INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
British Council OCTOBER 17, 2005 - by Colin Chinnery
SONIC IMAGES IN A VISUAL WORLD: A TALK WITH BRIAN ENO
Lai Jin Yu Xuan Tea House, Zhongshan Park, Beijing
Brian Eno is here in Beijing for a British Council art project called Sound And The City, which invites several British musicians to various cities of China, where they will create works based on the local atmosphere - sonic atmosphere in particular - and put their works in the context of the city, to have a kind of communication with it. It's a chance meeting, so to speak, different from a concert or exhibition in the traditional sense. This could be the first official attempt at this kind of concept in China. Brian Eno is one of the four participants of Sound And The City who have come to Beijing. His installation will be open to public next week, on October 22 at the Temple Of The Sun in Ritan Park, and there will be an opening ceremony on the day before. The work will be there for one month. Today, I'm here to host a conversation with Brian Eno, who is going to talk about some of his ideas, after which there will be a question-and-answer session.
Moderator: Mr Eno, you came to Beijing a few months ago to get the feel of the city before the actual work starts. What was your impression when you were here?
Brian Eno: I came to Beijing in March. It was my first trip to China and it was a completely new experience. For me, one of the most interesting aspects is the relationship between the seniors in China and the Chinese society, because I'm hardly young myself now. One day I went to the Temple of Heaven, and I saw something which may seem trivial to locals, but was totally incredible and beautiful for me. In my country, people always treat seniors in a go-and-take-some-sleep-and-leave-us-alone way. In Britain, there are places with tiny rooms, in which people put their little grandpas and grandmas in. Those rooms were built to let the seniors die inside. The population of Britain is about fifty-five million, and there are about one or two million who are elderly. Those people have nothing else to do but watch television. You can imagine what it's like to watch daytime TV everyday for the last twenty years of your life.
What moved me is that, when I first came to Beijing, I went to the parks and saw a lot of seniors doing all kinds of things. They were all very happy and laughing. And it's not only in the park that I went to: every park is like this. You almost never see such things in Britain, and I believe it doesn't happen in the whole Europe, either. So I thought, here is my real audience. There is way too much music for the young; I want to create something for these people. Of course, this is kind of a joke. Brits are joking non-stop all the time, so sometimes it's a bit hard to tell whether we're joking or not.
What I told you just now, except the part about young people and music, are all my real experiences in Beijing. So immediately I said to Colin [Chinnery, former arts officer at the British Council in Beijing] that I want to make a piece for seniors in one of these parks.
Moderator: Do you perceive any difference between Chinese and British societies through what you saw about the seniors?
Eno: Through my observation, I had the feeling that people here have a different attitude and respect for seniors. It doesn't necessarily mean that this attitude is always sincere or that this is the real truth, but it's an attitude that regards seniors as wiser people. This strikes a chord with my personal experience. My mother died a couple of years ago, and her last six years were spent in exactly the kind of rest homes that I described just now. So I have this deep feeling that I would definitely not want to die like that. When I came to China and saw the life of the old people here, I thought I'd be better off moving here.
Moderator: How did such an experience influence your approach of creating a sound installation in the park?
Eno: If you put an installation in a public space, it would be an open object: people go to the space and experience it by chance. This is different from making a record, where you can choose to buy it or not, you can choose to play it or turn if off. This is quite a different scenario.
As for art in public spaces, my view might not be popular in the art scene or among artists. I think that art in public spaces doesn't have the right to bother or challenge others, especially in an environment like Beijing's parks. The work should contribute to the space and the serenity of the environment, it should complement rather than intrude. There are certain kinds of music which, instead of adding to the noise of a place, can really make a place more quiet. I've made a lot of sound installations, some of them have a lot of visual element to them. I usually regard the installations as a special kind of music, very quiet, one that can soothe people, let them listen, observe and experience it in a quiet setting. One thing I've learnt from creating this kind of installation, is that if the audience get noisy, instead of turning up the volume, I will turn it down, because once your volume is down, the audience would have to lower theirs in order to hear the piece.
