The Financial Times OCTOBER 6, 2023 - by Brian Eno


Ahead of his first ever solo tour, the musician reflects on how a fascination with art and technology led him towards a new form

I am lucky. I was born in a world recovering from war and anxious for peace, in a rich country with supports for poorer people (like my family), an era where new possibilities were waiting to be explored and "social mobility" was seen as a value worth pursuing.

I benefited from all these things and so I find it hard to present myself as some kind of "self-made man". I was made by many, many people - family, friends, teachers, collaborators, the writers of all those books I read, and then, back into history, the scientists and artists and philosophers and political thinkers who helped make the world in which I have flourished.

So I write the following with some humility: you should read the word "I" as a name for a sort of collective of people that meets up in me. I try to keep that in mind all the time. We've been trained to think of ourselves as separate and independent, whereas our strengths as a species come from our ability to co-operate - in space and time. We pass information and ideas across the globe to each other and down through time in the same manner.

I was an artist (not a very good one, perhaps) from a very young age. I was thrilled by the simple possibility of bringing something into the world that didn't previously exist. That act of magic is at the centre of all art making. And, thanks to a very encouraging uncle and a very kind art teacher, it was towards art that I drifted. It wasn't music, though: I loved music and was an avid listener but I didn't play an instrument. So I went to art school. There I began to sense a possibility when my professor, the painter Tom Phillips, introduced me to the work of John Cage. I started to understand that making music didn't have to be dependent on playing an instrument.

From Cage I moved on to Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Cornelius Cardew and the whole experimental music scene. My attention was completely divided: on one hand I was a student at an art college, but much of my time was spent thinking about the various new forms of conceptual music that Cage and company represented. And what I was actually listening to was underground rock music: The Who, The Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds and many others.

I was engaged with all these things, yet completely at a loss as to how to reconcile them. Should I become a painter or a composer of music? If the latter, should it be experimental music or should it be rock? Each offered what seemed to me an entirely incompatible set of options. Experimental music was philosophically fascinating but had almost no audience and missed the visceral physical engagement I found in rock. Rock music was totally exciting, had a universal reach, but didn't have the conceptual breadth I found in the experimental world. And painting, which I loved, scored high on sensuality but low on reach.

Over the years, and even up to today, much of my time has been spent trying to make things that straddle these three areas. When I started recording in the early '70s I found a sonic world that was relatively unexplored, a world that grew out of the possibilities of electronics and recording. It started to become clear that there was a new form of music evolving; a music not necessarily based on performance, and free of the constraints of having to be played all at the same time. The music we started making was built up in the studio much like a painting would be built up, in layers.

At the same time technological developments extended the act of listening in new ways: you could listen to a record wherever you wanted, and you could choose how you listened to it - as foreground, background, loud, quiet, repeatedly, juxtaposed against other music and so on. The knowledge that a piece I was working on could be heard repeatedly made a huge difference to how that piece was composed: just one example is that the music could be far more intricate because you could count on the listener (you hoped) to investigate it for you.

And this possibility of immersion suggested new kinds of music, musics where the compositional emphasis was on texture (timbre) as much as or more than the familiar areas of melody, harmony and rhythm.

This area exploded into life with the sonic possibilities of electronics. Synthesisers and guitar pedals (as well as all the magic toys in recording studios) changed everything. Although the early usages were rather imitative, things quickly developed to the extent that the instrument formerly known as "electric guitar" was now so broad in its possible range of sounds that it could mean anything. In the past a word like "clarinet" denoted an oasis of timbre which changed very little over the decades, as did "violin" and "double bass".

Now it has become possible to radically stretch the timbral possibilities of most instruments, and to change the relationships between them. This is significant. Just as the microphone allowed singers like Sinatra to develop a new, quiet way of singing and yet still be audible over a full orchestra, amplification and equalisation (tone control) allowed composers to create entirely new "colour combinations" with instruments. The old power relationships between instruments broke down.

Everything I was discovering about music made me feel that this new form - "recorded" music - was really not much like traditional music at all. It was made differently - using procedures much closer to painting and sculpture - and it was heard differently, in different places and with a far higher level of listener choice. I started to think of myself as a kind of sound painter. In the meantime, from about 1967 onwards, I was playing with light and making machines and installations that were poised somewhere between painting (because they were visual) and music (because they changed in time). In the installations, which I've been doing now for over fifty years, I was able to develop a form of art that seems to me to cross all those boundaries that had once seemed so impermeable.

