Option NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1985 - by Andrew Warde


Theory, Practice And Process

In the pantheon of Rock Gods, those figures who loom largest can easily be conjured by the most casual listener. Without suggesting names, one can picture virtually any of these musical heroes, almost always men, most often guitarists and/or singers. Yet Brian Eno, certainly among the most influential and admired figures in popular music of the past fifteen years, neither fits the mould nor carries the most visible profile. He has rarely performed, is not a guitarist in any conventional sense, hasn't even sung on a record in years. His picture hasn't graced any of his album jackets for the better part of a decade, he grants few interviews and has earned much of his reputation as a producer. In fact, Brian Eno hasn't released a "rock" album under his name since 1977's Before And After Science, and he doesn't consider himself to be a "proper musician". His records don't chart but his reputation continues to grow. What gives?

Above all else, Brian Eno seems to have earned his tremendous respect in the music community for being a visionary and a thinker. He may well be rock's greatest theorist (or to use a less academic term), a conceptualist whose real strength is that he is able to translate his ideas into important and inspirational music. The beauty of Brian Eno's work lies as much in the music as in the application of concept to technique, and all that implies as an example to other artists.

Indulge me for a moment (as you may know all this) in order to look at a partial list of the artists Eno has worked with: Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, David Bowie, Ultravox, Devo, Talking Heads, the seminal noise bands of the No New York LP (including James White, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, etc.), Edikanfo, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd and others of the Obscure series and so on. The point worth considering is that Eno involved himself with nearly all of these artists very early on in their careers (before they in turn went on to influence countless others) and left an indelible mark on those who had already established themselves to some degree. "Enoesque" is already an overused adjective; close perusal of this magazine will probably yield several instances of its use, if not similar terms. I may go out on a limb here in saying this, but Brian Eno could turn out to be the single most significant person in music in the last quarter of this century - as a composer, producer, creative thinker and populariser of a broad aesthetic vision.

But Eno himself would perhaps find all of this laudatory prose a bit embarrassing. He is articulate yet soft-spoken, a fountainhead of ideas and yet quite humble. He is also quite opinionated, though his opinions contain a hint of irreverence and are never judgmental. In conversation, as well as in his writings, Eno comes across as a kindly professor who carefully explains some things while leaving others implicit; the diligent student can follow through on his own.

Above all, Eno's approach places an emphasis on simplicity. If he makes it look easy, it's because, relatively speaking, it is. He expresses his view of new keyboard technology as if he were a writer contemplating the trade of an old Royal clunker for a Wang word processor: "Whilst recognising really extraordinary achievements that Fairlights and Synclaviers and so on represent, I'm actually not that interested in working with them. I like simple instruments, I always have. I've always used very simple synthesizers actually, and I prefer them because I don't particularly care to be faced with limitless possibilities. I prefer a slightly more constrained situation."

This bare-bones, somewhat low-tech style is evident in many facets of Eno's work. It was Eno who first conceived the simple tape-loop system for Robert Fripp's Frippertronics; and his non-audiophile concept for putting a third, out-of-phase speaker on a home stereo system somehow works beautifully to create a new depth and richness of music, with a minimum of investment and fuss. And he always displays a certain open-minded resourcefulness toward sound: "When I was in Ghana, I sometimes found myself sitting out on a patio in the evenings with a microphone placed to pick up the widest possible catchment of ambient sounds from all directions, and listening to the results on my headphones. The effect of this simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate sounds into one aural frame; they became potentially musical."

There are other manifestations of resourcefulness in Eno's work, such as his practice of taking tracks from one piece, manipulating them, and recycling the results into another work. Such unique, informal and non-traditional exercises are part and parcel of an attitude which permeates Eno's work, a very Zen-like methodology of "not-knowing." Much as he considers himself a non-musician (and relishes the fact), he is also a non-technician: "I think that one of the most interesting ways to approach any technology is not to read the handbook, and to maintain that mental attitude of not reading the handbook. Now, I use that as a kind of metaphor for an approach; of course you can read the handbook."

And while he doesn't refer explicitly to Zen Buddhism, Eno expresses a sense of connectedness that is a hallmark of Buddhist thought: "I think the Western male is a very unspiritual creature. He's been told to be unspiritual. The nadir of the unspiritual human being is where, first of all, two things are important in the world view; that's the 'me generation' type of feeling; and the other is that you have the capacity to completely control [things]. Now, any kind of spiritual life that I'm interested in leads me further and further away from either of those notions. I can't see myself being at the centre of anything, really. I'm part of a network of things: they affect me and I affect them, and they are so closely interconnected that the second notion, the notion of being in control of them, is completely absurd as well."

In this way, perhaps, music is the commanding force in Eno's life, the language in which he is most comfortable expressing his proliferation of ideas. "I've more and more developed my feeling for music. The reason I can't stop it is because it's the place that I can use to work things out in, that's all. It's my practice. Like other people have practices of various kinds, and for some it's a formal, religious practice if you like. For me it happens to be music, or recently it's been extending into other areas as well. But at the core of it is music, I suppose. It occupies so many different parts of my life, it's not something that I feel separate from."

Much as is attached to music, he has often attempted to attach his music to physical and metaphysical spaces. His forays into "ambient" music (which itself has become a rather generic term) have run from the specific, such as Music For Airports, to the abstract; the On Land album was music appropriate to a generalised vision of "landscapes", yet Eno comments, "In using the term landscape I am not necessarily thinking of trees and clouds and birds. I am thinking of places, times, climates and the moods they evoke." He adds, "One of the consistent directions I've had for the last few years is toward a kind of music that was more and more to do with a sense of place and with a sense of some kind of psychic environment that one might choose to find oneself in. And it was also to do with the quality of feeling alone in a place. It's a quality that I like very, very much and it's a feeling I enjoy when I find it in music."

