INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Hayward Gallery MAY 2, 2000 - by David Toop & Brian Eno
BRIAN ENO IN CONVERSATION WITH DAVID TOOP
Written questions were collected during a preliminary discussion and relayed to the speakers. Recorded from within the audience during the Sonic Boom exhibition.
David Toop: In a way it seems a more genuinely immersive experience than is offered by the conventions of musical performance these days. I think the idea of the recording studio as an instrument in it's own right has changed with the evolution of a lot of recording towards the virtual environment. And I wonder if it is realistic to think about the notion of a building exhibiting this kind of work now. You know, maybe the kind of idea that La Monte Young had of the Dream House. Jah Wobble wrote quite a nice preview of the exhibition and he talked about 'temples of sound', which gives it slightly more of a religious connotation than you might want, a kind of permanent building in which this kind of work can exist for people to immerse themselves in a very different environment to sitting in a concert or sitting at home listening to a CD.
Brian Eno: Well, yeah, I think that immersion is the important work here. Immersion is the thing that has happened in music over the last thirty or forty years that really didn't happen very easily before, and I think it has been made possible mostly by recording, by the fact that you could store sound electrically and then relay it to speakers in all sorts of different positions. A lot of the work in this show is about the idea that music is not something that happens in front of you like a cinematic event, but something you step inside. That's been a big part of pop music for a long time, certainly the most immersive experience in pop music is heavy metal. If you go to a heavy metal show you really experience sound at it's most tactile. It's really an experience of sound as a material. And I think a very much more convincing one than a lot of the avante garde experiments that try to do the same thing.
What tends to happen in performance is that you get something that's half way between the old cinematic experience of music, the concert hall, and this new idea of immersion. It's hard to create immersion for the concert hall, this new idea of immersion for fifty thousand people, or even three thousand. It's a very difficult trick to pull off. Whereas it does work if you're doing it for fifty or a hundred, which is the sort of situation we have here. So my idea of ambient music for years has been a kind of music you step into and can step out of. To exist as a sort of permanent condition without beginning or ending is the idea, and you enter or leave it at will. Both in a sense of your attention but also physically. And I have for a long time wanted to make the kind a room I've got here as a permanent space in the city.
One of the comments I've often heard from people is 'I wish there was a place like this permanently in the city', and I think 'yeah, so do I'. It doesn't have to be my work in there, but a place that offers this kind of experience, somewhere you go for an indeterminate period of time to have an experience that isn't necessarily narrative - so it's not like going to the pictures, it doesn't involve you wandering around a whole lot - so it's not like going to an art gallery, it doesn't have a beginning or end so it's not a concert hall. Do you see what I mean? This is sort of something in between a lot of other cultural experiences we are offered, but it isn't any of them. It is something different.
DT: People used to sit in churches and gardens to get some approximation of the same thing.
BE: I used to sit in churches but I couldn't take the religion after a while. I like the space but I couldn't take the saints.
DT: They're all locked now anyway.
BE: Yeah, you can't do it anymore. I suppose the problem is how to pay for these places. Do you meter them? Do people go in and get a little ticket and time stamp that they've paid by the hour? Well, they would work if they were annexed to another kind of experience. I thought for a while that the chill out room that many clubs have was going to be a natural place where these kinds of things would happen and, well, it is actually... [phone rings in audience]
DT: Would you like to all switch off your phones?
BE: Or at least answer them! Let's open these questions...
DT: Yeah... The first one here: How has studying fine art at an art school helped influence your ability to make music, and could you tell me something of your art school experience? It's an appropriate question for both of us, because we both went to art school at the same time. I think we both enjoyed the same system to an extent...
BE: Were you at Hornsy?
DT: Yeah, I was at Hornsy and at Watford, to an extent. So I came into contact with all sort of people including Peter Schmidt who at the same time became very important to you. Strange people like Dieter Moebius who was putting chocolate éclairs through etching presses. Yeah, it was actually a very good time to be at art college.
