INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian APRIL 28, 2010 - by Stuart Jefferies
SURRENDER. IT'S BRIAN ENO
Britain's great cultural chameleon Brian Eno wants us all to slow down, relax, and be swept away by art. And the revolution starts in Brighton this weekend.
"I know this is all going to sound terrible," says Brian Eno over tea at his Notting Hill studio. "This article is going to come out and people are going to say, 'Another fucking hippie. Why don't they die, these people?'" Eno takes a rueful sip of his Flor de Jamaica hibiscus tea - a choice of beverage that might seem to confirm his point.
The artist christened Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno in Suffolk sixty-one years ago is, fingers crossed, wrong. In an age in which we venerate the idea of the lonely artist toiling in a garret before coming down to present the Great Work, Eno wants to suggest alternative visions of how art is made, how it works, and why we need it. Admittedly, if he was an ordinary mortal, you wouldn't give two hoots, but Eno is one of the most consistently diverting creative presences in Britain: godfather of ambient music, visual artist, Prospect magazine columnist, one-time bemulletted techno-whizz at Roxy Music's keyboards, and the record producer who made U2, Talking Heads, David Bowie and even Coldplay sound so compelling.
Eno moves his mug and draws me a diagram. This, it transpires, isn't so much an interview as a gentle lecture by a widely read, reflective gent. Over the course of a couple of hours, he will threaten me with violence, teach me about shipbuilding, chat about surfing, and explain why religion is similar to sex and drugs. I've been in worse situations.
On one side of Eno's scale diagram, he writes "control"; on the other "surrender". "We've tended to dignify the controlling end of the spectrum," he says. "We have Nobel prizes for that end." His idea is that control is what we generally believe the greats - Shakespeare, Picasso, Einstein, Wagner - were about. Such people, the argument goes, controlled their chosen fields, working in isolation, never needing any creative input from others. As for surrender, that idea has become debased: it's come to mean what the rest of us do when confronted by a work of genius. "We've tended to think of the surrender end as a luxury, a nice thing you add to your life when you've done the serious work of getting a job, getting your pension sorted out. I'm saying that's all wrong."
He pauses, then asks: "I don't know if you've ever read much about the history of shipbuilding?" Not a word. "Old wooden ships had to be constantly caulked up because they leaked. When technology improved, and they could make stiffer ships because of a different way of holding boards together, they broke up. So they went back to making ships that didn't fit together properly, ships that had flexion. The best vessels surrendered: they allowed themselves to be moved by the circumstances.
"Control and surrender have to be kept in balance. That's what surfers do - take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control. In the last few thousand years, we've become incredibly adept technically. We've treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part." Eno considers all his recent art to be a rebuttal to this attitude. "I want to rethink surrender as an active verb," he says. "It's not just you being escapist; it's an active choice. I'm not saying we've got to stop being such controlling beings. I'm not saying we've got to be back-to-the-earth hippies. I'm saying something more complex."
But, I suggest, you weren't always thus. In Roxy Music four decades ago, you and Bryan Ferry were the ultimate control queens. Roxy wasn't a glam rock band, but a pop assemblage by former art-school students: cherry-picking from rock'n'roll, heavy metal and any other style that took their fancy. "Jesus Christ," snaps Eno. "The second question is about Roxy Music. I knew it. Where's that knife? I'm sick of journalists asking me if I'm going to reform Roxy Music. Didn't I warn you I'd shoot you if you asked about Roxy Music?" He is, I think, joking.
But I wasn't asking if you're going to reform (that would be a terrible idea). Rather, I was asking if you've become less of a controlling artist. "Yes, I know. And I guess you're right. Rock music was only fifteen years old when Roxy began - for the first time, it had started to reflect on its history. There was the sense of a palette you could play with. We thought, 'Here's a form - we can take it apart and put it back together again.'"
That isn't how he works today, though. "I set up situations that involve abandoning control and finding out what happens." And now, in his most improbable guise yet, as artistic director of the 2010 Brighton festival, Eno wants to programme works that demonstrate why surrender is key to the sort of music and art that excite him. "I came to this idea because I noticed that when I set up these situations, they made audiences engage in unusual behaviour."
