Reality Hackers WINTER 1988 - by Charles Amirkhanian


Brian Eno at the Exploratorium in San Francisco

Eno. A legend. Up there in the Pantheon with David Bowie and David Byrne. His designation on Roxy Music albums is simply: Eno. Everyone knows which Eno just as she knows which Victoria or which Attila. Having a major proportion of Earthlings recognize you by a three-letter name is a distinction shared only with God. Indeed, many intone Eno's name with the same reverence (and a good deal less embarrassment) as they do God's; it actually has a better ring to it. Try it. E-NO, E-NO, E-NO. A veritable mantra of a name. God spelled backwards is dog; Eno spelled backwards is one. You decide.

Now he's in San Francisco where he's created an installation at The Exploratorium and is holding a press conference. Fittingly, it is housed in the Grecian temple-like Palace of Fine Arts. I march at the tail-end of a procession of media acolytes from ABC, NBC, CBS, the wire services, the big dailies - all the anointed. We faithfully file into the entrance of the installation, hidden behind the shapely poured-concrete ankles of a giant naked bored-looking rump-jutting nymph. A colossal caryatid with R. Crumb idealised buttocks gazing wearily, a hundred feet above our heads, across a reflecting pool. But who is this anonymous-looking chap sitting on a green slat park-bench serenely observing the reporters file past, their eyes busily absorbing the out-sized charms of the callipygous nymph and her sister servants slouching beside the swan-infested waters?

Surely, that is an English hand-sewn cordovan shoe I spy on the casually crossed leg or a fop I'm not. Certainly he's moulted many feathers, much glitter and some hair, but just as certainly that is Eno watching me watch him - a curious feedback loop. Amazingly, none of the professional newshounds take any notice of the man they're here to cover. I turn to my companion, Jude Milhon - arch Enophile, and indicate Eno with a nod of my head. My God, she exclaims.

Yes, exactly. Do you have a copy of High Frontiers [the same publisher as Reality Hackers] on you? Yes, she says, fumbling in her bag.

Good. Give him one. I don't want to disturb him - he may be meditating.

He's sitting here watching the bloody fucking squirrels in the park, this is a perfect opportunity!

Jude and I walk past him and stop at the respectful distance of eighty feet. Jude looks at him as a conservationist might study an endangered skink.

Don't disturb him, she says sternly, eyeing me as she might a rabid propagandist, which I am.

Sighing heavily, I file into the womblike darkness of the installation which is contained within a King Kong banana-shaped room, and stand in the recesses as reporters shuffle and jostle one another, staking out their turf. Grunts and expletives cut through the air. Hey, turn the lights on in here! How the hell am I going to video this?, a philistine moans, defiling the rich temple-like atmosphere - an atmosphere being continuously created by subtly shifting sound from interacting unmatched tape-loops and slowly metamorphosing aquarelle light washing over Eno's foam-core architectural constructions. We are wandering in an ever-changing non-repeating sculptural environment bathed in jacuzzi chromatics. The video images are simple geometric blocks of color on twenty-five inch monitors which are not viewed directly but, rather, cast their light onto an angular canted and skewed German Expressionist cityscape of expanded polystyrene - a simultaneous sunrise and sunset on another planet endowed with multiple luminaries, seen through shimmering atmospheric haze: another green and red and blue world. It is a world of non-redundancy and non-periodicity. It cannot be grasped intellectually - only felt in a transitory way, slipping past one's senses like fine silt.

Furnished with upholstered sofas, it might be a waiting room on Sirius. It's like being abducted by aliens and then having to wait for your brain-scan. Some people return day after day and stay for hours. It's a space designed to linger in: a polysensory limbo informed by one of the most interesting minds in music today: Eno.


CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN (CA): How did you first get the idea for such a thing as ambient music?

BRIAN ENO (BE): I can trace it to two things. One was - it's the story I told on the cover of Discreet Music - I got knocked down by a taxi one time when I was crossing the street. And I always make use of everything, you see. Getting knocked down by a taxi is not the most promising start to a good idea... but I was laid up in bed for a while, and I couldn't move. A friend who'd visited was leaving and I said, Do you mind putting a record on for me? She put on a record of virtuoso harp music and left. Well, one of the speakers was on the blink and had gone out. And she'd put the music on too softly. And it was raining quite heavily outside. So, all I could hear was just the loudest few notes of the harp . . .

