East Village Eye SUMMER 1981 - by Axel Gros


Brian Eno, versatile musician, Composer, producer and man of many Ideas, comes originally from England. Years ago he established himself as one of the first synthesizer wizards through his collaborations with Roxy Music and David Bowie. Since then he has long worked independently with a variety of musicians in Europe and the United States as well as in Africa, and has produced many quite different and unique albums. He has made music for films and is now experimenting with Video Music, as he calls it, combining sounds and images.

Eno as a producer has backed Devo and Talking Heads, two bands which have since gained international recognition. For two years now he has been using New York City as his strategic headquarters and hideout. He lives on the top floor of an old industrial building. From here one has a fantastic closeup view of the New York City skyline.

Down below people hurry busily like ants through the street canyons. Far off, glistening lines of automobiles wind across the bridges and along the expressways. While we are talking, it is slowly getting dark. Gigantic cloud formations in psychedelic pink and deep purple move gracefully across the black outlines of this confusing cityscape. The skyscapers with their jagged peaks and blinking antennae look like mysterious futuristic cathedrals. The myriads of lights, the flat roofs appearing as terraces in the semi-darkness and the silhouettes of watertowers and smoke from a thousand stacks give the city the appearance of an almost unreal science fiction vision.

AG: You just produced a new record, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts in collaboration with David Byrne of the Talking Heads. What were your ideas and inspirations?

BE: The recording of this album extends over a period of nearly eighteen months. We recorded in five different studios here in New York and on the West coast. I worked with David Byrne, singer, songwriter and guitarist of the Talking Heads, because I knew that his concerns were very similar to mine. This had been established on the previous Talking Heads' Fear Of Music album. I suppose the ideas that stand at the basis of this record are in interest in African music, in the African idea of rhythm, which is different from the Western idea of rhythm, and in an idea of collage.

On this record you'll hear that neither David nor myself sing at all. All the voices are found voices. They are voices either from other records, recordings of ethnic singers for instance, or they are voices taken off the radio, sometimes news broadcasts or talk shows or people telephoning in to express their irate views about things. So these are the two conceptual directions, and they were contrasted by a third one, which I suppose is a long running interest in my work, and that is an attempt to update psychedelia - trying to do something with psychedelic music, rather than just dismiss it as most people have done. So the pieces stand in, if you like, a psychedelic ambience. Behind the rhythm and collage, both of which sound quite urban, modem and high tech, there is this strange mystical and rural atmosphere.

Another important aspect of this album was the fact that we worked with found materials. We had very few instruments. Essentially we had a bass, a guitar and one synthesizer. So what we ended up doing was treating these instruments considerably and extending their range beyond any normal types of sounds they make. That also meant that when we needed other instruments, we either had to find them or manufacture them. For instance, in one case we needed a sound that was like a resonant, deep bass drum, so we used a large wooden cabinet which we found In the studio, miked it in a particular way and got a lovely resonant boom out of it. Frequently, we used old pieces of wood or tin or any scrap metal we found and by recording them in a particular way and treating them in a particular way we could change their sound characteristics enough to use them as instalments.

AG: You seem to prefer this method of finding something and then building onto it and developing it, rather than going into the studio with a preconceived idea, right?

BE: Yes, that's right. I guess when I go into the studio I don't have a specific song in mind or a sequence of words and notes, but I do have some kind of image of a landscape. You might say that I feel an environment that I want to create with the sound. Sometimes this results in a song, sometimes in an instrumental, sometimes just in an ambience.

On this particular album we were concerned with creating a rather complicated landscape by using technological and junkyard materials which convey an urban quality: set within these are joyful and physical dance elements, and all is imbedded in this sort of psychedelic wash of which I spoke earlier. The function of the psychedelic wash is rather similar to a film dissolve, in film you have conventions to indicate when you are shifting into another plane of reality such as a dream or another time: the whole film goes wavy and you suddenly realize you are somewhere else.

It's this consciousness of being somewhere else and somehow using the music as a way of thinking about those possibilities that I am interested in. In fact, all music that interests me is a way of suggesting an alternative present and therefore an alternative future.

AG: I noticed that you used the voices of preachers and evangelists in many of the pieces. What are the reasons?