THROWING TENNIS BALLS AT PIANOS
One work to be shown at the festival, which starts on Saturday, is 77 Million Paintings, Eno's 2006 audiovisual installation. It's what he calls generative art. He drew coloured abstract images, cut them up and projected them on to luminous screens using randomising software. The images appear, morph and dissolve into one another, replaced by new configurations. Layers of ambient sound, similarly morphing, interweave with the images. Some of you may indeed be thinking, "Why don't they die, these hippies?", but still.
Eno has often worked in this experimental way. At art school in Ipswich in the late 1960s, his teacher, the painter Tom Phillips, encouraged him to explore his unusual musical interests. So he and Phillips lined up pianos in a hall and threw tennis balls at them. When I call Eno a couple of weeks after we speak, he tells me about another installation he's planning for Brighton. He calls it "three-dimensional instantiations" of verses by the poet Rick Holland. "I'm not quite sure what that means yet," he whispers, "but it will be generative art over which I have no control." In this context, Eno's two years with Roxy Music in the early 1970s are the most conventional and uninteresting period of his creative life.
What Eno likes about 77 Million Paintings is that he has no idea what will appear on screen, nor what aesthetic effects will be produced. "That's pretty interesting. But what interests me more is the way people experience them. My shows are not narratives. Nothing much happens yet people come and stay for hours in a contemplative state. I thought, 'What else is like this?' Somebody sitting down in the countryside on a sunny day looking at the river; somebody sitting at the back of a church in the city for a completely non-religious purpose. There's some of that - wanting to calm down and be still."
Eno's contention is that there are four areas - religion, art, sex, drugs - in which this kind of surrender is prized. "These are areas where you stop being manipulators of your surroundings and become recipients. In religion, you stop being you and you start to become us. With drugs, you go from being you to being part of everything. In lots of South American cultures, religion and drugs are very close. In Hinduism, sex and religion are very close." His eyes twinkle. "For us lucky few, all four are mixed up."
Isn't this a lot like religious ecstasy? "Religious ecstasy has overtones of Catherine of Siena drinking the pus of lepers. Ecstasy for me can be the feeling of being happy to be not in control: trusting that if you let go of the precipice, you're going to be all right." This is the message he finds in gospel music, in ecstatic songs he adores such as Dorothy Love Coates's Lord, Don't Forget About Me. "The big message of gospel is that you don't have to keep fighting the universe; you can stop and the universe is quite good to you. There is a loss of ego." But surely Coates's plea is egotistical: she's asking God to remember her in her suffering, not anyone else. "Yes, but it's about trusting that things will be better and that you don't control your fate. Gospel is always about that."
Such passions are hardly what one would expect of this veteran keyboard noodler and twiddler of mixing desk knobs. But every Tuesday evening at his London studio, Eno hosts an a cappella group; Paul McCartney has attended. "The simplicity of a group of people standing together and singing appealed to me," he says. "When it's going really well, we don't know what we're singing or who's singing what."
For Brighton, Eno has programmed This Is A Cappella!, in which two New York groups of singers, Naturally 7 and The Persuasions, plus Seattle-based singer Reggie Watts, will try to prove the point that Eno makes in his programme notes. "I believe," he writes, "that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, new friends."
The point is that a cappella harnesses the creative intelligence of a whole group. By contrast, says Eno, high art is about separating geniuses from foot soldiers. "A cappella subverts that: it's highly composed music but there's no composer. You can't say who wrote it. You can't say how it came about. And that's how music has been for me. I hardly ever go into the studio with a work complete in my head. It emerges from communal activity."
Most people, he adds, forget the importance of the drummer Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffett when they assess Michael Jackson's genius. "I'm convinced Sugarfoot's kick-drum technique is as important to Michael Jackson's music as anything else, even Quincy Jones [Jackson's celebrated producer]. It's invidious to separate each contribution. It's not individuals who create things, it's scenes - a community of people."
