New York Times NOVEMBER 1, 2013 - by Jesse Ashlock


On the best use of a television, why art students make good pop stars and the meaning of 'visual music'

Most know Brian Eno as the multifarious musician who was a founding member of the glam band Roxy Music; produced seminal albums by U2 and Talking Heads; and is widely considered to be one of the pioneers of ambient music. But Eno was an art student before he became a musician, and he never lost his yen for visual innovation. The recently released book Brian Eno: Visual Music chronicles more than four decades of his experiments with video, light and new media. Here, Eno looks back on the intersection between his visual art and his music making.

What was it like to have forty-odd years of your work curated and arranged and analysed?

I could see how logical in retrospect the evolution looked. I was quite impressed by how much it looked like I'd had a real plan at the beginning, because I didn't.

Did you learn anything about yourself in the process?

Nearly all of the works that I've made over all the years derive from making a system. Rather than specifying a piece of work in all its details, I wanted to make things that, when you finally switched them on, started to unfold in ways that you hadn't anticipated. I want them to keep surprising me.

What changed over the years?

There's an obvious change in scale. A lot of the early light work started with using TV monitors. This was in the late '70s. I started to think about video as a source of light, rather than a source of image. For me, as a longtime hater of television, this was a very good use of the medium. Then I started looking into slide projectors. I was using between five and ten, all projecting on the same surface, so they were all overlaying, in much the same way as different instruments in a piece of music would overlay each other. I'd been making music that was intended to be like painting, in the sense that it's environmental, without the customary narrative and episodic quality that music normally has. I called this ambient music. But at the same time I was trying to make visual art become more like music, in that it changed the way that music changes. I think that's what my installations are, really. They're what the title says - visual music.

Do you think of yourself as a synaesthete? I wouldn't call myself a synaesthete in the sense that Nabokov was. But I'll talk about a sound as being cold blue or dark brown. For descriptive purposes, yes, I often see colours when I'm listening to music and think, "Oh, there's not enough sort of yellowy stuff in here, or not enough white."

How have computers altered the way you work?

When I first started making ambient music, I was setting up systems using synthesizers that generated pulses more or less randomly. The end result is a kind of music that continuously changes. Of course, until computers came along, all I could actually present of that work was a piece of its output. Music For Airports, for instance - the first track is seventeen minutes out of a theoretically infinite piece of music. What I really wanted was to present people with the system so that anytime they switched this piece on they would hear a new version of it. That was very difficult to imagine until computers came along. The problem is that listening to a piece of music made by a computer is cumbersome and kind of unattractive. It wasn't until the iPhone appeared that I thought, "O.K., now everyone has a computer in their pockets." The apps I have done with my friend Peter Chilvers - Bloom, Trope and Scape - are attempts to explore that possibility of a generative music system that you could use the way you could have used a CD in the past.

There's a famous anecdote about your coming up with the idea of ambient music while bedridden and listening to a record at too low a volume. Is it accurate?

Well, like all stories like this, one never recognises something completely out of the blue. In the early '70s, myself and a few friends were exchanging cassettes with each other. We'd all started to realize that what we liked best was long cassettes without much variety in them. You used to have allegro followed by andante and then largo and blah blah blah. None of us really wanted that. We weren't after drama and surprise. We wanted a single continuous atmosphere. Then, when my friend Judy Nylon left my flat that day and left the record at too low a volume, and it was raining outside, I could only hear the music as part of the landscape. I wasn't sure what was music and what was just the sound of rain on the window. That's when I thought, "O.K., this is where I want to be" - sort of on the edge of music, not firmly in the center of it.

You studied art, not music. Why do you think art schools have produced so many innovative musicians?

Art students by definition are people who are looking at how a medium works, and thinking about what you can do with a medium. They're different from folk musicians, who in general are accepting of a tradition. That kind of slightly-outside-looking-in approach that art students brought to music meant that they were completely able to accept a lot of new possibilities, whereas music students were not interested in them at all. It's very conspicuous that there were a lot of art students involved in pop music in the '60s and '70s, and very few music students.

There's another reason for this. By the mid-'60s, recorded music was much more like painting than it was like traditional music. When you went into the studio, you could put a sound down, then you could squeeze it around, spread it all around the canvas. Once you're working in a multitrack studio, you stop thinking of the music as performance and you start thinking of it as sound painting. After Phil Spector and George Martin and Joe Meek, this new role called the producer had started to become an important creative role. When art students really started flooding into music, it was at exactly that point where recorded music had become more like painting. So it was a natural transition for art students. They knew how to work within a medium that required continual revisiting, where the elements were mutable, could be scraped off and replaced the next day.

Much of your work seems to encourage quiet contemplation, which has spiritual undertones. Is there anything spiritual about what you do?

Your nervous system has two major sectors, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The first one is the fight-and-flight zone. I think most popular art is directed towards that. The other part, which is also called the rest-and-digest or breed-and feed, is what you're using when you relax. My theory is that what I've been doing is more directed at that second part. And I think that also is the part of the nervous system people are using when they say they're having a spiritual experience. Now I want to make clear that I slightly shrink from the word "spiritual," because I don't like anything occultish, and I'm not religious.

Are you dismayed by the fact that so much art today wants to appeal to the fight-and-flight part of us?

Oh, no. I think that's an important part of what art can do for us. It's thrilling. Dance music is essentially about that. I was at a fantastic party in Mali the other night where I danced for three hours in 42° of heat. I thought, "My God, it's amazing that music can make you do this. I'm being forced to dance." When I finished, it was like I'd been thrown in a swimming pool.

You're not troubled that so much work seems designed specifically to shock and awe?

Well, I was giving a talk the other day. I said, "The twentieth century saw many art movements. Cubism, Futurish, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism... ending up at One-Linerism." Shark in a tank. It's like, "Wow, yes, I get it." Immediately. I'm not saying that all the works that can be described as one-liners are bad. But it's almost become a qualifying condition. Confronting the work itself sometimes isn't any more interesting than the title.

One-Linerism is pretty different from what you do.

I sneak into the back of my shows and watch people. I'm fascinated by it. There you have something that changes very slowly. Doesn't have a story, doesn't have a beat, doesn't surprise you in any quick way. And people sit there for hours. The whole of television is built on the idea that attention spans are limited to a few seconds. I don't see that. I see people who love the chance to sit still and let something happen to them - very, very slowly.