BE: The reason for that is that we were scanning the radio for interesting voices. We were looking for voices that were appropriate for a song. We checked through the newscasts and professionally done programs and realized that the most interesting voices on the radio really came from religious people. They were interesting, not so much because of what they were saying, but because of the passion with which they said it. When people speak passionately they speak in melodies. Their voices lose the flat monotone of the radio broadcasters and become highly contoured and melodic. So initially we used these kinds of voices just because they sounded better. The choice wasn't based on content at all. But gradually we realized that our songs were taking on this spiritual or ethical quality, and then we started to deal consciously with the fact that we were making this kind of album. In other words: We realized that we were at a place and decided to be there. This contrasts with the popular point of view which imagines that you design a goal and then work towards it. I rather like to think of interesting procedures and let them take me somewhere I didn't expect to get to, and once I get there I try to make the best of it.

The connection between what we were doing and African music or at least our perception of African music is, I think, on more than a formal level. One of the characteristics of African music is that it has always united what we would separate as the spiritual and the physical. There has been no distinction between dance music and religious music in African cultures. In fact, dance is one of the activities you do in the name of religion. We tried to reconstruct that unity on this record and on the Talking Heads record as well.

Let me go back to the choice of voices. As I said: Our decision to use certain voices was initially a purely formal one. These voices sounded best with our music. The question then arose: Why do they sound best? The reason was that they were motivated by passion rather than by professionalism, and the reason these preachers and evangelists are interesting is because they convey a sense of energy and commitment to some belief or other. It really doesn't matter what that belief is but in contemporary America to hear anyone speak passionately and with energy is moving, regardless of what they are speaking passionately and energetically about. So one of the spinoff benefits of doing this album was that I began to understand why the '70s have seen such a large resurgance of belief in fundamentalist Christianity. It seems to me that in such a bland situation such an energy is suddenly very attractive.

AG: Could you elaborate a little bit more on your fascination with African music and culture?

BE: Initially and primarily, my interest was a musical one. But of course that doesn't stand alone. Whenever I find myself drawn to the music of a culture, it's always because that music is symptomatic or emblematic of other cultural phenomena. Take tor example German Brass Band music, in which I am not the least bit interested. It symbolizes and stands for a whole concept of living and humanity. So it is with African music, any ethnic music. It is the most obvious cultural sign of a social condition.

I imagine that in the next ten or twenty years, Africa will have an influence on the West, as the East had in the '50s and '60s. I think that we can learn from Africa interesting possibilities and alternatives of living together and different values one could attach to life. There is no doubt that people in the West are looking for these things. It's not only that I felt Africa was musically the most interesting place now. I also think there are all sorts of social and cultural ideas that could inform us and give us a sense of an alternative approach to our way of thinking. Looking at African cultures, you start to see social systems that have evolved and been durable over very long periods of time. You see a clear distinction made between the life of the individual and the life of an individual as a member of the many social groups one belongs to. People here tend to think that African life is all terribly simple, like running around in the sun and picking a few bananas.

That seems to me very far from the truth. Any tribal African, and many, many Africans are still quite clearly aware of being tribal members, belonging not only to his family group but also to his village group, to his kinship group, his clan group, his lineage group, his cult group, his tribal group, his nation. He belongs to a whole series of affiliations and his behavior in each of those is a different nature, because his role in each of those is of a different nature. He will be a different figure in his family group than he is in this clan group, for instance. So he is used to switching between many different roles and the function of the switching is to make each of these situations work properly. He is also used to the idea that there is some part of him that is separate from all these roles. People accept enormous social responsibility, things we here would regard as something we should liberate ourselves from. People there accept extraordinarily strict conventions, long drawn out rituals and the like, all sorts of things that have symbolized conservatism in our society. The African people accept those but they don't cramp the spirit. The person is a separate entity from all thse social structures. So, it seems to me, that it is indeed possible to function in a number of separate roles and still be completely idiosyncratic. These social structures don't do what one might suspect, they don't reinforce standardization of individuals, but rather seem to produce people who are quite aware of their uniqueness and know when to use it as well as when to constrain it, which is equally important.

