INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Keyboard Wizards WINTER 1985 - by Jim Aikin
The following interview with Eno appeared in the July '81 issue of Keyboard. Since then, he has characteristically been involving himself in a diverse series of artistic projects. He has continued his long practice of working with visionary rock artists, usually as an album producer or co-producer, sometimes as a composer, co-composer, or performer. In these capacities, he has been involved with all three albums by Talking Heads and with U2's late 1984 release The Unforgettable Fire. Eno has also put out several collaborative albums, including My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne of Talking Heads, and The Pearl, with Harold Budd and Daniel Lanois.
Somewhat beyond the musical sphere, he has been devoting himself to multi-artistic endeavours. Over the past few years Eno's exhibitions of paintings have been shown at galleries and museums in Paris, Amsterdam, and elsewhere. These shows often also feature his abstract videos and original music.
In an era whose artistic expression has come to be dominated by the stultifying forces of financial and ideological conservatism, Brian Eno reminds us to keep our options open. Eno is a visionary - perhaps the leading visionary of rock music. In the last eight years his solo albums and collaborations have provided a continuing stream of exciting new music, and his influence is clearly evident in the work of a number of experimental musicians who are exploring the rich vein of sound material he has discovered. But Eno is far more than a creator of intriguing music just as he is far more than a synthesizer player. He is an articulate spokesman for a philosophy of discovery, of intuition and transcendence, that although it would seem vital to the creative process is seldom encountered in either popular or serious art. The real rewards of Eno's influence are bound to go not to those who ape his innovations in composition and sound processing, but to those who are willing to apply his insights so as to discover the sources of their own creativity - to those who are willing, as Eno is willing, to take chances.
Of course, there's more to it than that. The secret is to develop your feeling for which chances to take at which times, for which unorthodox procedures are likely to yield the most interesting results. And Eno's unorthodox background gave him the best possible training in this neglected artistic process.
Born in East Anglia, England, in May 1948, Brian Eno managed to struggle through his early years without any piano lessons, or even any desire for any. Which is not to say that there weren't hints of what was to come. When he first discovered what a tape recorder was, he was fascinated by the possibilities he saw in it, and began pestering his parents to buy him one. At the age of 16, Eno went off to the Ipswich Art School, intending to become a painter. But it wasn't long before he found that the school had sound-taping facilities. His first piece was constructed by banging on a big metal lampshade and recording the bell-like sound at various speeds to create beating between the tones.
His most important encounter at Ipswich, however, was not with the lampshades but with the faculty, a group of artistic revolutionaries bent on destroying the preconceptions about art that the students had been instilled with by their previous teachers. In an interview in Trouser Press, he recalled, There happened to be a staff there who had kind of taken over this art school and were using it as an experiment. Not only did they encourage creative thinking, they positively confused old styles of thinking. The first semester was devoted to destroying ready-made answers that the students might have. In fact, three of the kids had nervous breakdowns in that time. That first term was specifically designed to dismantle the damage that had been done by the education that everyone had gone through before. It got rid of the old rules that said, 'This is possible and this isn't,' and instead said, 'We're not going to tell you what is possible or isn't, we're going to teach you techniques for entertaining all kinds of possibilities at all times.' Not surprisingly, Eno thrived in this environment, and it must be considered the cornerstone on which all his subsequent work has been built.
By the time he got his degree in fine arts from the Winchester School of Art in 1969, Eno had already been involved in a couple of local experimental bands. His first large-scale public exposure came a couple of years later, when he became one of the founding members of the British rock band Roxy Music. He first met the other members of the band not as a musician at an audition but when he was brought in to engineer some demo tapes. Fortunately, there was a synthesizer at the session, and Eno, who had never seen a synthesizer before, started toying with it as well. Unlike many people trained in the arts he was even then quite comfortable around machinery, and he had no trouble seeing the possibilities of the synthesizer.
He continued to think of himself more as a technician than a performer even after he joined the band. At Roxy's early gigs, Eno wasn't even on stage - he was in the back of the hall mixing the sound. But record company representatives suggested that it was odd to have somebody at the back of the hall singing occasional vocals, so Eno moved up onto the stage. Once he was in the spotlight, however, he showed little reticence about playing the rock star game. During his two years with Roxy Music he became the epitome of glitter rock, appearing on stage in lipstick, mascara, and ostrich plumes. But even this wasn't done solely in order to be shocking. He has since remarked that during this period he objected to masculine clothing because it reflected a rationalistic, goal-oriented approach. He contrasted rational man with intuitive woman, and having been through Ipswich Art School, he was in no doubt that the side of himself he wanted to express was his intuitive side. In the last five or six years, however, he has gone to the other extreme sartorially; his appearance is almost monkishly severe.
When he left Roxy Music in 1973 Eno started off along the conventional route laid out for ex-band members - a solo performing career. But he quickly found that fronting a band wasn't to his liking, so he abandoned the idea and started looking around for more stimulating projects. Some of his comments about the rock star syndrome have been quite critical. He has pointed out how the star becomes the prisoner of his or her own image, and is expected to keep putting out an identifiable sort of product, plodding down a well-trodden path rather than going off on tangents and experimenting with new directions and ideas.
The tangents, of course, are what interests Eno. No one could accuse him of plodding down any well-trodden paths. Since leaving Roxy, he has engaged in a bewildering variety of projects, most of them strikingly original in content. He put out four solo albums of rock songs, Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before And After Science, the most recent (Science) in 1978. The arrangements on these albums are often raucously strident, though the quiet tunes become eerily luminous. Two elements in particular set the albums apart from the mainstream: the unusual tone colours given familiar instruments by means of elaborate electronic processing, and the enigmatic lyrics. As he explains briefly in the interview below, the lyrics are intended not so much to make sense as to almost make sense, forcing the listener to create his or her own interpretation of them. Encouraging the listener to become involved in the music in this way is another important aspect of Eno's work.
More recently however, he has been concentrating on instrumental music to the exclusion of lyrics. As far back as 1972, he and guitarist Robert Fripp were experimenting with hypnotically extended compositions using tape loops; their collaboration appeared in 1974 on the album (No Pussyfooting). This was followed in 1975 by Eno's Discreet Music, an extremely quiet, placid album of extended instrumentals. But the idea of ethereally peaceful music began to take off in 1978 with the release of Ambient 1: Music For Airports. The term 'ambient music' has begun to gain some currency; it describes music that can function as background music but that offers a profound alternative to conventional Muzak-type sound environments. Since the sound environment we all live in consists mostly of machine hum occasionally blanketed by bland pop arrangements, it's hard to escape the feeling that ambient music would be a welcome change. The best way to explain ambient music is probably to quote from Eno's liner notes to this first album: Whereas the various purveyors of canned music proceed from the basis of regularising environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, ambient music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, ambient music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to 'brighten' the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. The extent to which Eno succeeded in this aim can only be measured by listening to Music For Airports and discovering for oneself the soothing and yet intriguing effect of the music. Other records in the ambient music series include The Plateaux Of Mirror, a collaboration with pianist Harold Budd, and Day Of Radiance, a brighter, more sparkling soundscape which features hammer dulcimer player Laraaji.