In its original form, in the early 1990s, Ships was an installation. I'd been invited to make something at Fylkingen in Stockholm, which was one of the first electronic music studios in the world. It had originally been a cinema and had very high ceilings. I wanted to use the height of the room, but I also wanted to rethink what "sound installation" meant. Most of the ones I'd seen used lots of identical loudspeakers - the supposition being that they should be "invisible" and "neutral". I thought it would be interesting to treat the speakers as instruments in themselves - to choose deliberately quite different ones for different elements of the music. I used some very small ones high up near the ceiling, some guitar amps on the ground, a very large speaker unmounted sitting on a plinth, some quite crackly broken ones. I matched the speakers to the individual sounds in the piece, and sometimes adapted elements of the music to suit the speakers. It felt like voices from other times and places.

As the piece evolved, in later installations it took on different forms depending on the shape and dimensions and ambience of the space it was in. It occupied a medieval room in a castle in Denmark; a 1930s luxury car showroom in Geneva; my studio in London; a huge modern gallery in Athens; an old church in Barcelona - and many others. In each instance the piece was modified sonically and structurally to work with the space. And in most of the venues I trawled the local second-hand hi-fi stores to find interesting old speakers.

One of the discoveries for me working in these large and complex spaces was that I was able to sculpt sound much more easily: it turns out that our ears are much more directional than we usually allow for. Working in 3D as opposed to stereo (which is how we have been listening to recorded music until recently) it's possible to have much more, and more subtle, information. You can hide things in corners for people to find. You can make the listener's movements a way of "mixing" the piece. Sitting in one corner of such a space gives a different impression from being in the opposite corner. This is another extension of listener engagement, another step away from traditional listening.

The painter Philip Guston once said: "I paint what I want to see". In my case, I compose the music I want to hear. I find myself discovering certain new feelings and trying to find out how I got to them, what in the music made them happen. I sometimes hear someone else's music and imagine how I would improve it, or what I would leave out to make it better. Sometimes I hear something I dislike so much that I start imagining its exact opposite. Sometimes I just want to know what a certain procedure would give rise to (what happens if I randomise the timing of a rhythmic loop?). Examples of several of these procedures can be found, for instance, in Music For Airports.

Another way I make music - when I don't have a specific project in mind - is just by examining new technical possibilities. I do this kind of work in the frame of mind that an athlete might assume when doing her daily workout... it's valuable just for that, and if anything useful comes out of it, that's a bonus. I recall something that Picasso said: "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working." I receive dozens of emails each week with details of new musical products and I like to explore the best of them closely, to see what can be made that I haven't heard before. I try them out by making a piece of music that specifically explores the new possibilities.

That sometimes pushes me into areas that are unfamiliar and I enjoy the feeling of being slightly lost, the invitation to embark on a sonic adventure. Most equipment is invented to do an existing job faster, or cheaper, more cleanly, or more easily. What I like to do is to discover what you can do with it that isn't historical - something that it wasn't designed for, something new (I'm sure the inventors of early microphones didn't anticipate that their tools would lead to totally new ways of singing, just as the inventors of multitrack recording probably didn't imagine Bohemian Rhapsody). Those exploratory pieces go into my archive, and there they sit, sometimes for years.

This archive (which currently holds about 10,000 pieces, some only seconds long, some hours long) forms a reserve that I draw from often. I sometimes start a new piece by pulling out a piece and working over it, or taking it apart and doing something to it: stretching, filtering, reversing, retuning. I use the archive a lot for making film music, music that is primarily atmospheric. Having heard what the film in question is about, I might begin working by finding a piece in my archive that seems to be in the right atmospheric world for the film. If there is no film at hand, I often imagine that the music I'm making is destined for one, even if that film doesn't yet exist. "Seeing" the music as film music offers a frame that takes me somewhere else.

The kind of listening you do when you're making a piece of music is entirely different from when you're listening to it. When you're being a maker you want to fill every silence, to add detail. When you're a listener you can enjoy the long silences and empty landscapes. When you're in maker mode you're often looking for ways of putting more in. I first discovered this distinction between listening and making early on in my musical life: my art college had a tape recorder and I used it (in what was actually the first piece of recording I ever did) to record a metal lampshade that I struck. The recorder (an old Ferrograph) offered three tape-speeds, so I could record at the highest speed and then play back the recording at half speed, or even quarter speed. Doing that of course halved or quartered the number of events and dropped the pitch by one or two octaves, and to me that sounded much more emotionally engaging.

The thrill of making music is not when you succeed in meeting the brief, but when something happens that you hadn't expected - some moment of synergy when you put together two or three familiar things and something emerges that is much bigger, more complex and surprising. The feeling at that moment - "now I'm somewhere new" - is the sense of freshness you get in creative art. For me alertness, being attentive, is the key state for creative behaviour. And the key to a long life. Or one that feels long...

Ships is at La Fenice, Venice, on October 21,, and at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on October 30,