Le Figaro NOVEMBER 17, 2011 - by Adele Smith


As part of the Rolex Mentor & Protege Arts Initiative, the Pope of Pop is backing a young composer.

Under the leadership of the Rolex brand, Roxy Music co-founder Brian Eno agreed to mentor young Australian composer Ben Frost for several months. The British musician describes the experience.

Why did you agree to participate in the Rolex mentoring program?

BRIAN ENO: I don't know exactly but I knew that Rolex had a innovative philanthropic program and that in this context, they gave the prize to unknowns. I admire that. It's a bold approach.

Tell us about your relationship with your protégé Ben Frost over the course of the year. Who learned from who?

This reminds me of Zhou Enlai's answer when he was asked what he thought of the French Revolution: "It is too early to tell." I feel like a gardener - you never know how the seeds will grow. Personally, I learned from how Ben Frost worked with an orchestra. Before meeting him, I had worked with bands. Then I saw how he focused on the sensitivity of the musicians rather than the notes they produced. For me it was an unexpected lesson.

The classical notion of teacher-student is passé in art today?

I have twenty-nine years of professional experience in excess of Ben. Of course, I have things to teach him but we never acted according to the stereotype of the student-teacher relationship. Ours was always a frank conversation between equals. I never felt I had to show him how the world works.

Who was your mentor?

The first was my Uncle Carl, a watercolourist and gardener. He was wounded in India and came back completely mystical. He'd say things like, "Did you know that if we could compress the Queen Elizabeth, it would not exceed the size of a sugar cube?" When I was ten, he showed me a Mondrian painting in a tiny art book. I was so fascinated that I decided to become a visual artist. Not a musician, I didn't play any instrument. It was much later that I realised that I didn't need to know how to play in order to have a career in music.

And your musical mentor?

I've had several: Tom Phillips, my art teacher at school, and the English composer Cornelius Cardew. Through the first I met the second and he also introduced me to people like Norman Feldman, John Cage and Christian Wolfe. It was amazing to be eighteen, having tea with someone like Norman Feldman and going to concerts of Stockhausen or Boulez with the same thirty people. Nobody knew them yet, just before the 1970s. It was our own little secret.

You've worked with artists like David Bowie, U2, Coldplay... Do you consider yourself a mentor of contemporary pop music?

That's just flattery. I work with people who need certain types of ideas, who - more than a producer - need a new battery. My approach is to make them think of what they really want: a sports car, girls, or something more? There can be a real osmosis. It's like a beautiful song to which the public is receptive, wrapped in an intellectual package - they don't notice and aren't frightened by it. The goal is that it doesn't say, "My God! It's too difficult for me."