Eno's current interests are not, however, limited to background music. His fascination with exotic music is seen in Fourth World Vol.1: Possible Musics on which he teamed up with trumpeter Jon Hassell to create some intensely evocative and thoroughly alien pieces, and in his most recent work, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, a collaboration with guitarist David Byrne of Talking Heads. Bush Of Ghosts utilises fairly conventional funky rhythm tracks - at least they're conventional by Eno's standards. But above these, in place of lyrics, are found vocals, including the voices of radio evangelists and Arabian singers, which are intended to affect the listener more because of their rhythm, tone, and inflection than as a result of what the words are.
When not occupied with his own projects, Eno has found time to produce albums by a number of new-wave bands, including Ultravox, Devo, and Talking Heads. He also co-produced and helped compose three David Bowie albums. Nor are his interests confined strictly to music. He has recently begun experimenting with video, and has had several shows of his videotape productions.
Another area that has interested Eno is cybernetics, the science that describes the behaviour of complex systems such as social systems and living organisms. This might seem far afield from his musical concerns, but Eno has no trouble seeing the connection. He has written several essays on the subject, including one called 'Self-Regulation And Autopoiesis In Contemporary Music' for a British volume called Challenge To Paradigm which addresses the application of cybernetics to various disciplines. In a long discussion in Synapse magazine (which appears here in a shortened form) he illustrates the application of self-regulation to music talking about an avant-garde piece by composer Cornelius Cardew, Paragraph 7 from The Great Learning. His score is extremely simple; there's no notation and very few instructions. Somehow or other, the piece always comes out sounding very beautiful, and very similar from one performance to the next. I started trying to investigate why this piece of music worked as it did, because there are many other pieces of modern music that try to do the same thing and fail. I thought, 'How has he constructed this thing so that it regulates itself in this way?' Because basically that's what it does. There's a whole system of automatic regulators that come into being during a performance of the piece. For example, one instruction says, 'Sing any note you can hear.' That means that your choice of notes is governed by the available notes in the environment, the notes the other people are singing. In any large space, you always get an acoustic resonance building up, the resonant frequency of the room, and if you have a lot of people singing, the probability is that any note hitting the resonant frequency will sound slightly louder than the other notes. So given that instruction, the chances are slightly in favor of your singing that note. So what happens when this piece begins is that it very quickly settles down around a drone, and the drone is on the resonant frequency of the room. That's one of the things that happens, and it's not specified in the score. Cardew probably didn't even know that it was going to happen.
Cybernetics and systems theory are the mechanisms by which you can explain this piece. It has strong parallels with biological systems, which again aren't governed by external controls. How do systems like this keep themselves intact? In fact, all systems of this nature are what's called autopoietic, which means they tend to maintain their own identity.
In the old method of composing, you specify the result you want, and then you present a number of exact instructions to get there. The Cardew piece is radical because he doesn't do all that, and yet it happens. The behaviour remains governed. Political systems are all doing what the old composers were doing. By a system of laws and constraints, they attempt to specify behaviour. They're all saying, 'What kind of society do we want?' Then they say, 'All right, so let's constrain this behaviour here, and let's encourage this behaviour here.' They're trying to govern a highly complex system by rote. And you don't need to do that. Instead of trying to specify what you want in full detail, you only specify somewhat; then you ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go. There are certain organic regulators; you don't have to come up with them, you just have to let them operate.
One of the central ideas of cybernetics is that the system itself will inevitably produce a certain class of results. Again, most political systems don't recognise this. When something different is required, there's a huge effort to manoeuvre an existing institution to do the new thing. But it won't do it. It's in the nature of systems to do one thing, and not something else. The structure of a system governs its behaviour. That's how simple it is. If you want to change the behaviour, you have to change the structure.
Obviously, in this passage Eno is suggesting a type of compositional process that is governed loosely and internally, by improvisation and intuition rather than by an externally imposed structure. But beyond this, his remarks are worth considering because musicians and other artists interact constantly with at least two types of systems - systems of aesthetics (moment-to-moment questions of what will sound good, in addition to more abstract decisions dealing with what type of music to work with) and economic systems that reward, or fail to reward, their efforts. If you're confronting a set of results that you don't want, Eno's argument is implicitly that rather than trying to force the existing system to yield up a different kind of results, you might better spend your energy creating an alternative system. This could mean anything from establishing your own concert outlet for non-commercial music to designing your own microtonal scale.
The ramifications are far-reaching, but Eno is moving too fast to stop and fill in the outline. He leaves us to do this for ourselves. He explicitly denies, however, that he is proselytising for any particular view. In the same interview he goes on to say, Actually convincing someone doesn't work. If the necessity for change isn't already within them, that means they don't see the world the same way you do, so they won't change. The procedure of introducing them to the world is quite different from evangelising about it. You can't predict the results. They might come out with a system much better than yours, actually. Or quite different.
What Eno is doing with his music, more than anything else, is introducing us to the world. It's a world of sound and other subtler resonances that surround us, whether we're aware of it or not. But in addition to being a philosopher, a composer, and a producer, he is, after all, a synthesizer player. He has been working actively with electronic musical equipment for many years, and he has some strong opinions about synthesizers.
Could you tell us what kind of synthesizers you own?
They're all very commonplace and not very exciting. One is a Minimoog. It's a very old one - one of the first ones they made, I suspect. The second is the EMS. It was made by EMS, and the model is called an AKS. It's a briefcase model. It's a very nice little thing.
Does it use patch cords?
It has a routing matrix. You just put a little plug in and route one thing to another by doing that. I also have a Korg Micropreset. The Minimoog and the AKS I've had for years, actually. The Korg is quite new. And I have a lot of auxiliary equipment as well that I use with these. I use all the things a guitar player might have-phase pedals, fuzz boxes, echo units... The echo unit is particularly important. I've got a Roland 501.
Your music seems to rely pretty heavily on echo.