The installation that I'm going to build in the Temple Of The Sun is a bit like a clock I designed for a special organisation called the Long Now Foundation. I would like to talk a little about the foundation now. It was initiated ten years ago, and its members include philosophers and futurists; I'm one of the members, too. We share the aim of exploring the possibilities of the future. Why do we do this? Because back then, a lot of us had the feeling that, many of our problems originate from the shortsightedness when making plans or doing things, we plan on a much too short-termed basis. Take the government, for example: usually there will be election once every few years, so the planning of a certain government reaches no further than the next election. Or let's say a company: in most cases, company plans are only valid before the annual or seasonal report. In schools and other organisations, five to ten years are the maximum planning cycles. But since human beings are so influential an existence on the planet earth, what we do now will have a huge impact in the distant future. That's why we must think about these.
I'll talk about an example of this kind of futuristic thinking. When New College, one of the colleges of the University of Oxford, was being built, the architects used a lot of incredibly thick wooden beams to hold up the roof. The college was built at the end of the fourteenth century, so by the 1970s, the roof was not exactly in good shape. The warden of New College went to the head gardener, saying, 'We need to change the roof beams.' The head gardener replied, 'I've been expecting this, because when the college was built, a lot of trees were chopped down and so they planted a bunch of new ones.' The college's staff had planted those trees in the fourteenth century, because they knew that the roof's beams would deteriorate after five hundred years - the trees were planted as the material for future renovation, five hundred years in advance. They chopped those trees down, and the current beams in the college are made from them.
This is a very good example: the people who designed the college had a five-hundred-year plan, they reckoned that after five hundred years, the pillars will no longer hold, and they'll need new trees to substitute them. This is a very good, visionary plan. But nowadays, if someone wants to draft a ten-year plan, that would be astonishing. That's why we initiated the Long Now Foundation: we think in terms of ten thousand years. In the beginning we had this plan to design a clock which lasts for ten thousand years, despite another ice age or the Third World War or one revolution after another, no matter what - the clock will keep going for ten thousand years. Our interest was not about the clock itself - that's not our purpose. However, through the making of it, we were forced to think about ten thousand years and stuff like that. We've just finished the prototype of the fourth clock, and we have bought a mountain in America on which the clock will be placed. Buying a mountain is not as expensive as we had expected, quite cheap actually, especially those far from any road. There is another prototype, which is currently kept in the Science Museum in London. If you go to London, you may go there and check it out.
But let's take a break from the ten-thousand-year clock and the Long Now Foundation and return to the project for the Temple Of The Sun. When we did the clock project, I had been thinking that the number of days in ten thousand years is close to the number of clocks and all the possible variations. You may not know that there's a tradition of bell-ringing in Britain that might well be the only case of Britain's own music, because you won't find it in any other part of the world. It probably has more to do with maths than music. The people who design these clocks or bells have a set of rules to work with, for instance, if there are eight clocks, how to work out all the combination of them? There are a lot of rules, such as no neighbouring bells shall ring consequently, etc. Some people treat this tradition seriously. We have a magazine, a weekly, colour painting, all you'll find in it are maths problems about different sounds produced by all kinds of clocks and bells. I once wrote to the editor of The Ringing World weekly saying, 'I like your music very much, can you tell me where can I buy your CDs?' And they replied furiously, 'We are not making music, we are mathematicians.'
Why did I bore you with such a long and blabbering story? Because you can see that these people never think about or care about music - they completely avoid the topic - but what they produce is the best music that you can hear in Britain. This is quite inspiring for an exploratory musician or those who want to make totally different systematic music; it's encouraging for me as well. When I make this kind of music, for instance a systematic piece, the first thing I would think about is the technical aspect, and then the content. The system I designed could generate music automatically, and when that happens, I'm not a musician, but an audience. The creating of this kind of music is a bit like evolution, it has become a very interesting discipline in itself - cellular automata or 'self-evolving cellular science', there's a connection between the two.