I suppose that one of the reasons for the development of these kinds of structures is that Africa has traditionally been a continent of small societies and small groupings, of groupings that are to a large extent independent of other groupings. So there is a very strong sense of social responsibility just from the fact that you know that anything you do to the detriment of the group is ultimately also to your detriment. It's not that Africans are incapable of bringing themselves together to form large groupings when it's necessary to do so. They clearly have that talent as well. Their choice is not to do so, it seems.

America and the West are in a mess. The reason this hasn't been as apparent as it could have been is because until quite recently America had a booming economy, an economy that was constantly expanding so it could spend its way out of any dilemmas it found itself in. What's happening now is that the economy isn't expanding anymore in the same way as it did before, but rather seems to be shrinking. So, Americans are suddenly finding that the social code they adhered to in the interest of what they called "Progress" isn't something they can fall back on. There isn't a sense of strong social values which would be able to contain the country in times of stress and this certainly is a time of stress.

I think in America, and in the West in general, the definition of freedom has always been in terms of individuals. So if you talk about freedom you talk about giving an individual maximum opportunity to do whatever he or she chooses to do. This type of freedom is often going to be at the expense of the community. Other societies define freedom in a different way, if they use the term at all. They talk about social efficacy, they talk about building a community that is strong enough to sustain itself and yet allow a reasonable amount of liberties to its members. In Western societies and particularly in America, society is seen as a superfluous, an after-the-fact construction which is superimposed on individuals choosing to live together for one reason or another. It is not seen as a necessity.

In America for instance, the guiding morality is still that of the pioneer. Ronald Reagan is the latest and most disastrous example of that morality, exemplifying the idea of a man who forges his way through world politics with blazing guns like a cosmic cowboy. The sense of this morality, of course, also communicates to industry. For instance, the people Fortune magazine writes about aren't the people who think of a good way for the whole company, but rather those are ruthless and cutthroat enough to forge their way forward and become mult-millionaires. So this type of morality was possibly all right until about the '30s because America, up to that time, still had a very strong religious and moral code, which constrained some of the worst excesses of that type of cutthroat behavior. Since then that code has largely broken down. There isn't a constraint anymore, so there is no limit to trie megalomania which is called "success" in America.

Of course, the effect of this is that communities are continually breaking down since communities are held together by a sense of honor which doesn't exist anymore, so there really aren't many strong communities. The reaction to that is the attempt to build other kinds of communities - communities of tennis players, communities of swingers, social clubs and all sorts of temporary communities designed to provide the sense of belonging to something.

Earlier on, I mentioned the breakdown of an understanding of the fact that constraint and freedom are part of the same thing. The music in which this lack of understanding reached its apex was free jazz, as far as I am concerned one of the great failed experiements of contemporary music. The idea in free jazz was that if you removed all constraints from a musician and you just let him or her "express themselves," as they said, somehow or other they would find the deep recesses of their soul and somehow or other this would be interesting to someone else. I think that both of these propositions are faulty. I know the deepest recesses of my soul are not even very interesting to me, let alone to others.

However, the concept of free jazz was faulty even in the sense that if you removed the conventional musical constraints of harmony, melody, rhythm and so on you were still left with a series of other constraints. For instance, gravity - something most musicians haven't been able to rise above as far as I know. Their own physical makeup is another one and the makeup of their instruments. So what free jazz became about was how muscles worked and how structures of musical instruments affect the sounds they can make and not all about marvelous deep realizations. For me there are more interesting things one could make music about.

The extreme opposite is the example of a Russian orchestra of the nineteenth centurry. This was an orchestra of French horns with about a hundred and eighty members and each member would play only one note. So for instance, one member would be called E flat, another C sharp and so on. Each member had to play one specific note. Compositions were prearranged so that each player knew exactly when he had to play his note. So a fast arpeggio would run through the players very quickly.

In this approach there was no individual freedom whatsoever. My own orientation is much more in this direction than in the direction of free jazz. I think the Russian orchestra is a much more interesting idea, and I recently discovered that there are certain types of African music that have this structure where each singer will only sing one note or musicians use one-note pipes or flutes and play very fast syncopations with one another and construct rhythmic melodies with their notes. My interest is more in rules and constraints than in the notion of absolute freedom.