It really does. The important thing about using effects in connection with synthesizers is that they mess the sound up a little bit. My problem with synthesizers has always been that the sound is done inorganic of itself that it sticks out too much. It's far too obvious and high-definition in a track. So one of the main points of the echo unit is not just for the sake of echo, but also to knock off a few of the high frequencies of the synthesizer, and introduce some distortion as well. It's actually being used rather like a graphic equaliser. I do have two graphics as well, which I use. Those I should have mentioned first, because they are really the most important. I can't understand why nobody has built a synthesizer with a graphic built into it.
For your purposes, what features would you like to see in a synthesizer?
Well, the development of synthesizers so far has all been predicated on a particular assumption that I feel I no longer agree with. That assumption is that the best synthesizer is the one that gives you the largest number of possibilities. Clearly this is what's been happening with the big digital synthesizers. Now, the effect of this on the players-or at least the conspicuous effect, as far as I can see-is that the players move very quickly from sound to sound, so that for any new situation there would be a novel sound for it, because there's such a wide palette to choose from. This seems to me to produce a compositional weakness. These players are working in terms of sounds they don't really understand yet, you know-the sound is too novel for them to have actually understood its strengths and weaknesses, and to have made something on that basis. It's like continually being given a new instrument. Well, that's exciting for the player. Every ten minutes somebody says, Hey, here's another instrument. Now try this one. But from the point of view of the music, it seems to produce a rather shallow compositional approach. Frequently in the studios, you see synthesizer players fiddling for six hours getting this sound and then that sound and so on, in a kind of almost random search. What's clear if you're watching this process, is that what they're in search of is not a new sound but a new idea. The synthesizer gives them the illusion that they'll find it somewhere in there. Really, it would make more sense to sit down and say, Hey, look what am I doing? Why don't I just think for a minute, and then go and do it? Rather than this scramble through the electrons. You could contrast this approach to that taken by Glenn Gould, for instance. In the article in Contemporary Keyboard [see Keyboard, August 1980] he mentions the fact that he has been working with the same piano for years and years. Clearly he understands that piano in a way that no synthesizer player alive understands his instrument. You see, there are really distinct advantages to working within a quite restricted range of possibilities, and getting a deeper and deeper understanding of those.
What other musicians can you think of who have taken this approach?
It's true of most of the great musicians I can think of. Jimi Hendrix, for instance, always worked with a Stratocaster and a particular type of amp. If I think of singers I like, clearly they're working with a limited palette, that being their voice. They don't have the option of infinitely extending that. Jon Hassell, the trumpet player I worked with - what makes his work so lovely is that he really understands the sound he makes. He understands it in a way I've never heard a synthesizer player understand his sound. So, to answer your question about what features I would like to see in a synthesizer, I think it might be interesting if people now started making electronic instruments that were deliberately limited, that had maybe four or five great sounds on them. Well, a Minimoog is rather like that, actually. Within a few months you know pretty well what its limits are, so you don't waste a lot of time trying to program novelties into it. You know what the instrument can do, and you choose from among its possibilities. So this becomes a musical choice, not just a sound choice. Of course I'm not suggesting that people stop developing big synthesizers. What I'm suggesting is that big synthesizers aren't necessarily going to produce the most interesting music which has been the tacit assumption, I think, that the bigger the synthesizer, the more interesting the music would be. That isn't going to be the case. My recommendation, which might come as a relief to people who can't afford big synthesizers, is that the quality of the music has nothing to do with that anyway.
Does the evenness of a synthesizer's tone cause problems for you?
There are two things that the synthesizer lacks. One is that it lacks a sound that is idiosyncratic enough to be interesting. By that I mean that all natural instruments respond naturally, which is to say they respond unevenly, and somewhat unpredictably. You know, a guitar sounds slightly different at each fret, and it has oddities, which are undoubtedly a large part of the interest of the instrument. A good player will understand and make use of those oddities. But synthesizers in general don't have that. The aspiration of synthesizer designers is to produce maximum evenness. And that was actually the aspiration of traditional instrument designers - violin makers, for instance. They wanted to produce an instrument that was completely even in timbre at every pitch. Of course, they failed, because they were working with materials that wouldn't permit that, and their failure is what makes those instruments interesting.
Some non-European instruments embody these imperfections to an even greater degree.
And that accounts for a good part of their interest. Look at the shakuhachi, the Japanese flute. The intention in its development, in contrast to what we've been talking about, was to produce a quite different timbre at each pitch, and for each individual sound to have its own distinct character. What I'm saying is that as far as I'm concerned it would be much nicer if synthesizers began moving away from their perfection and through the violin stage of imperfection towards the shakuhachi stage. Now, in doing this you can move in one of two directions. In the direction of very high technology you can do that - with instruments like the Clavier and the Fairlight you can program each note to have its own special idiosyncrasies. Or you can move in the direction of very low technology, which is the direction I'm very much more likely to take. If I built a synthesizer, it would be fairly unpredictable. In fact, the synthesizers I own have already become fairly unpredictable because I've had them a long time and haven't had them serviced very much. I know a lot of people are into the inhuman cleanliness of a synthesizer, but I don't like that, and I subvert it number one by laziness: I never get my instruments serviced, so they start to become a little bit more idiosyncratic, and I also use a lot of auxiliary equipment, which I also don't get serviced. Now this sounds flippant, this not getting things serviced sometimes, but a lot of the faults that develop are rather interesting, so I leave those alone.
What kind of faults?
Well, for instance on my little EMS a fault has developed whereby if I feed a loud input signal into the ring modulator it will trigger the envelope. This isn't supposed to happen, but of course it's very useful, because then you can use the envelope to trigger any other function in the synthesizer, so I can follow the input sound with another sound if I like, or feed the input sound through a filter that's controlled by the envelope - that kind of thing. Now this is distinctly a fault of the synthesizer, and when I do get it serviced I have to put little notes all over the thing saying, Don't service this part. Don't change this.
At one time or another we've all played on instruments that weren't behaving the way they were supposed to. It can be frustrating, but rather than being frustrated, you seem to turn it to your advantage.
I don't mind it at all. I'm very familiar with these synthesizers. I know all the things they do incorrectly, and I've turned those things into strengths now rather than weaknesses.
But it's important that you're familiar with the instruments, so that their unpredictabilities are in some sense predictable to you.
That's right. They're within a range. So I've allowed the things to become unique, actually. Rather than servicing them regularly so that my Minimoog is like everybody else's Minimoog, I now have a Minimoog that isn't like anybody else's, and that has certain features that I find very attractive.
Instead of having a technician modify your instruments, you've let the process of aging modify them.
