Keyboard MARCH 1995 - by Robert L. Doerschuk


Style - the agglomerate effect of notes, stacked and strung in a line amidst points of stress and rest - is what the great players teach. From Jelly Roll Morton through Keith Emerson, we learned to define style: This run, that lick, these voicings, add up to one musical personality. Our perceptions of Tatum, Evans, and Wakeman are based on how they assemble their notes. This requires taking the long view, and by example teaches us that we should assess our own work from a similar perspective.

It's like going to an art museum, where ropes define the appropriate distance between a painting and the viewer. The space between, patrolled by security, is a no-man's land, in which the broad view is harder to discern. Seen up close, a Seurat scene disintegrates into a blizzard of dots, while a Turner seascape explodes into furious collisions of color. Better, perhaps, to stand back and take in the finished details.

Brian Eno doesn't seem to have bought that argument. Maybe that's why, as an art student, he insisted on exhibiting his paintings at one show beneath the waters of a bubbling stream. With style deliberately obscured, viewers had to reorient themselves: the paintings themselves became details within a broader landscape.

In music, too, Eno forces his public to think differently. Whether building sound collages or suspending isolated notes in a vacuum, he breaks music down to molecules of sound; freed from duty as an element in a particular run or chord, each musical microbe takes on a life of its own.

Put it this way - most music is like a shower: bracing, busy, dynamic, full of turns and adjustments. Eno offers, instead, a bath: timeless, still. Where the shower stimulates through sting and spray, the bath treats sensation as a singular thing - in effect, a single drop of water, magnified and motionless. In one sense, his classic Music For Airports adheres to conservative principles: themes are easy to recognise. Dissonances resolve. There's even a rhythmic structure. But it's all slowed down to the point that one can only appreciate these details through a kind of contemplative immersion.

By changing how people listen, Eno challenged all musicians to reconsider the way they play. Modern sampling practices, for example, owe much to his 1980 collaboration with David Byrne, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, in which Lebanese folk songs, talk radio babble, and gut-busting sermons jostle over hypnotic dance beats; original contexts are erased, leaving only traces of emotion as colours on Eno's palette. Further back, in 1977, his collaborations with Cluster (Cluster & Eno) and David Bowie (Low) predated ambient house and techno-pop, respectively, by several lifetimes, as measured on the Billboard charts.

Yet Eno's greatest contribution is to have exposed the beauty of single notes and the power of silence. The stillness induced by Discreet Music anticipated the effects of new age but, more significantly, suggested that the basic substance of music, sound itself, carries as much expressive potential as the flashiest solo or the funkiest turnaround.

Born Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno in 1948, he emerged from religious studies and art school with rudimentary musical skills and a mind locked into a peculiar mode of contemplation and curiosity. His travels led him through a stint as a co-founding member of Roxy Music into a disenchantment with rock by the mid-'70s. At that time, he and artist Peter Schmidt published Oblique Strategies, a set of oracle cards, each bearing an obscure admonition for those who read it to consider or ignore. In dozens of subsequent projects, including video sculptures and paintings, airport installations, and gallery shows, Eno gently prodded the pop main-stream toward a post-modern aesthetic.

There's plenty on Eno's plate in '95, including two albums with David Bowie, one more with U2, and a lecture series as visiting professor of communication design at the Royal College of Art. But it was (appropriately) a misty, drizzly, and reflective afternoon when we contacted him and asked for his views on the state of the keyboard art.

Twenty years ago, Keyboard was writing about pianos, organs, electric pianos, and a handful of primitive synths. How do you assess the explosion in music technology that we've seen since then?

As with all technological changes, the ones we've seen in music technology obey the most obvious momentum. I always criticise synthesizer manufacturers for making the most obvious technological choices, which are simply to multiply the number of options they put in the machine. If you're printing chips, the easiest thing is to make a few more options. The hardest thing is to try and solve the problem of making these machines interface better, or relate to human beings in new and interesting ways. How do we make them, for instance, anything like as responsive as some of the acoustic instruments, which, after all, are highly evolved? I would like to see two things. One is a type of synthesizer that doesn't offer huge numbers of options in terms of stored or possible available sounds but does offer tremendous response to you as a player, so that you can actually start to feel what it's like to play this instrument.