I am more interested in designing a world within the music, which has certain limitations and certain boundaries; and then I see what I can do within those parameters. As far as I am concerned: I can't understand any definition of freedom that doesn't also imply many types of organization on many different levels. The concept of freedom makes no sense at all unless it is seen in the context of what the anthropologist Robin Fox calls the "Biogrammar." He used the term "Biogrammar" to describe the set of possibilities a species has. For instance, it is strongly programmed into our Biogrammar and the Biogrammar of all higher primates that the mother-child bond should be a strong one and should be respected and protected by the group. Of course, it is possible to design a society in which children are separated from their mothers as soon as they are born, but I wouldn't bet on the success of such a society. It breaks down such a powerful blogrammatical rule that it seems to me it is bound to fail. It would make no sense grammatically.

Another context to be considered in the definition of freedom is the human body. If you look at the human body and the subsystems that exist within it, you begin to wonder what meaning the word "freedom" has. Each of the subsystems has a certain amount of variability, granted. For instance, your blood temperature isn't constant. It shifts within certain parameters but you can't say that your blood temperature is free or that your kidneys are free in any way. They are parts of a community and they are quite constrained in what they are allowed to do. We dignify human beings by saying that they have minds and therefore rise above being pure organisms, but I often wonder about the validity of that.

In the body, if any subsystem exceeds its allowed limits, the rest of the organism will try to restabilize it and bring it back within the limits of its norm. The body is composed of a number of recursive systems: that is to say, a small system is imbedded within a larger one which is imbedded within an even larger one but the internal organization of each system is identical. The only difference is that they stand at different points in a hierarchy, so if a smaller system comes up with a problem it can't deal with, it passes the problem on to the next system in the hierarchy, and so on. The systems deal with what they can and filter out problems that are trivial to the system above. Within our organism the final system is the brain. Fortunately, our brain is shielded from being besieged by hundreds and thousands of details every second. It only has to deal with some of the larger crises: of course, the breakdown of this is what is called intense irritability or neurosis. This is what happens when your smaller systems aren't filtering properly and the larger systems are being overloaded.

Now we, too, exist within a recursive system which is our society or our social group, but normally we don't recognize that as being part of our organism. Nevertheless, we are part of it. So maybe social organisms, groupings, corporations and so on, have to be seen in the same way as the body. In a company, for example, the chief executive is the "Big Switch." Ideally, what gets to the chief executive is a proposition to which he or she gives a "yes" or "no" answer. He shouldn't be involved in every detail about the nuts and bolts used to build the new bicycle shed. He will assume that that has been taken care of by a subsystem. What he should be concerned with is whether or not a bicycle shed should be built at all to which he will give a "yes" or "no" answer.

Back to the idea of free will. I think free will is not so much an ongoing, every-minute of the day question, it's more an option one exercises at certain critical moments, at cerain branch-offs in one's life, where one is faced with a binary choice. The answer will decide a whole range of future events. It will set one off on a path according to one's decision. So I regard free will as a rare moment and not as a continuous option.

The design of a system will determine nearly all of its behavior, so I strongly feel that this is where one should be constantly concentrating one's attention. It was quite a radical realization to me, to understand that African musicians felt the same way about rhythm. They work with formal rhythmic propositions within which they have this kind of textural freedom. So they take their freedoms in other ways than in departing from the rhythm. I think this is hard for Western people to understand and it is certainly hard for me to understand. We tend to think of improvisation in terms of having a pattern and then changing it whereas in African music they are concerned with having a pattern and staying very close to it, but changing the way it is played in the sense that what becomes important is the intensity of accents, the texture of the noise one can make by hitting a drum in a certain way, and so on.

I started to think that I felt rather close to those kinds of considerations, that I was very interested in using a given form and to discover the particular kinds of freedoms within that form.

I found similar preferences in Arabic and Indian music. I also found them in Japanese music, but in a different, very interesting way. Japanese music has to do with texture in the same way that almost all other aspects of Japanese culture put a strong emphasis on texture- - the food, the painting, the clothing style, even the way people talk. Take a Japanese Sushi chef, the way he will say "Thank you" in the course of an evening will change every time and will carry different connotations. There is clearly some super-semantic or meta-semantic message being offered. In fact, in most languages other than ours or other than the white Western version of our language, there exist these other types of messages. Take, for example, ghetto talk. There you get the sense of a whole other layer of meanings around a formal message. Here, as in the Japanese understanding of language, new formal meanings and variations are used within given textures, rather than in using gestures as we might do. I also started thinking that the music of the Middle East sounded very interesting. In fact, Arabic material had a very active and strong influence in the making of this new record. I thought that these people, with their sense for incredible subtleties in melody, really understand something about melodies. That informed what I was trying to do, a concern for subtle and extreme ornamentation and arabesque.