Exactly. In much the way I think happens with traditional instruments. So that's one of the things I feel is missing with synthesizers - a personality. I find them to be instruments without personality. The other thing I find missing is the sense of a real contact between me as the player and it as the instrument. Again, in some of the more expensive synthesizers, people have tried to design in touch sensitivity, finger - velocity sensors and things like that. But I think some of the greatest inventions in sonality in this direction have gone unnoticed. For instance, there's a Yamaha synthesizer whose keyboard wobbles from side to side to make a vibrato effect. [Ed. Note: Eno is probably referring to the Yamaha YC-45D organ.] I don't own one of those, but I'm always hiring one in the studio just because I love the effect. When I go back to a normal keyboard, I find myself shaking my fingers in the same way, expecting to get vibrato. Now, I looked at the circuit for that, and it's so incredibly simple! I can't understand why it has never been used on any other keyboard instrument. Maybe they patented it - but even if they did, I can think of six other ways to do that. That's such a simple thing, but most synthesizer designers have overlooked it. They won't deal with something that's as mechanical, rather than electronic, as that. But that's the kind of thing I really would appreciate in a synthesizer - some sense of physical activity making a difference to how the thing responded. That happens with every other instrument, after all. The piano less than most, I suppose, but with most instruments your physical stance does make a difference in how the thing sounds. The whole point of using effects devices is to try to reintroduce those idiosyncrasies into the sound, to take the sound out of the realm of the real. I'll put any amount of junk in a long line after my synthesizer to see what will happen to it.
Do you work with foot-pedals to give you that physical control?
Yeah, because the foot-pedal is a very physical device, and I tend to go for anything that has a quality that I can control in a real physical way.
What would a normal foot-pedal setup be for you as you're playing something?
It changes all the time. I don't have a constant set of things. The things I always have are first of all the graphic equaliser, which is totally essential as far as I'm concerned. And almost equally essential is the echo unit. Since I'm normally working in studios I'm liable to use two or three echoes at once. For instance, the Roland, and then a Lexicon Prime Time, and then maybe a long digital reverb as well, a Lexicon 224 or something like that, or the plate reverb or whatever they have in the studio. Quite often I get a sound by mixing three different echoes together. The echo unit nearly always comes last in the chain, by the way, so anything else I mention will come before that. I use a fuzz box quite a lot. I've never heard of another synthesizer player using a fuzz box.
What kind of fuzz box do you have?
I have a great one. It's very old. It's called a Project WEM. I've never seen another one. But it's a lovely fuzz box. It's been used by many famous guitar players, because they say it's got a unique sound. People have actually tried to make copies of it. They took down all the components and tried to build another one, but they never really got quite the same thing. I've used it on all my records, actually, from the first record I made. Whenever you hear my particular fuzz guitar sound, that's the fuzz box. Sometimes what sounds like guitar is really synthesizer or vice versa. Then the less essential things, things that aren't always there: I sometimes use phasers, though I'm pretty uninterested in them. They work with certain types of sounds, but I dislike the regularity of the sweep. I might be more interested in one that switched between different phase angles, for instance, rather than sweeping between them. I use a pitch-to-voltage converter sometimes.
Do you ever hook up other instruments and process them through the EMS?
Oh, very much. That's almost more important to me than playing the thing. The EMS has two main uses for me - either I use it for animal and insect noises, at which I'm now, I'm sure, the world specialist, or I process other instruments with it. It's not much good as a keyboard instrument. It's incredibly hard to tune. When I'm processing something, it will go through the synthesizer and then through the chain of effects devices I just spoke about. But the great thing about processing is that what you do is create a new instrument. You create an instrument that had all of the interesting idiosyncrasies of a natural instrument, but also some of the special features of a synthesizer, so you're really dealing with a powerful new instrument. Very often when I'm mixing I have the synthesizer set up in the same way you would set up an echo or any other treatment, so I can send any instrument or set of instruments to the EMS from a send on the mixing desk. When I'm recording I nearly always have something going through the EMS. It's a way of giving a character to the track, from a very early stage, that takes it away from being just another bass and drums and blah, blah, blah. Though I must say I don't work with any of those conventional instruments very much at the moment.
What does the EMS have on it?
It's got two oscillators - and well, it has three, but one is a low-frequency oscillator that one usually uses as a control oscillator. It has a ring modulator, an envelope shaper, a filter, a reverb, two little output-tone controllers, a white-noise generator, a joystick, which is very nice, and four outputs for other instruments. That's about it. The thing that makes this a great machine is that whereas nearly all other synthesizers are set up so that you have a fixed signal path - you have to go from the oscillator to the filter to the envelope shaper, and out - with the EMS you can go from the oscillator to the filter, and then use the filter output to control the same oscillator again. This is how you get your bird sounds and things like that. You get a kind of squagging effect. It feeds back on itself in interesting ways, because you can make very complicated circles through the synthesizer. Also, on the EMS every single function is on a potentiometer. There are no switched functions, which is to say that you can infinitely adjust just every single control. Even the waveform is adjustable, as opposed to the Moog, where you switch from one waveform to another. With the EMS you can make a mixture of waveforms, which has certain distinct advantages.
The ARP 2600 is another small synthesizer that has that capability.
That's a very nice synthesizer as well. I've worked with one of those. I've never owned one, but I do like them. Actually, the second piece on the second side of Music For Airports was done with an ARP 2600. It's a beautiful sound, I think, and one that I couldn't have got from any other synthesizer that I know of. The thing that makes it so luscious is that it's slowed down, and it has three kinds of echo on it.
A few years back you were quoted as saying that you're not a musician. Given your background in painting and your desire to shake up people's preconceptions, saying that made perfect sense. For the record, though, how much of a musician are you, in a traditional technical sense?
Well, I'm not much of a musician in that sense. I suppose I can control my voice. I have pretty perfect pitch, I think, so I've got that one under control. But otherwise, in any of the senses that people normally mean when they refer to it, I'm not a musician.
You don't know music theory and things of that sort.
No, I don't. Well, let's say I know many theories about music, but I don't know that particular one that has to do with notation.
What about technique? Do you ever practice things on a keyboard or a guitar in order to be able to execute them to your satisfaction?
Not very often. Sometimes I think of something I want to play, and then I have to learn how to play it. If it's just a simple thing. Otherwise, I don't bother to try. If it's something that is clearly more complicated than I'm going to be able to learn, given the fairly short amount of time I want to spend on it, then I'll think of some other way of doing it. If I have a phrase that has a fast series of notes, I might break the phrase down into three simpler ones, and do them as overdubs.
What about research in psychoacoustics? How heavily have you gone into that?