The acoustic instruments were based on the model of being as responsive as possible to human control. In electronic music, real-time control has become only one of several priorities.

And that's a shame, because that gives rise to a certain kind of music. It's very hard to imagine Jimi Hendrix playing his type of music on a synthesizer. It's easy to copy him on a synthesizer, but it's hard to imagine coming up with playing like his on such a non-physical instrument as most synthesizers are. synthesizers have fulfilled their promise in the sense that they've made it possible for the player to have anything on the menu. But they're completely under-evolved in the other direction. They're not much more sophisticated in terms of the rapport you have with them than they were 20 years ago. Young people often talk about the options on each synthesizer, and I always say, Look, options are not important. Rapport is important. If you're the kind of person who doesn't want to sit and read manuals. I mean, if options were the only important thing, then quite a lot of instruments would have been out the window a long time ago. The flute doesn't offer you a lot of options. The drums offer you very few. From the synthesizer perspective, the idea of a bloke spending his life bashing bits of wood is absurd.

How would you propose to deal with the synthesizer's limited playability?

I've been developing an idea for a programming style that I call evolutionary. Let's say the synthesizer offers you 32 sounds when you switch it on. You listen to those quickly and say, Right, number 14 is quite close to what I want, and number 18 is sort of close as well. You press those two, and the synthesizer gives you 32 mutations of those parent sounds. Then you go, New number 15 is pretty good. Let's hear some mutations of that. As you close in on something you like, you can reduce the rate of mutation. What's interesting about this is that you don't need to have any idea at all what the synthesizer is doing, although it can be as internally complex as you can imagine.

Even in the analog era, when synthesizers offered greater control over nuance than many current models, many erstwhile pianists were intimidated by the simplest programming gestures. Your scheme takes the idea of user control over sound and separates it from the need for technological understanding.

That's the idea. The only thing the player needs to exercise is judgment. They don't need to be able to exercise skill. If you worked like that for a while, you'd end up with a library of sounds that you had discovered by that process. After a couple of weeks, you would have a synthesizer that's entirely unique to you, with your special sounds.

Of course, in the end, someone would just store your best sounds on disk and sell them as third-party samples.

Well, you're quite right. But it would also be easy to plug in your third-party samples and say, I wonder what variations of that one would be? If you only hit a button to get those variations, those third-party samples would be just like my [Yamaha] DX7 sounds. I never really use the same sound twice, but I'll tweak the ones I've stored a bit.

It also makes the production of sound more organic in that it would be more mysterious. The player surrenders the traditional assumption in electronic music of having or striving toward complete control in programming sounds.

Of course, the very interesting instruments are not that controllable. I remember as a child just sitting at the piano and hitting the same note over and over again. It sounded sufficiently different each time for it to be interesting. If designers were allowed to deal with programs of sufficient complexity, it would be easy to encase that sort of thing in synthesizers.

You mentioned that modern synthesizer design has two drawbacks. What is the second one?

The second one is that they've remained linked to keyboards. I feel that particularly because my first synthesizer had such a crappy keyboard that I never bothered to use it, except for effects.

Which instrument was that?

The EMS. I wasn't a keyboard player anyway, but that gave me an edge because, certainly in England, I was the first synthesizer player to use the thing as something other than a keyboard instrument. Until then, people used it as a kind of organ with a few funny sounds on it. I couldn't use it that way, even had I been technically able to, so I started doing something else with it.

Do you think that stronger chops might have actually been a barrier to your musical development?

Certainly. I used to build up harmonies not by playing chords, because I didn't know any, but by playing each line at a time. So if I wanted what would be a harmonised chord sequence for anybody else, I would play one line, then I would play another line that went over it, and then I'd play another one. I'd find my way through, almost note by note. If you go through step by step, just following your nose, you will make quite different decisions because you wouldn't be subject to purely muscular habits that say, My fingers should be this far apart if I want to follow this chord with that chord.