Audience: Well said, I like what you said about the clock. Mr Brian Eno, do you know bian zhong, the ancient Chinese bell set?
Eno: I've read about bian zhong, so I think it might be a great idea to put a Long Now ten-thousand-year clock in China.
Audience: Splendid, there's a saying in China that goes 'the alarm is going off'.
Eno: My piece in the Temple Of The Sun also has something to do with the clock in Britain I just talked about. There's an altar in the park which is surrounded by a wall. I put the clocks outside of the wall and it is an installation that somehow blends the English and Chinese tradition of clocks. I've kept the volume down so that the old men and ladies won't get shocked. But actually if I use high-pitched tones, they won't be able to hear them at all.
Moderator: Most people know you as a musician, so I would like to know when did you become interested in doing sound installation? Because these installations have a closer relationship to fine arts.
Eno: I graduated as a fine-art student, I studied painting and art history for five years. In the 1960s, when recording studios had just emerged, I had already started to do some interesting experiments with recorders. Thanks to all the equipment available - electronics, computers and recorders - the process of making music has become more and more like that of painting. If you are a recording engineer or a record producer who works in the studio, you probably work more like a painter: a bit of feelings here, some colours there, some texture here, the whole working method will be more like constructing an image, which is completely different from the approach of traditional composers. So I was thinking back then, this kind of 'painting' might be more fun than the traditional painting I did. By the way, girls in the music scene look better, too [laughs].
So I thought, you can make some sonic images exist which are impossible in the actual world, a brand new way of creating a visual perception. For instance, through studio technology you'll be able to create a kind of reverb that can only exist in a hundred-kilometre-wide building, so this won't happen in the actual world. Recording technology enables you to overlay sounds, the result of which can't be found in the actual world either. For example, you can boost up a tiny voice into extremely high level, and vice versa, and then you put one on top of another - this kind of combination doesn't exist in life. I made some albums in the 1970s in order to experiment with the idea of painting with sounds. The first couple of albums are more traditional, there were voices, there were instruments and arrangements. Later, I found melody and singing voices less intriguing, so I began to be more experimental.
In the 1960s and the 1970s there was a musical movement of painting the musical background bigger than the people in it; I'm one of the important figures in that movement. I took the same approach, one that enriches the landscape and scenery but trivialises the people. There was some interesting research back then, about the psychological state of people when they're looking at a painting. [Scientists] got to learn about a viewer's mental state by tracking and observing the movement of his eyeballs. So, if there's an image with a tiny little figure in it, your eyeballs would bounce back immediately upon setting on other things on the picture. The difference is that whenever you are watching elsewhere, your sight will be focused on that figure automatically. So I was wondering whether this applies to music as well? If someone is down there singing, the consciousness of your ears will always be focused on his/her voice, neglecting other factors - because after all, human beings are naturally interested in other human beings. So I decided to remove the human factor, because I thought one would be able to enjoy the music by oneself, without being influenced by someone else.
This kind of thinking has inspired me to do another kind of music, I called it 'ambient music'. It's a kind of experience not exactly the same with 'listening to music', it's really about sensitivity. In those days I tried to make music with no beginning, no ending and no process. It's more like a painting: the duration doesn't really matter. It's a kind of state, which is different from that when you listen to traditional music in which there's a beginning, a story and an ending. Our music is more about state than stories or processes. I created a lot of pieces about light as well, all kinds of lights. The sensitivity and attitude towards lights coincided with my attitude towards music back then, they were almost the same. So the kind of music I was trying to do then was somewhat similar to 'image for the ear', and in the light pieces I was trying to make visual elements 'music for the ear', I wanted to reversed the two states.