This metaphorical search for solitude has a parallel in Eno's own life as well. "I'm fairly solitary, I suppose. I really don't stay in touch with anyone very much. I sit at home most of the time so I never get in touch with anyone, except for a couple of close friends, unless I have something particular to propose to them."

Further, Eno's self-imposed isolation carries over into his music in another respect; the fact that, in his words, the music "doesn't have a verbal aspect to it." He continues, "One of the difficulties with singing, or with having lyrics, is that, as soon as you do that, there's another person in the piece. So the listener is not alone in that piece of music, he's watching the performance of a personality. I felt more and more that I wanted to make music where the listener became that person in the piece, where they weren't told where to go."

This personal nature of Eno's music translates into his noted reluctance to perform live: "It makes me very nervous to be watched in that way." He further explains his hesitancy to play out: "First of all, I really don't have many talents that are particularly geared to performing live. And the other thing is that most of the work I've been doing is really recorded work. It's to do with the studio and to do with somebody listening to it in their own place."

Indeed, Eno's music has nearly everything to do with the studio and the process of recording. As he neither reads nor writes traditional notation, he has developed a highly individualised approach to using the studio as a compositional tool. In a lecture on that very subject, Eno stated: "The effect of recording is that it puts it in the space dimension. As soon as you do that, you're in a position of being able to listen again and again to a performance, to become familiar with details you most certainly had missed the first time through, and become very fond of details that weren't intended by the composer or musicians."

The act of recording then has many implications for the listener beyond the ability to take home one's favorite musical works. To Eno it means that things which are too subtle to grasp on first listen become apparent later on - that there is a process of unfolding as the listener discovers more and more in a piece. It also means that seemingly chaotic sounds can be found to have a certain structure. "Almost any arbitrary collision of events listened to enough times comes to seem very meaningful." Eno relates the development of jazz to the advent of the recording process; that relationship has continued to be crucial if one considers that, heard but once, any free-jazz recording may sound like noise.

But it is as a composer that Eno finds multifold applications for the recording process. First and foremost, he sees the studio as an instrument in itself, a device by which sounds are invented and utilised: "The studio is a place where music is made. Forget about high fidelity, forget about anything, think about sound. It's a place for developing texture, and texture is the thing that pop music has given to music more than any other innovation. This is something you really couldn't play with very much before the recording studio. It was like having a paint box where you could never mix the colours very much. Now you're in a position where you can design your own colours, musically. Which is an amazing breakthrough, it makes it a new art form, actually."

Eno uses the analogy of painting and painters and paint frequently when describing his compositional techniques. While recording On Land, he was inspired by the painter Michael Chandler, in whose work Eno recognised that, "in painting, any action made will leave its trace. Of course, in multi-track recording, the situation is different: perfect erasure is possible. Consequently, I decided that anything recorded on the tape must appear in the final mix in some form." And just as artists find the immediacy of working with paint satisfying, Eno seems to appreciate the physical nature of his work: "You're working directly with sound, and there's no transmission loss between you and the sound - you handle it. It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter - working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance, and he always retains the options to chop and change, to paint a bit out, add a piece, etc."

Eno contrasts this situation with the way producers traditionally worked as multi-track recording developed: by an additive process, which he says "gave rise to the well-known and gladly departed orchestral rock tradition." It also, he says, gave rise to his own practice of "in-studio composition - actually constructing a piece in the studio," rather than bringing in a finished work to merely record. The beauty of all this is that "it makes music, when you're working on it, into a plastic art. It's no longer a temporal and ephemeral thing. I mean, imagine the difference between Mozart, writing a piece of music, and never being able to hear that until he finally had put the whole orchestra together, when it was too late to do anything significant about changing it. So, there's an extremely slow feedback loop between conception and execution in that situation."

The subject of Mozart, curiously, is one which seems to raise Eno's hackles. "I agree with Salieri in the film [Amadeus], who said, 'Too many notes.' I'm not sympathetic to Mozart very much. I really do think there's a kind of pomposity about him I don't like somehow. Now, I just have a blind spot for him, that's all it is, I think. I know some slow movements by him that I really like very much, but on the whole I could go quite happily throughout my life without ever hearing another piece of Mozart."

If Brian Eno sounds uncharacteristically hostile toward Mozart, it is reassuring to note that he reserves his criticism for a composer nearly two centuries dead. Toward his contemporaries, he is much more generous with his time and support, continuing to immerse himself in such projects as the recent release, Hybrid, by composer Michael Brook, and the debut recording of his younger brother Roger Eno, Voices.

As for himself, Eno has recently completed the soundtrack to a major motion picture, Marie. Scoring a film may be related to his own forays into video, but Eno certainly hasn't gone Hollywood, or even MTV. With shows this year in Ireland, Germany, France and Italy, Eno's experimental video installations have shown him to be an innovator in a medium other than music. In Italy, for example, his work was displayed in a large church, with several video pieces within the structure and several stereos playing the accompanying music: "The way the music works, it's carried on four independent tapes playing at once on four different machines, and it's designed so that the tapes are all in different positions relative to one another. In fact the videos are the same way, every aspect of the show is reshuffling itself with every other aspect."

Eno has even been asked to do one other non-musical project, to design a book jacket for a small publishing house. Perhaps his view of the task reflects the attitude which brings so much inventiveness to all of Brian Eno's work: "It's a rather out-of-the-blue idea, but I thought I'd give it a try."