If you were a teacher, with a very well-trained pianist as your student, how would you help him or her get past that barrier of habit?

Studios offer a big way past that. If you start thinking of music as something you don't have to do in real time but something that can be built up, like a painting, that gives you a different way of working. You can think about it on, shall we say, the atomic level. The other level you can think at, through working with the kinds of processing equipment that studios have, is as a way of making atmospheres, landscapes, whatever you like. Nearly all the processing equipment you find in a studio gives you a way of changing the sense of space that the music is happening in. Now, this option doesn't really exist in classical music. We're familiar with the idea of using space as an element of composition, but most classically trained musicians have no conception of that.

For example, I have a young friend who plays violin and viola, a very good player. She started coming around to my studio because she was fascinated by what I was doing. I took it upon myself to try to help her escape her training [laughs]; that's what it amounted to. I evolved quite a few exercises for her. Some of them were purely to do with listening in a different way. For instance, I discovered that like most classical players, she couldn't play pushed time at all.

Pushed time?

You know, the kind of time that's built into any funk or soul record, where you're feeling 3/4 as well as 4/4. All music that comes from Africa has that feeling, which is why I often define classical music as music without Africa. So I gave her a Neville Brothers record and I said, Why don't you try to learn the bass part on this record and play it on your viola? She did, and it was the biggest thrill to her. I opened her life musically.

So many vital musical trends, from techno-pop to ambient, were on your agenda years before other artists picked up on them. What put you ahead of the parade?

Well, because of coming into music from a visual arts background, it wasn't possible for me to make music like other people did. So I would sit and fiddle with things, and listen to what happened. That's probably the first distinction: I actually listened to things, not to what I thought they were supposed to do but to what they actually were doing. Most people picked up synthesizers expecting them to do something they'd heard before. When they did do something they heard before, they were happy with that. But I thought the synthesizer was a fascinating instrument that could do entirely new things. When it did, I was pleased and would pursue them. Similarly, when I first started recording, the idea was that the studio was a kind of transmitter of pre-written songs. You'd go in there and get them on tape, with a bit of confectionery from the producer. But as soon as I sat in the studio and started listening, I thought, My God, this is music like I've never heard before!

I'm having the same experience now. I work a lot with this graphics program called [Adobe] Photoshop. If you read any of the graphic art publications, they all say, Look what I did with Photoshop, and they'll show you a picture of a daffodil with a little drop of water on it. Completely computer-generated! Wow, wow, wow! And I'm thinking, What the fuck is the point? Honestly, within 20 minutes of working with Photoshop, I was doing things I'd never seen before and thinking, These are fantastic! Why isn't everybody else doing this? But people are still busy making daffodils.

There's a parallel with electronic music technology and how it's used. Do you see a growing gap between the sophistication of instrument design and the level at which that technology is used?

The rate of change is getting faster as well; new generations of things keep coming out. I think people are finally saying, I can't be bothered to learn this. It's going to be redundant soon anyway.

The people who make a difference are the ones who get bored. Now, I get bored extremely quickly. I get nauseated if I'm doing the same thing over and over again. It actually makes me feel physically sick; I'm not being metaphorical. I then stop whatever I'm doing and go on to something else, or I think, I've got to find some way of upsetting the pattern. Of course, there are lots of people whose greatest pleasure is to do the same thing over and over. Perhaps they do have a real use in the world.

But rather than advise musicians to overcome certain limitations through that kind of repeated practice, you would suggest that they use their limitations to do something else with the ideas they've got.