Most of my research in that area has been fairly intuitive, or based on a study of my own reaction to things. I don't compulsively listen to music. I don't constantly have the radio or records on, so when I do listen to things I'm quite aware of how they affect me of what kind of imagery is being evoked by them. I sort of file that away, and it definitely becomes useful to me. For instance, one of the things that has interested me a lot is dealing with echo. Now, people think, Echo? What's the big deal about echo? What echo does is give you some information about the location of the piece of music. It tells you where this piece of music is happening. Consequently, if used properly, it can evoke a whole geography. It's a very potent tool if you're working in a recording studio the way I do. Generally I'm putting things directly onto tape, so I have to manufacture the psychoacoustic space that I want the music to be heard in. Echo is one of the primary techniques for doing that. And of course normally when one is manufacturing something like this one is working on the edges of reality. You're working with things that are slightly familiar, but that are not real. They evoke, but they don't depict, exactly. So I think that would come under what you mean by psychoacoustics. Another psychoacoustic area that I've been extremely interested in, as is probably evident, is repetition and the effect of repetition. One of the Oblique Strategies that I wrote actually says, Repetition is a form of change. The point of that comment was to make it clear that repetition doesn't really exist. As far as your mind is concerned, nothing happens the same twice, even if, in every technical sense, the thing is identical. Your perception is constantly shifting. It doesn't stay in one place. So a lot of the work I've done has involved repetition or drones, which are another form of repetition. It has relied on some kind of perceptual modification as being the composer of the piece really. What you do is, you offer something that allows the listener's perception to become a composer.
What exactly are Oblique Strategies?
Let me explain it this way: When I first began working in studios on the Roxy Music albums, I became aware of the panic effect that accompanies the high cost of studio time. I noticed that one becomes increasingly oriented toward results, and progressively less inclined to engage in experimental activities that might not lead anywhere. As a result of this, one focuses one's attention on the safe bet, on the tried and tested techniques. My experience at the time was of leaving the studio and listening back to tapes at home and thinking, If only I'd tried this other approach. If only I'd explored some alternatives. So the Oblique Strategies began as a list of aphorisms intended to check the headlong flight down the path of least resistance by suggesting side roads that might prove more interesting. The first one I wrote was, Honour thy error as a hidden intention, a reminder not to have too fixed a view about what was appropriate in a given piece, to accept the possibility that sometimes the things one doesn't intend are the seed for a more interesting future than the one you had envisaged. As in life, so in art. My technique at this time was to scan the list regularly during recording sessions to see if there was an aspect of approach that I might be overlooking. Most of the Oblique Strategies deal more with approach than with specific techniques, so in that sense they imply a philosophy about working. As the list became longer it became more unwieldy, so I transferred the ideas onto cards about the same size as playing cards. During recording I would pull a card at random and spend a few minutes pondering how the message on the card related to what I was engaged upon. The usefulness of this exercise is that it temporarily removes you from the nuts and bolts of what you're doing. It asks you to reconsider the work on a conceptual level. Often I decided before pulling a card to accept its advice even if that advice seemed distinctly inappropriate. These occasions have proved to be some of the most pertinent uses of the cards. Shortly after I had transferred the list onto cards, I showed them to my friend Peter Schmidt, the painter. It transpired that over the previous few years he had been making a similar list, and that our two lists contained a number of almost identical propositions. What was so interesting was that many of our ideas were transferable. Strategies that he had evolved in relation to painting made sense musically, and vice versa. Accordingly, we decided to publish a set of cards, combining both our sets but avoiding repetitions where they occurred. The first edition, published in January 1975, consisted of 113 cards. We published 500 boxes of them. Since then I've actually published 5,000 more boxes, but I won't be publishing any more because Peter died last year.
Could you give me some examples of Oblique Strategies?
Here are some chosen at random in true Oblique Strategy style. In total darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly. Emphasise the flaws. Reverse. Go outside. Shut the door. Change instrument roles. Make an exhaustive list of everything you might do, and do the last thing on the list. Once the search is in progress, something will be found. You don't have to be ashamed of using your own ideas. It is quite possible (after all). Take a break. Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics. Trust in the you of now. Actually, it doesn't do them justice to be seen in a list like this. That was the reason I isolated them from one another by putting them on playing cards. The way they work well is to pull one out and then think, How does this apply to what I'm doing? The function of it as much as anything else is to put you into a mental condition where you step outside the music for a while, so that once again you're thinking about it on a different level, on a level that you normally don't in the studio. You're once again on the level of concept, and you're asking yourself What am I actually doing here? Rather than, Does this guitar sound good? or that kind of technical question.
Are there still copies of those available?
I think there are about 200 of the last printing left. They're available from E.G. Records [The Oblique Strategies are no longer available].
Another intriguing project that you were involved in a few years ago was The Portsmouth Sinfonia. Could you talk a little about that?
The Portsmouth Sinfonia was founded by an English composer named Gavin Bryars. He started it at Portsmouth College of Art, hence its name. The philosophy of the orchestra was that anybody could join. There was no basis of skill required for joining. The only condition was that if you joined you should attend rehearsals and take it seriously. It wasn't intended as a joke - though it was sometimes extremely funny. The orchestra only played the popular classics, and it played only the most popular parts of these popular classics, the bits that everyone knows: Da-da-da dum, da-da-da dum. At its biggest it was about 78 people strong and it had a complete complement of orchestral instruments. Most people when they talk about the Sinfonia talk about it as though everybody in the orchestra was incompetent. This wasn't true, exactly. There was a range of competence, from extremely competent - we had some bona fide virtuosi in there - to completely incompetent. What was interesting about it was this mix. It wouldn't have been more interesting if it had been all incompetent or all competent. It was this particular mix so that in any piece what you heard was a number of approximations of how the piece should be played. You'd hear the melody of whatever it was, hidden somewhere among all those approximations of the melody. It was like a very blurry version, a soft-focus version, of classical music, and it produced some beautiful music. I really liked some of those results. There were some exquisite moments - the mixture of chance and choice, you know? Anyway, the Sinfonia existed, let me see, from 1969 to about 1974 or '75. I joined in 1970, and I ceased to be active in 1974, mainly because I wasn't in England a lot of the time any more.
From that description, it sounds as though the Sinfonia might have had some impact on the way your records sound.
It certainly does. In some quite specific cases. There's a song on Another Green World called Golden Hours. I wanted The Portsmouth Sinfonia effect on the voices. I wanted a lot of voices that were a little bit off with one another, so I overdubbed the voices myself but I didn't use headphones. The engineer would just give me a cue when to start singing. He was listening to the track in the control room, and when he cued me I would start singing, so that my pitch is deliberately slightly off and my timing is slightly off, to reproduce that effect. Also, on Taking Tiger Mountain I used the string section from The Portsmouth Sinfonia on one of those songs, a song called Put A Straw Under Baby.