BE: I would have to say that at time art college was one of the most highly evolved forms of liberal education available on the planet, it was really something quite extraordinary. It was certainly in the college you were at, Watford, and in the one I started at, Ipswich, which had quite a lot of overlapping staff. There was no pressure at all to paint.
DT: Or do anything.
BE: Or do anything actually in particular. It was like Summerhill for grownups, but terribly interesting because of the '60s being the period when everybody thought they could do anything. So painters could compose music, bricklayers could do happenings, prostitutes could write operas and so on, and all did, those are all real examples. That sort of infected the art schools. So at some of the more progressive art schools the idea was, 'How can we therefore just employ painters to teach here or sculptors?', and at my college we had a mathematician, a cyphertition, two composers, a few painters, some art language conceptual people. It was a real mixed bag of professors, and it made for very, very interesting discussions.
Most of all what it said to me I suppose is that, 'At this moment of time there isn't a received container for what you want to do, there isn't a category into which you automatically fit. So though we are called a painting college, part of your job here is to find out what medium you want to work in'. And that actually meant what medium you want to put together for yourself. So I started working then with both light and sound as well as doing scores and painting and performing strange musical happenings quite like the ones you were doing at the same time I am sure. In fact, I performed the first performance of La Monte Young's X For Henry Flint which is a piece of music that's very dramatic to watch, at least for the first five minutes. My version lasted three and a quarter hours. It's a piece where you sit at a piano and you try to hit as many notes as possible. The 'X' in the title X for Henry Flint is a number you choose before the performance, and I foolishly chose 3600, the number of seconds in an hour, thinking I could do it one a second. Of course I slowed down a lot.
DT: Even at that age!
BE: Then you lose count, 'which thousand am I on?' But anyway, there was a lot of that sort of thing going on. But mostly I think the message was not only do you have to think up the work for yourself, which you accept, that's what you think is going to happen when you go to art school, but you have to think up the medium yourself. You have to think up what it is you want to work in, what area are you in. Are you a sculptor with a foot in performance, or are you a painter who wants to use sound, or are going to work with some entirely new medium that nobody's exploited before, like knitting. For instance we had one student there who was knitting, that was her work, and another who did performances with a violin on a tightrope. She did several of those. They sounded frivolous, and I'm making them sound frivolous, but actually they produced a lot of interesting people who went on to become advertising magnates for example.
DT: I had a friend who created a magical working for his degree show, he got into ritual magic.
BE: It didn't work?
DT: Well maybe it did, I don't know what his intention was!
BE: At the same time pop music going through a very interesting phase, because it had just sort of become self conscious, because the time we are talking about is only eight years after doo-wop ruled the earth. It's a very compressed time period. But if you think that when I was doing the 11+ the records that were at the top of the chart were all things that went 'Doo, Doo, Doo, Duke of Earl' things like that, that was the currency of pop music and I love those records, but it certainly wasn't a very self-conscious form at that point.
By about 1965 or '66 people had started already to reflect on the very brief history of rock and roll, it was only eight or ten years old at that point and had started to become a little bit more ironic and arch about it and think, 'We could play with some of these conventions, we could start to use that kind of voice because it has the resonance of that time'. Which is sort of a collage process that artists do, and pop music suddenly became allied to not only to a whole set of social ideas and intentions which it served and grew out of. It became the hope of a lot of artists as well. Because pop music suddenly looked like a place that could accommodate any sort of idea and have a public. 'Cause you must remember at this time we going to concerts of experimental music where the same twenty-three people were be at every concert. We all knew each other, it was a tiny, tiny scene. A La Monte Young-Cornelius Cardew kind of world and practically everyone in the scene was someone who was also doing music. So it was people listening to each other's music basically. So there was this tiny highly intellectual scene that I think was very fruitful really, but had no audience, there was hardly anybody listening to it. And then on the other hand, you had pop music, which had a huge audience and looked capable of carrying some of those ideas. So that's why everybody got exited. It looked like the place where things were going to happen.
