Fortnight DECEMBER 1998/JANUARY 1999 - by Mairtín Crawford


For a man who has done so much and influenced so many, it's a surprise to hear Brian Eno declare that he doesn't actually have that many ideas.

"I think people only have a few really good ideas in their lifetime. All the ideas that seem like new ideas are actually old ones reappearing in new guises. It's more a matter of applying those ideas to different circumstances and scenarios."

And apply them he has. From early days as a futuristic glam rocker with Roxy Music, the invention of ambient music to collaborative work with many of the world's leading rock bands and artists, including David Bowie and U2, Eno has carved an extremely distinctive niche for himself.

In his diary (A Year with Swollen Appendices, Faber, £11.99) he begins: "I have a wonderful life. I do pretty much what I want, and the only real problem I ever have is wondering what that is". Life for Brian Eno is a hectic schedule. He produces and makes music; teaches visual art in London; runs a business (Opal) with his wife Anthea; creates sound and video installations; is active with the charity War Child and he plays around a lot on Photoshop.

"It's a way of doing a lot with very little. When I was a child I always played games that in essence were very simple but could do so much. I was always making bombs and fireworks. Then later I got interested in mathematics and the simplicity of things. That's why I've always been a minimalist in the sense that I was always impressed by music in which there seemed to be very little going on but which produced a big emotional effect."

A central concern for Eno's music is the relationship between sound and space. His sound/video installations have been shown at galleries around the world and he is working on an idea for a piece possibly to be installed in the Millennium Dome. When describing music he often refers to it's physicality. "The biggest preoccupation with pop music, as distinct from other forms of music before, has been with this idea of painting space, creating aural sculpture. It's something that can be quite easily done in a recording studio and I suppose that's why I'm interested in producing, changing the timbre, the relationship between the sound and space. It's an unrecognised innovation - the art of the producer."

Ambient music (Eno's own term) is music created for space. Music For Airports, a defining moment in contemporary music, was designed specifically for airports, though it's rarely played through the tannoy. "Nearly always the music played is inappropriate for the space. Given that people want to surround themselves with music, why don't composers say 'Hey this is a niche that can be filled'. I mean, why not take advantage of the spaces? The music doesn't have to grab your attention. It doesn't mind if you're not paying attention."

At the Elmwood Hall later that cool November evening among the en thralled audience there to listen to Eno's fascinating two-hour-plus talk (pornography, Photoshop, U2, David Bowie, art, literature, religion, philosophy...) is Belfast DJ/producer David Holmes who hangs on every word. Now that would be an interesting collaboration.