INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New York Times OCTOBER 8, 2004 - by Jon Pareles
PLUGGING IN A MUSICAL VISIONARY'S NEXT IDEAS
On Monday the musician Brian Eno visited Terminal 5 of Kennedy Airport, the curvilinear 1962 futuristic building designed by Eero Saarinen for T.W.A. that has been closed since 2001. An art exhibition of installations designed for the space had just opened there, and Mr. Eno, whose 1979 ambient album Music For Airports was reissued this week, was preparing a lecture-demonstration.
He was in New York for appearances that included a dialogue with the filmmaker Todd Haynes last night as part of the Music And Media series at the Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Eno's lecture at Terminal 5 was moved when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey shut down the entire art exhibition after a opening-night party damaged the building.
But on Monday, in the terminal's main lobby, Mr. Eno set up four boomboxes in a semicircle and inserted homemade CD's labeled Low Velocity Piano. As he started each one, single sustained piano notes floated into the air, hovering or harmonising at random, turning the space into a zone of serene contemplation. An onlooker joked that the technology was primitive. It's primitive, Mr. Eno replied, but it works.
Mr. Eno has been turning primitive and not so primitive ideas into visionary music for more than three decades. For someone who has called himself a non-musician, he has done well in music: producing definitive albums for U2, David Bowie and Talking Heads and releasing three dozen albums of his own. He is working on a Web site that will allow fans to hear his archive of unreleased music.
He has also accomplished some major paradigm shifting. As a member of Roxy Music and on his own albums of songs in the 1970's, he shook up the sound and internal construction of rock tunes. He popularised the notion of ambient music, which is meant to be heard in the background, but has greater artistic ambitions than Muzak. Collaborating with David Byrne in 1981, he pioneered what might be called ethno-techno music with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. That album added studio backup to found vocals in ways that presaged hit albums from Deep Forest and Moby. Mr. Eno's four albums of songs from the 1970's have just been reissued, and current bands are still mining their brittle, unlikely combinations of instruments. Few, however, can match the articulate derangement of lyrics like, If you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics/You will find that their minds rarely move in a line.
When he was writing those songs, I don't remember ever spending any time writing lyrics, he said. Basically it's as if I'm just taking dictation from somewhere. And I can't write lyrics like that now. Between other projects, he has been working for the last year to finish a new album of songs.
By design and instinct, Mr. Eno has been a conduit of ideas from the avant-garde into pop. I thought that I could import some of that stuff into pop and make something new, he said. Listening to Steve Reich's early tape pieces, Mr. Eno felt as if the music was giving the material its own life, he said. I realised that very complex things could come from the recombination of very simple elements. And that became the dominant theme of a lot of what I subsequently did. I got involved in a lot of different experiments of basically inventing systems that generate music.
There have been very few technological advances for creating songs, he said. If you think of all other aspects of music-making, they've all become much easier. But the song is pretty much where it was in the days of Chaucer. It hasn't moved on. It's still as difficult a problem. And particularly this applies to lyric writing.
I'm trying to develop a software that will become a repository for the kind of lyrical ideas you like, he continued. You might include in it all your previous lyrics and other people's lyrics that you somehow respond to. Then, when you come to writing a new song, what you enter into the machine is the phonetic and rhythmic structure. And it starts looking through your database for matches.
He also has a simpler method. Many singers find melodies and the beginnings of lyrics by singing nonsense syllables. Mr. Eno has started to play them into computer voice-recognition systems and see what comes out. An amazing service as a producer, and something I would love to do, is to be able to combine several different lyric-writing technologies, he said. And to go to a singer and say, 'O.K., do what you normally do; scat your vocal. Come back in a couple of hours and I'll have several hundred sketches of songs that you can look at.'
He relies on a more basic studio skill: extreme reactions to music. I am hopelessly opinionated in the studio," he said. I really love things or I hate them. And I try to change the balance within the material to follow the things that sound like something I haven't heard before. That's actually what I'm always interested in, I think: something I haven't quite heard.