DT: That was a kind of landslide period in that breakdown between the divisions of high art and low art, it was part of the whole series of social changes that happened at that time. There were still very strong divisions I think at the beginning of the '60s between so called popular culture and so-called high art.
BE: ...There still are...
DT: Really pop music was instrumental in changing that dramatically. In a way you can see the consequences of that with a show like Sonic Boom, where people come from so many different backgrounds.
BE: What's interesting is that people, I think people come to shows like this with a certain irreverence which is slightly infuriating for people putting up the shows! They don't go to shows like this as you would go to a show at the National Gallery or something, they go to a show like this expecting to see how things work and to poke things which really pisses you off if you spent a week building it. Can I just check out a few more of these? OK, this is a good question. In your installation... my installation... why do we stare across the void at the screens like at the cinema rather than being in the centre of it all? A lot of the things in my shows are determined by ergonomics, so I think about how people are going to move, and whether they are going to get in the way of other people. I always arrange so that people who don't want to stay for long can just slip out through the back without moving in front of people who do want to sit down.
But I also found that if you build a show that is all round what happens is that nobody can see the whole thing from any particular position, so they end up moving a lot. This disturbs a lot of people who want to sit still. So I've kind of ended up going for slightly more hemispheric than I have here. I've ended up going for something you can see in one eyeful as it were. It's an ergonomic thing. I've done a lot of these and I've started to notice that certain simple things seem to work. For example, making it light by the door, rather than leaving dark so that you can actually step into the room with confidence rather than feeling you might fall into a hole! Which I might try one day.
I think people come to shows like this with a certain irreverence which is slightly infuriating for people putting up the shows! They don't go to shows like this as you would go to a show the National Gallery or something, they go to a show like this expecting to see how things work and to poke things which really pisses you off if you spent a week building it.
DT: There's another point I wanted to pick up on. You were talking about being in art school and your discoveries in relation to the kind of work you were doing. I remember we had a conversation before we talked about the realisation that the observer or the listener becomes in part the maker of the work. And I thinks that also very relevant to what you are doing in Sonic Boom. What implications do you think that has for the notion of the finished artwork?
BE: Well, the important word there is finished, because my piece, and I should imagine some of the other pieces here, are effectively endless. The way my piece works is that you have a number of slide projectors, some video and lots and lots of CD players which are all basically on random shuffle. So they are all playing random cycles of the material that is stored on them. At any given moment you are hearing a particular cluster of the possibilities stored in all those systems. But its extremely unlikely that even within several millennia and exact cluster is going to repeat.
I can't even talk about what the work will be, really. It's more like planting a garden than making a finished piece of work. You just set this thing in motion, you know, all these seeds you have, you set them in motion and then sit there and see what they do with each other. And, of course, there is a certain amount of experience about knowing which ones tend to work together and which don't! For instance I came down this morning to fix one of the projectors. As I walked in I saw the slides in a configuration that was really, really extraordinary, I had never seen it before. I sat there when making the show for several days, watching it run, to filter things out to see which things consistently worked and which ones didn't.
I remember one of the earliest shows like this that I did, I was just using four tape recorders to play the sound and I had this very abstract piece. We used to have it running all of the time when we were building the show, 'cause it gets the right mood somehow, and suddenly we all looked up and burst out laughing because the piece had configured itself to play the first four bars of Divorce by Dolly Parton. It was very distinct [hums]. Just like that. Suddenly out of this totally abstract piece there was a bit of country music. So you can't ever really know the character of these pieces. So they are unfinished pieces, which means that from an audience's point of view its much more like the experience of sitting and looking out that window, or sitting by a river. You accept that there is a view, a thing you would call the view from this window. But you also accept a part of it in time. You are seeing one little moment of this view. Though certain characteristics of it will remain the same, lots of others will change.
