could do that') and I just don't like that feeling when the work in the studio settles down to a sort of comfortable bureaucracy. I like it when people are thrilled, because what comes through in music more than anything else, is how thrilled people are, how alive they are when they're doing it.
All sorts of other things are totally irrelevant; it doesn't matter where the bloody mics are standing or whether there's a lot of take this, if we haven't properly mic'd up the bass drum, all that sort of thing, that's all completely not irrelevant, but so far down on the scale of relevance compared to the thought, 'Have we captured some life in this thing?' And life can take all sorts of forms, it can be energy, it can be the sense of intellectual passion, it can be the sense of someone absolutely enjoying surrendering to a feeling that they're having at the time. Whatever it is, that's what communicates to listeners I think, and that's what we producers and artists should be trying to capture. And so when I'm working, I'm always trying very hard to make sure that we retain that priority that we're trying to capture that feeling of discovery, 'Ah, look, listen to this, this is amazing!' Because that's what I want the listeners to be thinking. I want them, when they listen to the record, to think, 'Oh, listen to this, this is amazing,' and they're not likely to think that if we weren't thinking that.
ANDREW FORD: No, of course not. And this extends to lyric writing as well? I mean you like first thoughts, don't you?
BRIAN ENO: Yes, well I think it's because of the way people write lyrics. Now I think most people imagine that songwriters come in with a sort of set of verses and choruses all nicely written and rhymed up, and then they sit down and write some chords around them, and it becomes a song. Well there are a few people who work like that, I think Bob Dylan does, and a few others, but most people don't write songs that way. What they do is, they come up with a musical idea which they like, and they're playing it, and the start [sings...], you know, they sing nonsense basically, but that nonsense is musically appropriate, rhythmically appropriate, it fits. It's what they want to be doing with their voice. Now what often happens is that they don't think like 'I'm a lyric writer, I'd better be saying something serious,' so they then painstakingly change that all into words, and it sounds incredibly clumsy very often, it just doesn't flow, it doesn't run.
ANDREW FORD: Because they're going for meaning as opposed to sound.
BRIAN ENO: Yes, that's right, and partly because rock critics so much focus on lyrics because it's the language that they used to use, it's easy to write about lyrics and hard to write about music. It makes songwriters think, 'Oh, I'd better get my lyrics up to scratch, I'd better be saying something,' and I don't give a screw about what people are saying generally; I think if you're really talking about saying something, making something that works musically says a great deal. That's the message I want to give. So I encourage people to try to stay as close to that instinct about what sounded right for the voice to be doing over this music. It doesn't mean that I want them to write bad lyrics, but my criteria is write lyrics that support the music.
ANDREW FORD: Yes, and this brings us back to where we began, with ambient music in a way, and the listener makes their own meaning, when they listen to a song. We all make up meanings for A Whiter Shade Of Pale to take the most nonsensical lyric I can think of off the top of my head, but we see images, and we remember them. So what more could you ask for?
How did these collaborations, how do they relate to Luminous, because here I mean again you're working with a whole bunch of people who you brought together. What do you tell them? What do you want from them?
BRIAN ENO: Yes, so there was a concept of balance like that. It was very important to me that I had some African music, because I think it's so important, it's what we've all been doing all these years, you know, I often think when you look back on pop music as a sort of little branch off this huge tree called African Music. Pop music is a little adventure off to the side which we're all currently so involved in and think it's the whole world. It's a little part of a big story, and I wanted some comedy, because certainly for me I think comedy is where some of the most interesting political and social comment is being made. It's a cutting edge really, and comedy in England in particular, has been very, very important for the last twenty years, or the last thirty really. In fact the last fifty, come to think of it. You know, when I think of the Goons, Monty Python, Tony Hancock, this whole long, long history of sort of outsiders who are playing Dadaistic games with social mores, and then now so I have Reggie Watts here.
ANDREW FORD: Yes, we had Reggie on the show a few weeks ago.
BRIAN ENO: Well I think he's a genius actually.
ANDREW FORD: I thought that, too.
BRIAN ENO: As ever his own, yes. And then I also wanted some sort of intellectual content to it. Social action content in the form of James Thornton from Client Earth, which is an environmental NGO that I work with in London. So I was thinking, 'OK, how do we cover all the bases, and OK we've got enough of that now, so we don't need more like that, we need something here.' I just wanted to make a picture, really.
ANDREW FORD: Well it's a picture that I guess we're all going to be looking at for the next little while, I suppose listening to, but there again, the fact that you can listen to your pictures, probably is as good a way of encapsulating what you've been doing all these years, as any.
Brian Eno, thank you very much for being our guest on The Music Show, it's been a pleasure to meet you, and thanks for spending the last three-quarters of an hour here.
BRIAN ENO: Thank you very much indeed. It's been a pleasure for me as well.