You've been quoted as saying that music played by untrained musicians can be as interesting as music by trained musicians. If an untrained musician wants to take advantage of this idea, can they just do it any old way, or is there a certain approach or philosophy that would be a good idea for them to keep in mind?
I should think there are quite a lot of things it would be a good idea for them to keep in mind [laughs]. Unfortunately, that position of mine has frequently been misinterpreted, and I've paid the price, I can tell you, by receiving hundreds and hundreds of tapes from people who say, Hey, I'm an untrained musician. I've followed your advice, and I've decided to send this tape. And unfortunately most of the tapes are really not that interesting, you know? So I've paid for my theory there. But my position was developed from two points of view. First of all, folk music is often played by untrained musicians. Part of the beauty of that music is in the way that variety is achieved, not by people deliberately trying to do something different from one another, but by accidentally doing something different. For instance, if you listen to group folk singing you often hear strange and lovely harmonies that are actually inadvertent. They result from the fact that somebody can't sing on the register that the main voices are in, so they just find a pitch at some peculiar interval above or below and stay in parallel harmony from there onwards. So in folk music you often have this sense of a limitation being turned into a strength, which was really what I was talking about: regard your limitations as secret strengths. Or as constraints that you can make use of.
To give another example of this, on the technological level, there are two approaches to going into the studio. Some producers go in, and they say, Have you got the Lexicon 224 echo? Have you got this, have you got that? Oh, you haven't got that? I can't work here. Suddenly their world crumbles because you don't happen to have the new Eventide D949 phaser, or whatever it is, and they can't envisage working without this. But when I go into the studio, I look around and see what is there and I think Okay, well, this is now my instrument. This is what I'm going to work with. Another example would be when you're faced with a guitar that only has five strings. [Ed. Note: In fact the guitar Eno owns only has five strings.] You don't say, Oh God, I can't play anything on this. You say, I'll play something that only uses five strings, and I'll make a strength of that. That will become part of the skeleton of the composition. That's really what I mean, that any constraint is part of the skeleton that you build the composition on-including your own incompetence.
So, that's one aspect of the untrained musician thing. The other aspect is this I believe strongly that recording studios have created a different type of musician and a different way of making music. In some sense it's so different that it really should be called by a different name. The only similarity is that people listen to it, so it enters through the same sense, but in the way it's made it's really a different thing. When I make a record, very often I work rather like a painter. I put something on, and that looks nearly right, so I modify it a little bit. Then I put something else on top of that, and that requires that the first thing be changed a little bit, and so on. I'm always adding and subtracting. Now this is obviously a very different way of working from any traditional compositional manner; it's much more like a painting. So it's clearly a method that is also available to the non-musician. You don't have to have traditional technical competence to work that way. You can have it and work that way, but you don't have to. So I was trying to make the point that if you're working with electronic media in the recording studio, judgment becomes a very important issue and skill becomes a less important issue. If you're working with synthesizers in particular, some things are easier than others, but really you can do almost anything you want to. So what then becomes important is deciding which is the right thing to do. And that's the leap that very few synthesizer players make, I think. They generally just do everything they can.
So the weakness of the tapes you get from untrained musicians is that in addition to not having skill, they don't exercise their judgment either.
That's exactly right. They've gotten over the problem of not having skill, but they haven't moved into the zone of having judgment about what they do. I mean, people would probably be surprised to know my own rejection rate of my work. I must produce a hundred times the amount of music I release. The amount I release is a very small proportion. I reject a tremendous amount. And I don't feel bad about this. I don't think, Oh, what a waste. The rest of it is sketches, in a sense, of what then comes out, so it's not wasted time, but it's not stuff I would regard as finished.
Do you keep the sketches, or do you erase them?
I erase some of them, but a lot of them I keep. One of the reasons I keep them is that my judgment is likely to change. In fact it's notoriously likely to do that. I'll sometimes pull out something that I did four years ago and suddenly I'll be surprised by an idea in it that I didn't actually notice at the time. Whenever you're working on something, you're working with some concept of what you're doing. You think, Oh, now I'm being concerned with this, and this, and this. But later on you may suddenly realise that underneath that there was a secret concern that you weren't consciously dealing with, but which actually dominates the piece, and that concern might be the most interesting one. I do keep things on that basis. But sometimes I do things and I know they're just absolutely crap. There's no point in wasting storage space with those, so those go.
You gave a series of lectures a couple of years ago on the use of the recording studio as a compositional tool. Could you go into that in a bit more detail?
Well, what I was talking about just now relates to this, obviously. The thing that the recording studio enables you to do is work empirically with sound. You don't have to sit and imagine it and then get someone to do it for you. You can actually do it. The reason this is possible is because recording tape turns music into a plastic medium. It takes it out of time and puts it into space. So you can make all kinds of manipulations with it. You can treat it as a tangible medium. You can cut it, you can squeeze it, you can compress it, reverse it, collage itThe other aspect of this is that the music becomes detachable and portable, but that's different than what I'm talking about at the moment. The important thing about working on tape is that you have this empirical rapport with what you're doing. You know immediately what the relationship is between two sounds, which is something that previously you had to imagine. A traditional composer writing a score would say, Well, I think I know what strings sound like, and I think I can imagine what the combination of the two will be, so I'll write this on my assumption of what that combination will be. Of course it's possible to work this way, if you're very clever, and if you're working in an area where there is a finite set of instruments. The important thing about nowadays is that that isn't the case any more. What's an electric guitar? How could you score for an electric guitar? Jimi Hendrix' electric guitar is different from the guitar player in James Brown's band, and that is different from David Byrne's electric guitar. Each of these people has a sound and it would be absurd to write something and not specify which of these sounds you meant. In fact, your whole composition must be dominated by the knowledge of that particular sound. One of the reasons that working on tape has become almost the only sensible way to work is because you're dealing with instruments that are almost liquid in their qualities. They're always shifting. And of course the recording studio is a tool for manipulating instrument qualities to an even greater degree.
Really, my point is that what you're dealing with is an empirical medium. An example of this would be the difference in architecture between planning a building, which means specifying all the dimensions and all the materials and where all the pipes go, the difference between that and deciding to build one yourself in your garden. You just get a few bricks and you start, and you say, Oh, that corner looks pretty good - I'll make another corner like that. No, I won't have the roof over here, I think I'll stick it over there. There's a whole difference in results. Of course modern architecture looks the way it does because it has to be done that way. It's naturally going to look extremely regular and inorganic, because you can't specify a mud hut with an architect's drawing. It's too complex an entity.