Well, finessing is worth doing too. You might think of it as a two-stage process: some people invent new words, but other people learn how to speak well with them. The people who exercise the vocabulary are doing something very important. I'm just not one of those. My fun is in thinking up other words to fit the vocabulary. It's like being a collage artist: you take this postcard, which somebody else made, and you stick it next to that photograph, which somebody else made. Then you put a bit of paint over the two of them and join them together. This is very in tune with what has been going on in painting for the past 15 years or so, with people sticking together not just the abstract qualities of sounds but the references that carry with them. All the engineers working with rap bands are having a terrible time because the artists insist on leaving all the scratches on the records they sample. What they're saying is, Hey, this is taken from somewhere else, from another time and place. So part of the message of the music becomes the fact. It's collage, binding together history as well as sound.

It also creates an impression you described in one interview as cultural ambiguity. What in our world makes this post-modern approach more interesting than the traditional exercise of digging deeply into one's own native culture?

I wouldn't say that it is necessarily more interesting. Equally interesting is the fact that some people, like Ry Cooder or perhaps Neil Young, keep digging in the same little trench, as it were, and coming up with neat stuff. What's changed is that the overall dynamic of where you search and what you look for has widened. It is possible now for there to be music stars who, in terms of the range of their work, are something like Samuel Beckett: they stay in the same place their whole lives and get better and better at what they're doing. Or it's possible to be an eclectic gadfly. Neither of these choices was possible 20 years ago. You were expected to have a boringly predictable rate of change in your career, to vaguely embrace new ideas as they came out but not to lose your identity, as they say in marketing. So the possibilities of range have changed: you can be very focused, you can be in the middle, or you can be vague.

You once suggested that ambient music is about getting rid of nervousness. Did you begin doing ambient music in part because the world needed this music?

Yes. In the '70s, a few friends and I used to compile tapes for each other. We did this because we were dissatisfied with the way records were laid out: fast song, slow song, dance song, ballad, this pathetic concept of variety, which was based on the idea that your attention span for any particular mood could only be counted on for three and a half minutes, and after that something else had to be thrown at you to keep you listening. My friend Peter Schmidt and I used to put together long, long tapes that were extremely similar in mood. We would do a two-hour tape that changed mood only in the most subtle way. I remember he did one for me that was the slow movements of all the Hayden string quartets. He arranged it so that the key changes were very nice, from one slow movement to the next. So we were putting on music to create an atmosphere, a mood, in a place. We wanted that mood; we didn't want a different mood every three or four minutes. It's like arranging lighting so that there are dark parts of a room and light parts, so there's a consistency. You don't want the lights to flash bright every ten minutes and then suddenly go completely black.

Did your ambient experiments also function as a kind of personal therapy?

Really, it did. I described it on the back of Discreet Music, and I still remember it so clearly. I had had an accident, and I was confined to bed. A friend of mine came to visit me, and as she left I said, Can you put a record on for me? She put it on, but it was much too quiet - plus, one side of my hi-fi had broken down. At first I was listening and thinking, Oh, shit, I can't hear the music. But then I realised I wasn't just listening to the music: I was listening to the rain, and to these occasional pieces of sound drifting above the level of the rain. I thought, Now, this is interesting, the idea that music shouldn't exclude but should include, that the music you make can be a background against which other sounds can perform. This also related a lot to going out to restaurants or over to someone's house for dinner. They'd put a record on, and I'd think, Why do they do this? You can't talk while this is on. You see, most music constantly vies for your attention.

Melodies sweep you along through verses to a chorus, and on through other episodes to the conclusion. Your ambient music is more static, yet it moves as nature seems to move, without apparent direction.

That's right. Most music has a very strong sense of narrative. It's teleological, as art historians say. Therefore, it has a strong sense of time being cut up into sections. That's exactly what you don't want if you're trying to dream. You don't want to be constantly brought back to a world that's cut up into little chunks. Most pop music does that. It's very exciting if you're dancing; it's not so nice when you're having a massage.

Oddly enough, much of the up-tempo music that comes out of the rave culture functions similarly to your ambient works. There's more emphatic rhythm, but it flows by. You lose track of where the eight-bar phrases fall. You might think of it as frenzied ambience.