CA: The highest frequencies, probably.

BE: That's right. It was sort of crescendos mixing in with the raindrops. I was listening to that and thought, 'This is really beautiful. This is a use for music.' It was a way I had never heard music before, not as the central focus of attention, but part of the context that you live in. I mean, the idea wasn't unfamiliar because I had been aware of the various experiments that John Cage and others had performed. So I knew about it as a theory, but I'd never felt it as a real way of listening. As that record played, I thought about making music that didn't impose its presence. Music that was deliberately made to be useful. Music made to be a part of, what you might call, the acoustic context that you live in. This idea developed into Music For Airports. I was sitting in the Cologne Airport which, I think, is a nice building. (It was designed by the father of one of the members of Kraftwerk.) It's sort of a triangular building with very high ceilings. And I like the building and I thought that the sense of space should be celebrated in some way. So I thought about how I could do that with sound. Obviously, it would have to be a music that didn't frighten people since they're already a bit timid about flying. It would have to be a music that could be interrupted, because you have announcements all the time. You'd have to make a music that didn't demand resolution. People won't be around for the resolution. All sorts of interesting conditions started to come to mind.

Then I thought: What do you most want to feel when you get on a plane? And I was aware that the music that gets used in airports has exactly the opposite effect that it's supposed to. It's supposed to make you think: 'Don't worry. Everything's all right. It's just a normal day.' British Airlines has this horrible, peppy Baroque rubbish. It's terrible. It's really sort of poker up the bum Baroque music. And you can feel these fixed grins on their faces, at this moment when you're taking your very life into your hands. And on top of that, of course, the airlines never have decent cassette players; they're always going Innnnmrrrmnmnmr: like that. (He laughs) So, you sit there thinking, 'Jesus, if they can't get a cassette player to work, what am I doing in this thing?

So I thought, 'Right. You're never going to convince people that this is not a dangerous situation. So what you have to do is make them not care if they die.' I was thinking that Music For Airports should give you the feeling that, 'Well, it doesn't really matter all that much anyway. What's a few humans less?' So that's why the music has a slightly, I'd say, resigned feeling to it.

CA: You could make us a Music For Earthquakes.

BE: (Brian laughs - low roar in Auditorium.) Oh, yeah, that's right - you need some of that!


BE: The music that goes with the installation was intended, at it's inception, to be always different at every point in time and at every point in space. That is, you will never hear it the same, anytime or anyplace. This has been achieved by an interesting inversion of the principal recording. The idea is that with a tape recorder, you can duplicate things perfectly. And the history of tape recording is a history of duplicating things more and more perfectly. We now have very faithful tape recorders. So if you run four tape recorders together, and you don't synchronise them in any way, the combination is always different. So the element on each individual tape recorder will be a repeating loop. But the combination of all four is always a different combination.

This piece of music was made like this. It started out as a twenty-four track piece of music. Now, normally you would mix those down to two tracks and that's the record. What I did with this piece was I mixed one set onto one two-track tape and then another and so on. I ended up with four two track tapes. If these tapes were perfectly synchronised and run together, they would produce an exact copy of the original piece of music. What I do is run these four layers out of sync with one another and, as a result, they constantly create new sandwiches. They're auto-reverse cassette players and each mix fades down. So you do occasionally get the situation that three of them, for instance, are reversing at the same time. You get a very sparse sound for that moment. Each tape runs for a different length of time. So the original cluster of events which, on my original version of the piece, work together - as the tape circulates, they fall apart. And, in fact, they start clustering with other elements at other times. So it's like having a continuous shuffling system.


BE: Often it's the music made quickly and innocently that withstands the test of time. You don't remember how you did it. After finishing you think; Oh, yeah. This is a good idea. I'll do another twenty. And then you go back and try to do another one and can't remember what the important things about it were. Discreet Music was a good example of that. The record, Discreet Music, is a terribly simple system. So when I made the record, I thought; ... Piece of cake. I've got a good formula here. I'll do a few of these. But I never made another one I liked as much as that. And I don't know what it was that made that piece work. I think there's something about the condition of ignorance that produces charmed work.


CA: When did you first become interested in the arts?

BE: I was interested in painting as early as I can remember. I was fascinated by brightly-coloured paintings.

CA: Where did you see brightly-coloured paintings?