So I think a lot of this work is unfinished. I like the word better than the work. To me they mean the same. Unfinished implies something more useful, because it implies that you as the user of the work are the bit that finishes it. You know that music in that room of mine goes on twenty-four hours a day. When they shut the gallery at night its still playing because it's too difficult to switch all those machines off and switch them on in the morning. They are all high up by the ceiling, so we just leave it running. I like this idea that there is this music, making itself uniquely, never repeating - nobody hears it!
DT: It's kind of an actualisation of the theory that was behind a lot of work in the late '50s and early '60s AMM and La Monte Young who thought of their music as being a continuum which they plugged into whenever they performed.
BE: Yeah, that's rather what I think of. I think of it as being a continuum that sort of comes to life when somebody opens the door and sits in the room. Suddenly it becomes music. It's just sound otherwise, it's just pressure in the air until somebody hears it and then it's what goes on in here that ties all of those events together. One thing that becomes very clear to you when you listen to and look at this kind of work is that you are the person making the connection since you know that because of the way the thing operates, that these are not connections that me as the artist predetermined, I didn't make things happen in exactly that format. If they are meaningful to you, it's because you are making the meaning. This thing is a sort of matrix for you to build meaning or feelings on.
I'll take another one of these. This is a good question and it would take a long time to answer. In an increasingly technological society the nature of artists' is clearly changing, multimedia, sound etc. But is the role or importance of artist's also changing?. Well, the first thing I would say is that more and more activities are becoming artistic activities in the sense that a larger and larger proportion of activities become dominated by the kinds of consideration that artists are usually associated with applying. They become stylistic concerns, so I think we've lost, thankfully, a very clear distinction between one group of people who are called artists and another group of people who are called producers or manufacturers.
For instance, one boundary that has very clearly disappeared in the last twenty years is that between artist and curator. You know he (David Toop) wrote this book called Rap Attack. I believe that's the right title isn't it? And a lot of that book is about the idea of what happens when people start to use their record collection as their musical instrument. Well having a big record collection and really knowing it intimately like some of those DJ's do, like Howie B for instance who knows every record in his recently stolen twelve-thousand album collection, (Yeah it got nicked, the whole lot), so that he can go to a record and put on a track and know that it's going to work with another track he's already got playing. Well that's sort of exactly half way between being a curator and being a composer, isn't it? And it blurs that distinction.
I started noticing that about fifteen years ago that big group exhibitions included the name of the curator in quite large letters, sometimes larger than the name of the artists. Quite rightly too, because what that said is that the making of a set of connections is a creative act and is maybe as creative an act as any of the pieces of work themselves. So I think that's become a part of the artistic endeavour if you like. So has collecting, so has dealing. Jay Joplin is as important in the work of his artists as the artists are. I know he talks to them a lot about their work and the strategy for presenting it and how it should be talked about and so on. So he becomes part of the art work. But I think it applies to other sorts of levels as well. People tend more and more to aestheticise and stylise what they are doing. You see it at it's most sort of sickly and mawkish in that kind of advertising which... What's the one I really hate? What is it? Because I deserve..., no.
Audience: Because I'm worth it!
BE: Because I'm worth it, that makes me sick. Because I'm worthless, I always think.
DT: There's another aspect to this question. For a lot of musicians now performance has become a bit of a waste of time. I mean you [BE] don't like to perform anymore. And technology in particular has lead musicians into a place where they are replaying a routine that has no actual connection with the way they make the work or the role they see for it or the context they imagine in. And perhaps this is one of the reasons why a lot of younger musicians turn towards installation work or making constructions or finding another way to make sound function in space so that the viewer the listener can experience it in different ways.