That's quite true. I used to say that the closest thing to ambient music was heavy metal. If you've ever been to a heavy metal concert, everything becomes irrelevant except this blast of sound. It's an amazing experience to see a good heavy metal band. You're experiencing pure, physical sound. This is what's happening in clubs. The beat has gone down a bit in the past few months, but they reached a peak here last year when it was up to 150 or 160 bpm, sometimes even faster. When a beat is that fast, it almost stops being a rhythm and just washes over you, like pure sound. So you're right, it's an ambient experience for people with a lot of energy.

Over the years, as your options for sound sources have expanded, do you find that your vision of what's appropriate for your music has expanded, or has it gone deeper within an unyieldingly narrow range?

By nature, I'm an option limiter. I notice this in nearly everything I do. I prefer to start off by saying, All right, let's not use any of these things. Let's see what we can do with these two that are left. Even when I'm producing, I do that with bands. In fact, my main value to people is to cut out a lot of possibilities and say, Now let's focus on what's left. I've always done that with sound. My taste for sounds does exist within a certain band. I'm not interested in completely familiar sounds, but I'm not interested in completely weird ones either. When I started playing synthesizers, those were the two areas where people mostly worked. It was either something that sounded like an organ or something that sounded like a spaceship. What interested me were things that you sort of recognised, things that could seduce you, but which had sort of a detachment from anything you'd heard before. I still do that.

Of course, where that range falls within the possible universe of sounds has shifted as time has gone on. Some things that were unfamiliar have become familiar, so I've moved away from those a little bit. And things that I thought at the time were very familiar, and therefore not interesting, have so fallen out of use that they've started to sound interesting again, like acoustic piano. That, to me, sounds much more interesting than it did 20 years ago, because it's become rather exotic as a listening experience.

Still, the kinds of sounds you were making with, say, Cluster in the early '70s are very similar in character and function to the sounds you used on Neroli, even with changes in equipment.

Well a lot of that comes from the question of why you're doing music. I went into music with perhaps a wrongly inflated view of what I should be doing. Coming out of art school, I said, I'm supposed to be an artist. That's what I do. I'm not just going to piss around. I want to think things out, come up with new ideas, and find exciting ways of doing things. I don't just want to do what's expected of me. One of the strengths of English music has been that strange art school background that keeps pushing people into music who have this idea that their job is to somehow break new territory, and that they're failing if they don't.

What changes do you see enhancing the experience of listening to music in the future?

Well, first of all, audiences are probably sick to death with music. I know I am. I don't listen to music very much. I'm sitting here, at a desk, and next to me I have three or four hundred CDs on a shelf. I only bought about six of those; all the rest have been given to me. It's just so much stuff! How do you navigate through all this? What is it that catches your attention? This is why I think there's going to be a role for curators.

What sort of curators?

I can imagine somebody putting together collections of music that he likes and selling them. You say, Oh, that's a nice collection. I'll buy his next one as well. This person creams off a little percentage on top, having put these things together. Sooner or later we're going to be delivering music down phone lines, and there are going to be people, something like DJs are now, who package it for you. These curators are essentially two things: they're filters who save you from having to listen to everything, but they're also connectors in that they make taste connections that you might not have made yourself. Eventually computers will be able to start doing this too. If you say to a computer, I like Teardrop Explodes, Velvet Underground, Abba, Silver Apples, and Sinead O'Connor, I can imagine a well-programmed database saying, In that case, have you heard Elastic Pure Joy? You might like them. It would scan the groups of things that people like and spot certain regularities of connection, like the fact that people who mention Tony Bennett generally didn't mention The Velvet Underground.

You could also do percentages, suggesting that you like Tony Bennett about two-thirds as much as you like The Velvet Underground.

It would help to specify particular songs as well. It would probably end up working a bit like the evolutionary synthesizer. Imagine you don't know anything about music. You walk into a record shop, and here are thirty-two buttons. You press one, a bit of music comes out, and you say, I don't like that. Press another: That's more like it. Press another: Oh, yeah! That's quite good. Show me a lot of other things that are like that. Somehow or another, you might be able to navigate into rather interesting and remote areas of music.