The idea of not specifying things in advance naturally brings to mind aleatoric music, and specifically John Cage. Any feelings or thoughts about Cage?
For me, as for many other people, Cage was the most influential theorist at one time. He was a completely liberating factor. I now disagree with nearly everything he said [laughs]. But nonetheless, my debt to him, and I think everybody's debt to him, is that he did a very important thing: He reintroduced the notion of spirituality into the making of music. He did this at a time when nearly all the concerns of academic music were formal. That is to say that the history of music was seen as the breakdown of the old tonal system, and the move into chromaticism and the tone row, and everything was being discussed in these terms, as though it was a Meccano set or something. Do you have Meccano here? It's a kid's construction kit. The whole tone of things was that to be a good composer, what you had to do was understand what had happened on a formal level and then break certain of those rules.
Now clearly, this has never been what good music was about. In fact, the quality that one seeks is the spiritual quality, which incidentally sometimes breaks the rules. But it's incidental, you know? It sometimes keeps those rules as well. So what Cage did that was so important was to say, Look, when you make music you are acting as a philosopher. You can either do that consciously or you can do it unconsciously, but you're doing it. To be reminded of that was the most important thing. For me it wasn't a reminder, it was a realisation. It was something I had only dimly imagined before. So though I disagree with much of the specific content of his philosophy, I think it's important that he introduced that change of emphasis.
One of the effects that that change has had has been the move toward almost transcendental, consciousness-expanding classical music like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
That's right, exactly. I really think that traces from him. From him and La Monte Young. La Monte Young is the other important figure in the pantheon, as it were. He was the one who got into repetitiveness-drones, and things going on for a long time. He was really the one who started that school. Terry Riley, Reich, Glass, most of that school owe a debt to him. Certainly I do as well. The first piece of music I ever performed publicly was a La Monte piece. That was in 1967 or '68. It was a repetitive piece, and it remains in my mind as one of my great musical experiences. It really is a cornerstone of everything I've done since. It's rather similar in effect to what happens in those Steve Reich tape pieces, like It's Gonna Rain and Come Out. What you have is a very limited, extremely restricted piece of sound material that's repeated over a very long time, and you begin to find whole worlds of sound within that seemingly limited format. This produced in me a taste for simplicity, I think, rather than complexity, a taste for repetition rather than variation. In fact, one of the Oblique Strategies says, Repetition is a form of change.
It seems odd in a way that while your concerns are so philosophical, the first way a lot of people became aware of you was through rock and roll. How do you see that? Do you feel that rock and roll music is in a different world than this whole thing, or is it all the same to you?
No, it's not all the same, actually. The continuous discourse that goes on inside of me is the question, What am I doing here? That's the question, but the here can be either the rock music or the other one. I'm equally quizzical about them both. It's not as if I think there's a hierarchy involved where there's the respectable music with its background in La Monte Young and John Cage and so on, and then there's this profane stuff. It's not that. It's that at various times I can be very heavily persuaded in one direction or the other, while at other times I can entertain both of them and they do seem to fit together. I hope this will stop at some time, actually. It's a waste of energy to be oscillating back and forth all the time. I would really prefer to be doing something that seemed to synthesise them, and I feel that I'm slowly moving that way, but it's taking time, you know? You can't force these connections. If they happen, they happen, and if they don't, you just have to wait until they're ready to. It's quite useless to give yourself a cooking recipe, to decide, Okay, now I'm gonna make a piece that has these ingredients. It's gonna be sort of a La Monte Young-style drone, and then it's gonna have a little bit of a sort of punk-rock drum kit, and then... You can design music that way, I suppose, but it's not a way that I work very well. I have to wait until things start moving towards one another, and then I can nudge them.
On my record with David Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, there's a very distinct collision of things. One is a technique I've always been interested in, the collage technique, the found-material technique. And that is, I think, very successfully united with sort of a rock-funk-African musical sensibility. But to answer your original question, the reason I do different types of music is because music has different types of functions for me. Some music I want to occupy a particular place in my life. I want it to occupy the time when I want to sit and think, for instance, so the music is almost a vehicle for thinking. It's like a matrix for thinking around. Other music I don't want that from. I want it to produce a kind of energy in my body and mind, but not a specific directed thinking-type energy. You might call it dance music, but when I say dance I'm talking about a dance in the head as well.
So you produce the music for yourself in order to have it to listen to afterwards and fulfil a specific function.
Well, actually, no. I don't always do that. In most cases that's true. Sometimes I produce music because I want to investigate a procedure for producing music. I say to myself, What will happen if I start like this and then do this? Does that produce something I want to listen to? Which is a slightly different version of that question. That approach is actually more typical of the rock music things I do. The ambient-style things nearly always come from a sense that I want a particular type of music to exist, and as far as I know it doesn't exist, so I have to make it. This is quite explicit in certain cases. Music For Airports really was a deliberate attempt to answer the question, If I were sitting in an airport about to take a flight, what would I really want to be listening to? I had in my mind this ideal airport where it's late at night; you're sitting there and there are not many people around you: you're just seeing planes take off through the smoked windows. So I was thinking, yeah, I would really love this particular type of music.
In a radio interview once, you said, The idea is to produce things that are as strange and mysterious to you as the first music you ever heard.
Oh, yes. That's a very important point when we're talking about the bases on which I make music. I have quite a good recall of some early musical experiences. I can remember at an early point in my life hearing doo-wop [a mid '50s vocal rock style] for the first time. I suppose people here might think it's strange to regard doo-wop as magical music, but I did, because in England we had no tradition of it whatsoever. Suddenly I started hearing these doo-wop records, because we lived near a big American air base, so they were in the juke-boxes in our little town, and this music was completely weird to me. It could have been from another galaxy for all I knew. I was absolutely entranced by it, from the age of seven or eight, when I first heard those early songs like Get A Job, I thought, This is just beautiful. I had never heard music like this, and one of the reasons it was beautiful was because it came without a context. It plopped from outer space, in a sense. Now, in later life I realised that this removal of context was an important point in the magic of music. One of the things I've been concerned with quite a lot is to deliberately dismantle or shift contexts around so that something comes from an area where you didn't expect it, or something appears and it has a certain mysteriousness to it. There are ingredients mixed together that you have never heard together before, and that produces a strangeness.