BE: Yes, and I think also that one of the other things that people have gotten fed up with is the limitation of the single, finite platter. You know, the CD. When I started recording there was a huge emphasis on 'the mix', you know, the final mix. You would hear stories like Whiter Shade Of Pale was mixed a hundred-and-sixty-eight times.
DT: It worked!
BE: Yeah but they ended up using the first mix! There were often stories like that, people really going crazy about 'the mix' because there could only be one version. That doesn't really happen any longer. You still do get a lot of emphasis on mixing. Things are released in thousands of different forms, a record or a song becomes like a seed that can proliferate in hundreds of ways. You know I had something come out a few years ago which was eleven remixes of one song I had done, none of which sounded anything like the original song. And I thought, boy this is a pretty loose interpretation of remix! So I feel that artists are saying one of the things we want to do is to make, set in motion processes by which things will come into being. We don't necessarily want to supervise every stage of that. What I am doing is one example of that, the remix phenomenon is another example of saying I plant an idea in the culture and I watch it be stolen basically and watch it be turned into other things.
DT: I think also if you are doing things at home, if you didn't like what you did yesterday it is easy enough to do it again the next day and then even make a new CD from it. You are not fixed into that schedule, the release schedule.
BE: Well, home recording is a big part of this, of course. Home recording is cheap basically, that is the really important thing about it. Which means that you can afford to improvise with it. You can afford to make mistakes. You don't have the situation where a record company has put £15,000 into something and is therefore desperate that it succeeds and are going to hype it and therefore create a climate in which only disappointment can ensue. I much prefer the 'slip it out to your mates' type approach that's going on at the moment. Of course, there is now this divergence in record making where the big companies are spending more and more money on fewer and fewer acts, and yet there are at the other extreme hundreds of thousands of people with studios producing five hundred copies of there record.
DT: I think it's actually a happy coincidence of trends - the corporate narrowing and the expanding out through democratisation of reasonable technology.
BE: Democratisation is a good word, that was really the thing about pop music that made it interesting, that the record is a very good, cheap mass media. Unlike with the fine arts, all records cost the same, which is a great leveller. So people aren't collected because they are investments, I think.
DT: [Leafing through written questions] Is there a difference between sound and music? If so, what is it? Rather than immediately answer that I wanted to go to something you said: we both contributed to Nightwaves on BBC 3 last year and you said something in your interview that in a sense if you have to explain a work, it has failed. The catalogue for an exhibition is part of that whole process of explaining. I feel the same thing, I wanted Sonic Boom to be a very experiential show. I didn't want it to be full of history and explanations. But at the same time I write my lecture, you write your lecture, and one thing a lot of people say to me is, 'What criteria do we use to judge work?' Somebody listening to what we've been talking about here might say 'well yeah that's fine, but it tends to evade the criteria for judging work'. And I suppose this question here is part of that. Do you think it's a contradiction for us to be talking about work, writing, lecturing, but also saying 'It's all about experience'?
BE: No, I don't. This is a problem that's beset me for a long time because I talk a lot and I theorise a lot. There's an English rock critic attitude which marks people on the Keith Richards scale which is that the more fucked up and inarticulate you are, the more likely you are to be a good musician. That sort of feeling where you are more real when you're connected to things, you're in it all the time. I think it's a romantic confusion, the idea that life and art should be the same thing. That if you want to be passionate in your art your life has to perfectly mirror that. In my experience lives that mirror art are either chaotic or the art isn't very good. You either get dull art or mad lives, and I don't particularly want either. My feeling is that you just have to know at which moment to employ which particular tools you have. I have tools in my armoury that include intuitive response for instance. Just when I know something feels right, I just know it's the right thing to do. I am not going to suddenly stop and say 'now, exactly why, what's the reason, how do I know it?' I am just going to do it and afterwards, 'I wonder why that was the right thing to do? What did it connect to, what other things like that exist?' I've often worked as a producer of other people's records and one of things I do is to try to ease the process of making something and then follow that by the process of thinking about what has been made. So if you step forward with one song, some breakthrough has happened, I like to say 'so what actually made that feel successful, what makes that right. What have we done there that we hadn't done before and why does it feel fresh and exciting and new and can we apply that idea to any of the other things we are working on?' You know I think it's simple enough to imagine that one can keep those two sides in balance and that they help each other. It's only rock critics who have a problem with it, I think. Most normal people do it most of their lives I think.