Do I sound like I'm talking gibberish? I'm afraid without actually seeing my visual installations yourselves, you won't know what I'm talking about here.
Actually, my visual works are as equally important as my other art works, but somehow my musical work has the largest audience. Of course, this is partly because music has a stronger distribution network. If you release an album, the chance is it will be available to the whole world and everybody within a couple of days. But if you show your work in an art exhibition, the audience would have to physically be there in order to see it. I've done almost one hundred installations in all kinds of places: parks, palaces, streets, museums. And I did them all over the world, with China as an exception. I must give some explanations about these works. The process of this work is very slow, and so is the rhythm, as if nothing is happening. So it's a bit like you're sitting at the riverbank, watching the subtle changes of the river. The changes won't be abrupt or obvious, like you probably won't be able to see the whole river turning red all of a sudden. So I have discovered that, in most cases, there are only two kinds of situation when people go to see my works: they either stay there for two minutes or two hours. If a man can hold himself there for more than one minute, it's a safe bet to say that he'll probably stay there for quite some time. Some people would maybe go back every day and spend a half-hour or an hour with the installation, doing this every day for a period of time. This has made me feel that, in the modern society, we do have a certain space available for those people who want to sit down quietly, and watch the evolution of something. You don't have to do anything yourself, neither do you have to let anyone else do anything, it's simply a very relaxing, very slow rhythmic state. At that time I had an idea of launching a 'silence club', whose sole purpose is to let people go there and do nothing.
Audience: Would you mind telling me what exactly is this thing you're doing? After your explanation, it seems to me that there is something about John Cage's indeterminacy theory in it.
Eno: John Cage was a very important figure for me when I was young. He made a choice at a certain point: he chose not to interfere with the music content anymore. But the approach I have chosen was different from his. I don't reject interference; I choose to interfere and guide. I need to explain a bit because this sounds somehow contradictory to what I said just now. The music systems designed by Cage are choice-free, he doesn't filter what comes out of his mind; people have to accept them passively. But my approach is, although I don't interfere with the completion of a system, if the end result is not good, I'll ditch it and do something else. This is a fundamental difference between Cage and me. If you consider yourself to be an experimental musician, you'll have to accept that some of your experiments will fail. Though the failed works might be interesting too, they are not works that you would chose to share with other people or publish.
Another difference is, the life and music of John Cage almost completely blend together, which is a very beautiful, almost religious, state. But I don't have this kind of belief: I have nothing close to a religious state when facing my own music. For instance, Cage told me that he doesn't like records, albums, things like that. But once he said, 'I like your album Music For Airports.' I said, 'Do you? I didn't expect that.' He said, 'Yes, there are some music-free moments in it which I like very much.'
Audience: Just now you said that a lot of non-musicians are making music now. In Europe, people can go to churches to listen to serene music, every church has different kinds of music. In China, we have temples, I think your music feels like it has been made by an architect.
Eno: The works I do, especially the sound installations, are often placed in a generic, non-obtrusive site (such as an old factory), to enrich its content and to make it more interesting. These kind of works show respect to the site; it doesn't really feel like an architect's work, but more like a gardener's. What's the difference? The architect needs to know the end result - what is this thing that he is building. This is very important, as he can't just improvise a building; he must work systematically with strict planning. But I'm more like a gardener; I spread a few seeds and watch them growing without knowing the end result. This is the difference.
Audience: Do you make money with this thing you do? And second, I know you're famous, where can I download your past works for free? Are they available on sina.com? I would like to use some of your music as a ringtone.
Eno: I say money is irrelevant. If you really want to know, I can tell you how much I earn. This installation I'm doing earns me quite a lot, actually. What surprised me is that among all of my albums, Music For Airports is the best seller. When it first came out [in 1978], some music critics said it doesn't have melody, structure or content, like it's totally empty there. But now, a big telecom company in Britain has used Music For Airports in a very big advertisement, so that brings me a lot of money. These are all very interesting. When I was making that album, I also thought about whether there be people interested in this music in the future. I had no idea. When I asked myself that question, I didn't think there would be too many people interested.
