INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Rhys Tranter SEPTEMBER 7, 2016 - by Rhys Tranter
Q&A - BRIAN ENO: OBLIQUE MUSIC
To mark the release of Brian Eno: Oblique Music, a new collection of essays celebrating the musician's life and work, I talk to the editors about their shared obsession.
You previously collaborated on a book of essays about the German electronic group Kraftwerk. What made you decide to put together a book about Eno?
Sean Albiez: In the final stages of the editing and writing process of Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop we started to discuss further book projects as, though we had never met before starting the book, we found that we enjoyed our collaborative process and had many similar musical interests. It think it was David who initially suggested looking at Brian Eno. Eno has been a major figure in music since the 1970s and yet little academic attention had been paid to his work. Any attention that had been given seemed to repeat and replay the same ideas and stories. So we felt that undertaking detailed research on Eno's diverse activities over several decades from a range of academic perspectives would produce new ways of thinking about his work.
David Pattie: As Sean said, we'd enjoyed working together on the Kraftwerk book; and when we were discussing other projects Eno seemed to be the obvious next option. He's amassed quite a reputation as popular music's resident intellectual, but, aside from one book in the 1990s, his work hadn't been given the kind of in-depth analysis it deserves. On a more personal level, I've been listening to Eno's solo work for over three decades, and I find it endlessly fascinating. As Eno says, he's very interested in the idea of music as landscape; and it's a landscape that I'm quite happy to inhabit.
Would you classify Brian Eno's music as popular or avant-garde?
Sean: Neither! I think what has happened, particularly in the broad field of electronica since the 1990s, is that it is increasingly difficult to label music in generic or other ways as popular or avant-garde. Many of the techniques and practices of the historical avant-garde in terms of music are now the practices of popular music production. Obviously we can ascribe these designations to music in ways that feel more or less accurate, but when it comes to Eno, he sits very comfortably in a liminal space between and beyond the popular and avant-garde. Crucially he feels no need to situate himself in either context. He is a moving, slippery target when it comes to classification.
David: One of the intriguing things about Eno in particular is that he's willing to find avant-garde techniques in popular music; for him, the soundscape created in an early '60s RnB single (The Lafayettes' Life's Too Short) is as intriguing, and as worthy of note, as an ostensibly experimental piece such as Steve Reich's It's Gonna Rain. It's also worth saying that Eno's early entry into popular music was in a band whose main inspiration was drawn from Pop Art; Roxy Music, at least in its earliest incarnation, grew from an aesthetic approach to popular culture which blurred the line between the autonomous, meaningful, unique artwork and the techniques of mass design and mass manufacturing. He is the product of a time when the distinctions between high and popular culture were crumbling, and his work still reflects that.
The book explores his work with a range of artists, from Talking Heads to Devo and David Bowie, from U2 to Coldplay. Can you say a little something about Eno as a producer and collaborator?
Sean: As a producer Eno seems to have taken a number of roles over the years; sometimes heavily involved as a performer as much as a producer, sometimes acting to break creative blockages in tense studio situations and at other times acts as an avuncular art school tutor. He clearly is comfortable with technology but often downplays his technical expertise, emphasising his intuitive approach to studio production.
David: I think, if there's one thing that ties Eno's producing and collaborative work together, it's the idea of working within what might seem to other artists to be unhelpful constraints. When he talks about the studio as a compositional tool, he doesn't mean that new technologies can solve all the problems in any musical collaboration; what he means is that the studio and the musicians together form a unique system, and the system itself can be shaped and guided, rather than directed. Sometimes this system might need to be disturbed or reset (which is what the Oblique Strategies cards, developed jointly with Peter Schmidt, are for), but it doesn't need top-down organisation. The collaboration will develop its own way of doing things. It will manifest a scenius (A neologism Eno coined, to describe an evolving group identity and intelligence).
Brian Eno is perhaps best known for his work in music. But the book explores some of his other creative output. Could you say a little more about that?
Sean: Eno often portrays himself as a painter who stumbled into working with sound, and has worked visually and environmentally with video, digital art and installation work over many years. Beyond this he has a continual presence as a lecturer and thinker in international festivals, futurist 'think-tanks' and in recent years has been a media commentator on British politics. Since the 1960s he has been interested in inter/multi-media and it isn't surprising that his restless creativity still straddles a number of areas of creative practice.
David: One of the interesting facets of his art is the way that Eno's creative outputs tend to dissolve into each other. So, for example, his two most recent solo albums - Lux (2012) and The Ship, released this year - are also art installations. Editing the book, we were both constantly struck by Eno's protean output- and also by the fact that this output wasn't neatly divisible into categories like music, or art, or journalism, or public speaking. Generally, he's most interested in the idea of art as an environment, produced by processes that don't need continual intervention; and that interest doesn't have to be expressed in one artistic form.
For newcomers who are unfamiliar with Brian Eno's music, can you recommend a place to start?
Sean: In some ways the best place may be his 2005 album Another Day on Earth as it encapsulates many of Eno's ideas in what are generally song structures. In terms of collaborations I'd suggest Drawn From Life with J. Peter Schwalm as it has a really lush atmosphere and represents a variety of ways that Eno uses (or doesn't use) the voice in his music. Also, his two albums with Karl Hyde from a few years back - Someday World and High Life - have an energy and exuberance that I really enjoy. A classic earlier album would be Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, with tracks that many people would recognise from many documentaries over the years.
David: For me, the place to start is with the pair of albums Eno released in 1975. Another Green World is a transitional album, shifting from the song-based approach he took on his first two solo albums; it anticipates the Music For Films albums, Apollo, and later albums like Nerve Net, as well as being a beautifully structured piece of work in its own right. Discreet Music is his first attempt at a self-generating piece of music; and the first of Eno's releases that could be termed ambient. The second side of the album (a set of system-based variations on Pachelbel's Canon In D Major) doesn't really work that well; but the title track is the gateway to Eno's longer-form work in the '80s and subsequently Music For Airports (1978) to The Ship.
Do you have any plans to collaborate again in the future?
Sean: Yes. This time we'll be focusing on The Velvet Underground. What Kraftwerk, Eno and The Velvet Underground have in common is this sense of working between established cultural markers, and yet all three have had a major impact on popular music as experimenters and innovators. Beyond this we are also working on a book, Kraftwerk And Germany, that draws from work we produced for our previous Kraftwerk book.
David: And after those, there will doubtless be something else.
Brian Eno: Oblique Music is published by Bloomsbury.