I have the same sense with lyrics. The important thing about lyrics is not exactly what they say, but that they lead you to believe they are saying something. Now that's a different thing altogether, and it's a point that I think is very frequently confused. All the best lyrics I can think of, if you question me about them, I don't know what they're saying, I really don't, but somehow they're very evocative. I'll give you an example. You know the Jimi Hendrix song, Little Wing? It's on Axis: Bold As Love. It has just the most strange and mysterious lyrics. You could sit down and say, Well, what is he actually saying?, and you could come up with a lot of different propositions about what he was saying. The point is, he might not have been saying anything. The point is, he has given you the impression that he's saying something, and it's being said with an intensity of some kind, and that's the important thing.
It leaves a space in which the listener can project his or her own meaning into.
Exactly. That's how something is being said, but you have to manufacture it. It's up to you to find out what the meaning is, and the finding out is really a creative process. As I said in that Oblique Strategy, Once the search is in progress, something will be found. The important thing in a piece of music is to seduce people to the point where they start searching. If the music doesn't do that, as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't do anything. If it just presents itself and just sits there, if it either declares itself too clearly or is too obscure to even appear to be saying anything, then it seems to me to have failed. So I think that sitting on that line is very interesting.
That must be tough to do in lyrics, to not be too clear and not be too obscure either.
It's not tough. Because you're in the same position as the listener at the same time you're doing it. When I write lyrics it's not as if I have a meaning in my mind and decide to withhold certain aspects of it. I'm going through exactly the same process as the listener. A sentence might catch my attention, either one I've made up or one I've heard, and it mystifies me for some reason. It sticks in my mind. I'll start to think about it, and I'll think That seems to be saying something. I don't know what it is. And I start to connect that up with other words, things that sound nice together, things that seem to have an attraction to one another. This seems to fit with that, but I'm not sure why. It's almost like I'm trying to decode something. Or, I know what it's more like, it's as if you've discovered a very dusty inscribed stone somewhere, and you're trying to scrape off all the muck to find out what's underneath it, and you keep coming up with one word here, another one there, and you're trying to imagine what might be in between those words. So in that sense I'm in the same position as the listener. I'm looking for the meaning of it as well. The only temptation to resist is the temptation to fall into a simple meaning. It's a tantalising process, you know? You want to get it over with, so it's a temptation to say, Oh well, I just... this'll do it.
Turn it into a love song.
You've managed to maintain a large measure of artistic integrity in the music industry, at a time when a lot of people are under pressure to compromise and do commercial things. Do you have any advice that you could offer musicians, particularly young musicians, on how they can maintain their own vision in the face of these pressures?
Well, there are two levels on which I can talk about this. The first is on a purely managerial record company type level, which I quite honestly don't know very much about. My experience with my managers has been extremely fortunate. I get on very well with them. They're not crooks. They never interfere with what I'm doing. Which is not to say that they don't have preferences about some things over others, but they don't use those preferences in any way to sanction or censor what I'm doing. So my experience in that sense is, I think probably atypical. My managers are laissez-faire managers, so I don't have many useful comments in that direction. The only useful comment, I guess, is that you have to have a measure of arrogance in dealing with anybody in the business. You have to feel that you're right, because ultimately you're not able to trust anyone else's judgment of your work. If your judgment isn't clear, then their judgment will make no sense to you either.
But more interesting to me in this connection, I've been thinking a lot about the problem of momentum in an artist's career. Anyone who's mildly successful will get to a point where they're being asked to do very many things. So-and-so wants to work with you, this person does, that person does, can you do this, and can you do music for this, and so on and so forth. Suddenly there is a mushrooming of demands. Now, most people think, Well, I can do this. It won't do me any harm. It's better to be busy than not to be busy. But I'm seriously questioning that idea now the idea that it's better to be busy than to be idle. Because one thing I'm quite sure of now is that the more time you spend on an old idea, the more energy you invest in it, the more solid it becomes and the more effectively it will exclude new ideas. So I'm tending to think that when you lose confidence in an idea then it might just be time to drop it and just sit back and wait for a while until another one comes along. In time, of course, you'll find that the old idea hasn't been wasted. It gets rewritten back into things.
When I say, ideas, I'm really talking about attitudes to work altogether, not specific ideas like a tune or something like that. I'm talking about your whole attitude to working. For instance in the last few years I've been pulled in two directions. One was towards what you might call pop music, and the other was towards the ambient-music direction. I've decided recently that I'm just going to stop the pop-music side. I'm not interested, really, to carry on. It's not that I dislike it or anything like that. It's just that it assumes too much importance and crowds out this other idea which is in its very early stages. It's clearly going to happen. But one idea is strong and powerful, and it's vindicated by sales figures and by popular approval, and then there's this other poor little idea trying to get in. Nobody particularly likes it, or not very many people do. It's working against quite uneven odds, so I thought it was time it got a proper chance. What I'm trying to say in terms of advice is that I think people should be selective about what they do and not just be totally enthusiastic and say, Hey, I'll do anything, man. Be selective about it. Actually think a little bit about what you're doing.
There are a lot of people who feel that they have to take that approach to their career: Hey, if it's playing guitar, I'll do it.
Well, it's difficult for me to give advice, because I don't consider myself a professional composer. So for me to give advice to musicians is ridiculous. I might as well give advice to carpenters or teachers. I just don't know much about the rules of that game, or the problems or anything. And for me to give advice to composers is somewhat arrogant, in that if they are already composers, they probably know what they're doing, or they think they know what they're doing. And of course the way a composer gets on varies considerably from one to the next. There isn't a route.
Is there anything you would like to say in an interview that nobody has ever asked you?
The answer to that would be so long that I don't think... What I'm really interested in, underneath everything else, is culture as a system of knowledge. By that I'm talking about culture as a system of evolution in the same way that you might talk about genetics as a system of evolution. I'm talking about it as a uniquely human way of learning about the world, and of developing and adapting to the world, but I'm also talking about it as a self-knowledge system. But since this is practically all I ever think about, since it occupies nearly all of my serious thinking time, I don't have any simple comments about it.
It sounds a little like [Canadian media expert] Marshall MacLuhan, but with other elements to it too.
It is a little bit like him, but I think it's a much broader view than he took. I hope.
He just seized one idea and ran with it.
And a good idea, too. It's certainly not a wrong idea. But he put all his eggs in one basket, you know? I'm trying to discuss what all the other baskets are. I've been having some conversations with a friend about this topic, and we've been recording the conversations. We've got about 15 hours. I also have a long correspondence with another friend, a correspondence spanning nearly 8 years, about the same topics. Recently we've started compiling the stuff, and I don't know what will come of it yet, but my girlfriend has just started a little publishing company, which encourages me to actually give her something to publish. I like this sort of cottage-industry approach, and I think something is going to happen with this material soon.