Audience: Then why would the record label release the album?
Eno: Some of the British labels back then were quite experimental, because that was the beginning of an industry, so there was no cohesive structure yet. They needed some time to stabilise that structure before they can reject new and interesting things. We are in such a situation now. The structure is formed, and interesting new things are being rejected. But we don't have the structure at that time, there were something that they didn't know then. It's like Hollywood. The early Hollywood was actually very interesting, and then they learnt the rules by which they can make movies that make a lot of money, and they will no longer be experimental. The record label I worked with was Island Records: they were interested in investing in various different projects, because they couldn't know which one was going to make big money. If they produce twenty albums and one of them sells or even becomes a best seller, they'll be fine as a company. But now all you have in Europe are big record companies with a simple policy, which is to invest a lot of money in a very narrow selection of projects. Consequently, it's hard for the more experimental stuff to get funding or any attention. The exception is labels run by artists themselves, then there might be some interesting work.
As for music downloading, you can go and try www.ninor.shop.co.uk, they might have some free downloads available.
Audience: Did you come to China just for this project? Any chance that you could make local musicians famous? And do you expect to discover some new kinds of music in China?
Eno: I don't think I've made anybody famous before. The fact is they were already very famous before working with me.
Audience: Why don't you make a new album in Beijing?
Eno: Now I'd like to talk a little bit about the No New York project. When I moved to New York in 1978, there was a very interesting art scene there doing stimulating things. A bunch of musicians were making some highly experimental music, it was all so exciting. There was a new wave movement then, they decided to call it 'No Wave'. I reckoned that No Wave would last no longer than three months. You can be sure that no record labels at that time would want to release that stuff. But I thought someone should capture the atmosphere and state of that scene. You just asked why don't I do something in Beijing. Let me ask you: why don't you do this kind of work in Beijing?
Audience: I am.
Audience: Where did you take that photo on the cover of your latest album, Another Day On Earth ? Why there?
Eno: It was taken in the Da Zha Lan area of Beijing. It's a snapshot from when I was strolling there. Do you recognise it? There's a shop on the cover, I would really like to give a copy to the shop owner.
Audience: You can give it to me and I'll send to them.
Audience: I went to the Science Museum in London a few years ago and saw Mr Eno's installation, Lydian Bells . I didn't know much about you except that you were majored in fine art, because your work was exhibited alongside art works and felt like a painting. My questions are about details: did you do the video part yourself? Do you work with recording engineers for effects when making music? Or do you do the music part all by yourself?
Eno: I did all the works about that installation, including the visual part. The audio part was of course done by myself. I did the engineering, too. The only thing that I didn't do was probably the carpentry.
I did all the works by myself, not because I'm proud of it or I'm the only one who can do it, but because I didn't have the slightest idea of what I was going to do. I didn't know what kind of work I want until I started. That's why it's impossible to have someone else doing the job for me.
Some works could be extremely tiresome for others, so I would rather do it myself, like a tiny little idea that would take so long to realise. For me, that might be fun, but I feel bad about having others spending a lot of time on it. Another reason might be that I tend to throw the unsatisfying works away, even when I have invested a lot of time in it. It would also give me bad feelings if what I threw away was someone else's endeavour. That's why I admire architects sometimes: they work in an opposite fashion, like one of my friends who is designing the new CCTV building here. A project like this needs one hundred percent transparency. You let everybody know what they are going do, have the work distributed to everyone, this is something I'm not capable of.
Audience: Which one is done first in your work: video or audio?
Eno: It's hard to say, because I often mix old and new works together. Some visual elements in a new work could be from an old work of mine. Some musical stuff, they may come from works I did fifteen or twenty years ago, and if I feel they fit this place or this installation, then I will use them. So it's hard to say which one is done first, there is a lot of recycling involved.