DT: I think something that we've seen happening over the last thirty years as well, though, is the increasing pressure on artists to justify what they do.
BE: What, fine artists?
DT: Well, also musicians to some extent...
BE: Nobody who's got a mass audience needs to justify what they do...
DT: No, I know.
BE: Because fine artists don't know who the fuck their audience is, since that's a completely undemocratic medium, you just don't know whether your audience is more than Charles Saatchi and two dealers.
DT: I thinks it's a good thing in a way, that people should have to be able to say 'well this is why I am doing something'. But on the other hand, it also leads artists and musicians to creating a kind of preposterous framework into which their work sits unhappily somewhere in the middle.
BE: Well, yes, and it also leads to people doing things that they don't particularly want to do, but do because they know they can construct an elaborate defence for it. You see such a lot of that in fine arts now. I think of real one liners with huge books written all round them, and you know that those pieces exist because they can support a lot of jargon. They are like a slender little skeleton that you can hang a lot of current buzz-words on. It's unfortunate but that is more of a fine arts problem, and the problem in the fine arts is that it's too small an audience. There's not really a good feedback system with most of the population.
I had this idea for the Tate. I thought it was a really good idea, but they haven't adopted it yet. I thought they should have the Tate Gallery Top 100, so they would have one big gallery which was the one hundred currently most popular pictures in their collection. They would determine this by when you went into the gallery you get twenty little black stickers and each picture has a little sticker pad beside it. So you see a picture you like and you stick a thing on. So after a while a picture passes a certain threshold and it gets taken into the Top 100 gallery. I think that would be great, don't you? To actually see, it would certainly be the most interesting room in the Tate, because it would have the strangest things. Like Richard Dad, that little fairy picture which everyone loves but which people are a little bit ashamed of, they don't know how it fits into the story of art. It's so eccentric. You would have that next to Damien Hirst or something like this. It would be a collection that no curator would ever, ever put together!
DT: The shame of having no stickers!
Brian went on to discuss ambient music and how it is diametrically opposed to the notion of dance music. Dance music tells your body to do more, whereas ambient music tells your body to do less. The concept of music versus noise came up again, with a discussion of how Brian had set out to record ambient found sounds which he edited down to the length of pop songs and listened to to see whether all sound could eventually be seen as music. There seemed to be limited success with this, he became fond of one particular track recorded in Hyde park. The environment as an influence on the type of composition was also discussed. Brian noted that his most quiet compositions were made when he was in New York and living in a very noisy neighbourhood. His noisiest works were created just after returning to London from living in the country. There was also an amusing anecdote regarding the effect of his show in Berlin on the Frankfurt Lighting Fair. Apparently there were a large number of stands displaying lighting effects similar to those used by Eno. A friend of his was there and spoke to a couple of them who cited Brian's installation as an influence. He predicted that in a couple of years we would be able to go to the shops and buy things which would plug in and perform the same effects as his current installation.
This is related to the observation that art such as the Sonic Boom exhibition has similarity to interior design. Wallpaper (a very trendy interior design/lifestyle magazine) is much more likely to cover Sonic Boom, whereas NME (New Music Express) would not. Installations are obviously aimed at placing art in a space, and Brian's installations have often revolved around possible venues. He talked a fair amount about his desire to actually use a commercial premises as a venue, and invited anyone with a shop or restaurant to take on this idea. He had persuaded a manager at his local supermarket to play discreet music for a period of one week. Apparently the customers enjoyed it, staying longer, but buying less!