Eno has a word for this: scenius. What does it mean? "Genius is individual, scenius is communal." He hopes This Is Pure Scenius!, a Brighton event he will take part in, will illustrate this point. Pure Scenius will be a six-hour improvised show featuring several musicians, including Karl Hyde from Underworld, guitarist Leo Abrahams, synth-player Jon Hopkins, plus an Australian three-piece avant-garde jazz band called The Necks. Pure Scenius first took place in Sydney last year, prompting the Morning Herald to say: "The theatre of the music-making process was as enthralling as the music itself." Above the musicians sits an overhead projector, on which Eno writes notes. "I'll write things like, 'On a count of four stop playing,' and suggestive ideas for new kinds of music like 'warm blood' or 'Ikebana noise club'."
Why would anybody in their right mind want to watch a six-hour improvisation? "People did sit through the whole six hours. I think audiences are quite comfortable watching something coming into being. The process of it forming before it gels is as interesting as the gelling."
Isn't it an ordeal for the musicians? I ring Karl Hyde, who sang on Underworld's Born Slippy and whom Eno considers a brilliant lyricist. "It appeals to me in that it's not easy," he says. "I go on stage with a book of poems, a shortwave radio and a mic with delay lines and hope it's going to work out. You're on your toes for six hours." Hyde says there will be tea-making facilities on stage. "So even if you're not playing, you're still part of it, lending your support." Surely you do some prep? "Weeks before, we jam together to develop a kind of musical palette. We build up eighteen hours of music. Then we try to use that to create something."
Do Eno's instructions help? What, for instance, does Hyde take "Ikebana noise club" to mean? "I understood Brian to mean a club where people listen to black noise. I could be wrong. Brian reminds me of the way Miles Davis used to work: he'd get musicians to put their heads together and then say, 'You now must connect.' Brian's like that, though he hates being the leader of the band."
I put this to Eno. "I recognise the similarity," he says. "There was often a generative element in Miles. You put a certain set of circumstances together and you don't know in advance what the results will be. It's very touching for reasons that are hard to define."
Eno's approach is very different from that of Anish Kapoor, his predecessor as the festival's artistic director. "Anish's concept was to seed Brighton with his big works, which was very impressive. I just want to spend a month there and see things happening. I have quite a demanding life, so Brighton's sort of a holiday." Yeah, right. Eno will also take part in an on-stage conversation called Reasons For Optimism, organise This Is Afrobeat! and oversee a live performance of his album Apollo, the music he composed for the 1989 lunar documentary For All Mankind. Hardly a holiday.
What's more, he will give an illustrated lecture on the purpose of art. During it, he promises to talk about surrender, complexity theory, generative art - and probably a bit of surfing, sex and drugs, too. Typical hippie. Surely their time is over?
BRIGHTON ROCKS: FESTIVAL PICKS
Marine Parade - Dramatist Simon Stephens and Mark Eitzel, of the San Francisco band American Music Club, collaborate in a story of sex, betrayal and renewed hope, set in a seafront B&B. Old Market, May 18-23.
Lali Puna and Jon Hopkins - Two cult electronic artists join forces: lest anyone protest that live electronica is hardly a visual feast, Hopkins performs with "video jockey" Myogenic. Pavilion Theatre, May 20.
Before I Sleep - How long does it take to deliver a cup of coffee? A century, in dreamthinkspeak's promenade-style reimagining of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Old Co-Op Building, May 1-23.
Ian King and Alasdair Roberts - The much-hyped King, fresh from collaborating with dub producer Adrian Sherwood, with the fantastic Roberts and his traditional balladry. Komedia, May 7.
Best Before - Rimini Protokoll, the German reality theatre pioneers, work with real people not actors. Here they aim to get the audience engaged in a multiplatform video game. Sallis Benney Theatre, May 19-23.
The Girl I Left Behind Me - From Strauss and Mozart to the Victorian music hall, director Neil Bartlett and mezzo-soprano Jessica Walker (below) explore the sexiness of a girl in trousers. Theatre Royal, May 22.
Rokia Traoré and Sweet Billy Pilgrim - An intriguing double bill that teams Malian singer-songwriter Traoré with the Mercury prize-nominated band. Dome, May 6.