Audience: When will we be able to see the installation?
Eno: Good question, because so far, not even one molecule of this piece exists.
Audience: Let me extend the question: how many Chinese people do you think will understand this work?
Eno: The question of preference is simple, there's nothing to be understood, you either like it or you don't, that's the charisma of music, you have a direct response. 'I like this' or 'I don't like this'. You may know some background about a certain piece or the motivation behind it, but that doesn't mean that you'll like it.
I met with the British Queen once. Someone introduced me saying, 'This is Brian Eno, he's a composer.' And the Queen asked me, 'Do you think that I can understand your music?' Just like that. I replied, 'I think you can, but I don't think you're going to like it.'
Audience: I had an electronic band in California back in the 1970s and I was greatly inspired by Mr Eno then, so it's a great pleasure to be here to meet you. I'm now teaching in the Central Conservatory of Music. There are a couple of my students here; I'm happy about that.
Audience: I find one of your theories very interesting: you've said that beautiful sounds are not necessarily music. You studied painting before, but you're making music now. I don't quite understand the connection between music and painting, but I know that Debussy and some painters tried to achieve something rhythmic on their canvas. Artists would say that the music they hear sounds like a colour. Not everybody is experimenting with it, though. I haven't witnessed your works, but I would like to learn more about your working method. What do you see as the characteristic of your work?
Eno: If we're talking about sound installations here, the difference is, it's not only music and not only painting, but a state in which visual and auditory elements co-exist. In this scenario, it might be a unique experience when people are facing it, like a mixture of different kinds of states, somewhere between park and church, gallery and music hall or cinema.
I use a lot of newer technology to create the vision I have in mind, such as light to produce visual effects. The technology is quite complex now, the colour tone is also adjusted with loads of new software. People in the old days can never reach such a state because they don't have these technology available to them, therefore no viability of realising such new works. The recording and playback technology have empowered artists with a lot of new freedom. For instance, sound is continuous in a sound installation - it could last for five months. But when Debussy was composing, he couldn't let some musicians stay there for five months, playing his music non-stop. Kandinsky also wrote a bit about the possibilities when discussing the relationship between visual and painting, but those ideas could never been realised in his days, no matter how many Russians were there helping him.
Now you can ask me two simple questions or one very difficult question, or a question that would embarrass me.
Audience: Mr Eno, just now you said you have been discovering new sounds since mid-1960s. I would like to know the evolution of your listening experience in the past thirty years.
Eno: Speaking of listening, I had a very interesting listening experience recently. I bought a set of old speakers from the 1970s in London and when I came back home with them, I suddenly realised that this is what music should sound like. It's like our aural perception of music have been misled for the past thirty-five years by speaker designers. This was very inspiring for me, a very strange feeling. It's the same case with the visual: a lot of things are misleading us. For example, the movies: the type of film used in the 1950s was very sharp. When you watch it, it's sort of like getting high, so cool. The films used nowadays are totally different; they're boring. Most of the colours you see on screen are brownish, and they're boring in general. If you go and watch a movie from the 1950s, you may feel as if everybody is high and exciting. Yes, I do think we might have been misled.
Audience: Do you listen to music now? If yes, what kinds of music?
Eno: One is Kevin Lyttle, an R&B singer; another one is a band called the Books. And two Turkish singers, one of them makes you want to cry every time he sings. And there's one Kurdish singer. These are what I'm listening currently. There's another one which I forgot, and a favourite of mine, an Egyptian singer called Amr Diab. If you're seeking for something that is really interesting, you can try his stuff, he's a pop musician from Egypt who looks somewhat like George Michael ten years ago, very interesting stuff.
So this is the end of today's lecture. I'm sorry, because I don't speak Chinese, some of you might not be able to understand how humorous a person I am and how sexy I am, thank you.
Moderator: The lecture is over.