New Scientist NOVEMBER 22, 2010 - by Roger Highfield


If there is anyone who embodies the spirit of experimentation in music, it is Brian Eno - the legendary musician, artist and producer who has worked with everyone from David Bowie and the Talking Heads to U2 and Coldplay.

I recently met up with Eno in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he was gearing up to give the keynote talk at the Rolex awards about the relationship between science and the arts. I was curious to hear more about how this innovator views technology's role in music.

Eno's own work on music technology dates back to the start of his career. Though he began with glam rock and Roxy Music in the early 1970s, he quickly began experimenting with new styles: pioneering ambient music, flirting with "generative music" and commissioning the development of software that would allow him to process sounds in strange and interesting ways.

Technology is tightly interwoven with his life's work, he tells me, and it's the same in science. "If somebody develops a new piece of laboratory equipment, new ideas become possible that were not possible before."

Such possibilities are often unpredictable. For example, multi-track recording was invented decades ago so that sound engineers did not have to commit to the relationship between the voice and the rest of the band. "They had the voice on one track and the rest of the band on the other, and at their leisure they could make a mix. No one could imagine that today people would be piling sixty-four guitars on top of one another, turning tapes backward and chopping things together."

Today, Eno is still playing with new technology and discovering what new musical routes they open up. "I spend twenty per cent of my studio time playing with new tools to find out what they do," he says.

For instance, he adores his Wacom Cintiq's interactive pen display - "you can draw on the screen - a liberation" - and has been playing with audio plug-ins developed by the New Zealand composer Michael Norris.

When it comes to the plug-ins, "most of the things they do are totally incoherent and useless", he jokes. "But occasionally you find one setting that can do something you have never heard before."

Eno uses technology not only to make music but to manage it, in order to, say, give texture and pace to improvised compositions, which he admits he usually hates for being monotonous and shapeless. He uses monitors to communicate with musicians as they improvise, and uses drawings and notes to guide them on their aural expedition - suggesting that they only play part of their instrument or that they imagine new kinds of music that have never been heard before. He has been known to paint extraordinary and evocative scenarios such as a post-apocalyptic world where previous musical genres are only described by words; or "North American pedagogic", designed for kids who could only study when bathed in sufficient noise.

The result? "It is so hard to explain... why don't you come to the sodding concerts?" he teases.

Of Eno's technology projects that have fallen by the wayside, the one he would most like to revive is the idea of self-generating musical systems, which he began studying in the 1980s. The premise is to create a music-making machine, whether it is as simple as a wind chime or as complex as computer software. Like the butterfly effect, the outcome varies depending on tiny changes in starting conditions.

In one generative music project, Eno calculated that it would take almost ten thousand years to hear the entire possibilities of one individual piece. "It still interests me as a way of making music," he says, explaining that he now wants to extend it to the creation of synthesised sounds built around cellular automata.

However, when it comes to "playing with computers in funny ways" to make music, he knows only too well that machines have limitations. "Computers still have very strong connections to their lineage as word processors, cut and paste and all that kind of thing. There's a lot of that kind of music about. Some of it is fine but no one should be under any illusion that computers are style-free. You are not going to make a great 1960s soul ballad with a computer."

As for the next step in his long musical journey, he has recently been working with the spoken word, "taking the spoken language and treating it like any other musical element, stretching it and repinching it and treating it like any electronic sound. It's a new kind of poetry." For this project, which lacks a name, he is collaborating with a poet, Rick Holland.

Eno has spent the past few days listing to presentations about research on the brain, helminths and more at the Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne, so I ask him what he takes away from it all. Although both science and art rely on experimentation, he says, they are distinctly different things. "I think science wants to look at the world that exists and I think art wants to imagine worlds that don't."

But Eno stresses that his interest in music is not purely cerebral. "I am not only a mind. I like dancing and having sex and things like that - connected with rock and roll."