Eventually, you might even be able to morph your own hybrid artist.

Exactly! It doesn't seem too far off.

In an interview with an eastern European magazine in 1980, you mentioned that music in the '80s will be more boring, and I look forward to that. More recently, you predicted that '90s music would be more messy, vague, more mixed up. It will move away from the naive dreaminess of ambient / Velvets revivalism and from the clock-rigid robot dancing of techno/hip-hop/rave. It will be more wild, more complex, more organic.

God, how right I was [laughs]!

Where do you see the modern keyboard player in this context? How will he or she take part in, respond to, or even lead these trends, especially since some of it involves moving away from music that was produced primarily with keyboards?

My prediction is that improvisation is going to become a much bigger aspect of how people work. That's to say, I think people are going to spend less of their time doing carefully calculated, block-by-block studio work of the kind I was talking about before. That way of working is a little bit tired now. What will happen is that you'll find a lot more improvisers. I don't think they're going to be improvisers like you've seen in the past. They're going to be technologically very sophisticated, so there will be people sitting there with their sequencers and their samplers, and they'll be working live with that. Some people have started doing this - I have [laughs], and a few others.

I can also see a movement toward a different taste for recordings. One of the things about improvisation is that you get results that are messy and organic. You get results that sound like they were not tailor-made to fit onto a CD. I have this motto: Make the medium fail. By that I mean, do something that sounds like it's bigger than something that can be fitted onto a CD. Suppose all painters knew that their work was only going to be seen on 11-by-8 sheets of paper, printed in pretty much the same colour ink. This would change a lot about the way painters work. You wouldn't get people like Frank Stella doing huge, three-dimensional pieces of painted aluminium; he'd just do a little picture that would look good on a nice little piece of paper.

My feeling about records lately is that so often I hear something that sounds like it was designed to fit on a CD. It neatly fits inside the medium. And I think, How boring. What I want is something that seems to have all sorts of bits that haven't fitted inside, so I have to try to guess what they are. You hear this a lot in jazz recordings, particularly the live ones, where you can't really identify completely what's going on. But that immediately engages your creative attention, because you start to make things up in your mind to fill the gaps. I want that to happen, and improvisation is one of the ways to do that. Improvisation announces to the listener, This is happening for real, and we don't know where it's going.

The problem is that the next time someone plays that CD, it will be exactly the same as the first time.

Yes, but there might be a solution to that, although not in the near future.

A self-destroying CD that burns after one play?

Maybe one that just keeps mutating [laughs]. Though what you say is true, you can listen to an improvisation again and again, and still feel the excitement of the search going on. You can hear it when people are lost, and you can hear the thrill when they find themselves again.

But for keyboard players there's no particular challenge unique to the fact that they are keyboard players?

Well, keyboard players have a bit of a problem in that they play an instrument that doesn't naturally bend notes. The keyboard is digital in nature in that it gives you distinct islands rather than a continuous set of pitch possibilities. That's a disadvantage for keyboards.

What other predictions can you make for music at the end of the millennium?

You know the thing that happened with David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino? The music they put onto their records was given an extraordinary resonance by the fact that it was associated with their films. This was a trick I learned a long time ago. If you call something music for film, that says to people, Imagine what the film would be for this music. You evoke a whole set of imaginative skills that people have, and they think it's in the music. But it's not; it's in them. It's a trick, really, to use their own imaginations to flatter your music. What Tarantino did with the soundtrack for Pulp Fiction, for instance, was very interesting. He's kind of sanctified some rather nondescript music, given it a real zing and a resonance. That soundtrack is great to listen to because you know there's a story there.

So the fact that this music is now in a movie changed your perception of it.

In fact, I've never even seen the film. I've only heard the soundtrack. But as soon as I heard it, I thought, Oh, yes. I see. I see how this could fit here. This is the way in which a sort of multimedia form will come into being - through back avenues like this.