AG: Can we switch for a moment to something completely different? Could you talk a little bit about your concepts of the "Ambient" music series? You have already produced four albums of "Ambient" and two of "Discreet" music. These are environmental sound textures or long, soothing sound patterns. One was called Music For Airports which was actually played over airport PA systems here in New York at LaGuardia Airport, at the airports of Buffalo and Minneapolis. Could you explain your ideas behind those pieces?

BE: I can explain some of them. As with all of these things, my first decision to make them wasn't based on a justifiable concept. I dind't go into them thinking: Yes, here is a great idea which I can fully justify to everyone. I just noticed that I wanted that kind of music. I don't know if you have ever been in the position that I seem to find myself in quite a lot, where you are looking through your record collection and you can't find anything that seems to be appropriate to your mood. I have these periods sometimes for several months. This made me think about what it was that I wanted from music. One of the things was this paradoxical and peculiar mixture, that I find fascinating, of music that changes but doesn't change. Of course there is a close link to the ideas of African music we talked about before. No new elements are ever introduced once a piece has started. All that happens is that elements reshuffle and so you get this change/no change. In one sense everything is constant but in another sense there is a constant shifting into new configurations. I noticed that it was that kind of music I wanted to hear in certain periods and set out to make some.

Once I had made it, I began to think that it really should last for hours and hours. It wasn't something that necessarily had a beginning and an end, it was something that just plays and you can walk in and out of it and you know you are not really missing anything. Afterwards, I thought that this kind of music might be interesting in large public spaces like airports, and I began to consciously design some music so it could work in that kind of environmment. You know that videodiscs have an audio capacity of seventy hours per disc. That's the sort of length I would like to think of. So one has to make pieces that compose themselves automatically once one set up all the paramters of a composition. That is sort of similar to conceiving a child. After you have done the first bit, the rest develops automatically. You don't have to worry about that.

AG: You just mentioned videodiscs. You've begun working with video. Galleries across the country have displayed your video creations. Video in general is a booming new field. Technological advances are constantly opening up new possibilities which most probably will have a great impact on this society and its way of life. How do you see your involvement in this field? What are your interests and goals in this medium?

BE: The kind of productions I have been doing are very, very simple. I work on my own and everything I have taped was taped from my window, wherever my window happened to be at the time. I work with simple and cheap equipment. Then I edit the tape and they become shows. Again, I've done a few things for spaces where one is stuck in airports and waiting rooms which didn't require a religious atmosphere. In fact, these pieces were conceived as Video Music. The video images aren't intended to stand alone.

Now, the videodisc presents a very interesting problem. Nobody has ever yet been faced with the task of making a film you can watch as many times as you can listen to a record. So far, videodiscs have been either psychedelic, which doesn't sustain itself over a lot of watchings, or else they have been purely pictographic in the sense that all that happened was that the singer mimed to the song and there were some clever light effects and that sort of thing. It's obvious to me that nobody is going to watch a videodisc like that more than three or four times. It's no solution to this interesting possibility. So I've been experimenting with what kind of material one could watch many, many times. The interesting conclusion I came to is that the slower and the more static an image is, in fact, the more like a painting, the more one could watch it. So far people have thought that the way to make videodiscs interesting was to pack them full of action, but I think that doesn't work.

The other problem with the whole videodisc situation is that television screens are very antiquated and awkward things. If one could have a television screen that was six feet across, absolutely flat, and could be hung up on the wall, then there would be a whole different sense of what video was for. I would like to have televisions screens so big that you can ignore them, screens that become part of your environment. Then you don't have to watch it all the time. The small box, catching your attention and giving you only the choices of concentrating on it or not, is what creates all kinds of problems. If there were screens as big as the wall one could accept the idea of a tape in which nothing happens except for a change of colors through the spectrum over the period of several hours. I think that wouldn't be exciting on the television screen at all. So I think the whole field of video awaits this technological breakthrough.