BE: I don't know, but I think my uncle was the formative person in this. I have a very eccentric uncle. He was in the Hasad in India. One day he fell off a horse and became concussed... and he became a mystic (laughing). So if any of you are interested in that, that's how you do it. He stayed in India for six years and then finally came back to this little town where I was born, Woodbridge. He was a gardener, a landscape painter, a porcelain repairer - and the local eccentric, really. He had a lot of art books and one day he showed me a book of Mondrian paintings. Each reproduction was about an inch and a half but I can so clearly remember the effect on me. They were in the simple, clear colours that Mondrian was using. My uncle still has the book. I looked at it a couple of months ago and sort of relived that feeling.

Another thing from that period I still have are the records. I was listening to Little Richard at the time. My roots are Little Richard and Mondrian, really. I became really fanatically interested in painting, though I had never seen a real painting except Mondrian's. I was also fanatically listening to rock & roll records. Rock & roll. And then a family friend we called Uncle Stan left us his record collection to look after. It was all music that I had never heard before. Big Band music of the late '40s, Jack Teegarden and Ray Coniff; big influence... formative side of Music For Airports.

We had two big American airbases within five miles of my house. So the town I lived in had 5,000 inhabitants. The airbases had 15,000 inhabitants. So every cafe in the town had this sort of pathetic, dreadful English cover version of things like Cliff Richard and Craig Douglas and all these miserable honkeys. But also, because of the huge American contingent, they had the R & B originals of them. So I knew which ones I preferred. There was no doubt about that at all. We heard all the R & B originals. But the funny thing was I never knew that they were black - any of these people. I never saw pictures of them. It was many years later that I discovered that there was such a thing as black music in America and that it was everything I liked.

Duke Of Earl was one of the, I'd say, five records that changed my life. Good ole Gene, I wish he was here tonight. Send Me Some Loving inspired me most of all because it's such a tender song as well as being pretty manic. And I'd never really heard insanity and tenderness mixed in quite the way that Little Richard did it. (to the audience) Do you want to hear a little bit of that? (a resounding Yes) This is the good bit, right? Where we play all the old records. Forget all this video stuff!


CA: When did you become interested in the traditional music of Africa and other countries. Was that a natural outgrowth of your interest in doo-wop music?

BE: Well, I was set up for it by Doo-Wop, R&B and so on. It wasn't difficult to go back one step further in the chain of connections. But I think it really started with Fela Ransom, I suppose. He's now called Fela Kuti or Anikulapo Kuti, or various other names. In 1972, I first heard a Fela record... Fela Ransom and the Africa 70. It's now Fela Ransom and the Egypt 80. It's contemporary Nigerian pop music. I'd heard James Brown and understood what that was about. Then I heard Fela, and he was an African who listened to James Brown. And he'd taken what James was doing, but really extrapolated it in a big way. The early 70's recordings were the best, I think. They had five or six drummers, a big horn section, lots of back-up singers. It was a very big band - maybe 22 people. And the sound was really, really harsh. The sax players worked on getting this kind of brutal, rhinoceros sax sound which didn't sound anything like Western saxophone playing. You remember Boots Randolf who did Yakity Sax? Well, it was like Yackity Sax-cubed, you know?

Audience Member: I was wondering if you'd related the African concept of cross-rhythm to the work you've done with delays and modulation of phase relationships?

BE: What relates is the characteristic ability of that music to be able to absorb a number of levels at the same time. When I was in Ghana, I went to a festival where the big chiefs are brought in on these ceremonial litters. And behind them followed the corps of drummers, and these guys that play the talking drums, recount the history of the tribe back for many, many generations on the talking drums. So there are three of these very old men following the chief, and they're each beating a different story. It doesn't have any rhythmic relationship. They're not playing music.

Like in England, bell ringers - campanologists - don't consider themselves to be playing music. If you like it musically, it's an accident as far as they're concerned. What they're doing is working through a process. I got interested in bell ringing. So Anthea, my wife, wrote to the head of the English Bell Ringing Foundation - there's this magazine called Ringing Weekly - and asked Could we get any transcriptions of your music? We got back this quite angry letter saying; This is not music. They were very concerned that we realise that it was operating on some other level. It was the same thing with the African trip - it was completely novel for me to think that you could have noise in a musical context that was not musically conceived noise.

In the record On Land, which I released around the time of that Africa visit, I used a lot of non-musical noise. Usually the way we think about music is that we have instruments, and then we have the rest of the aural universe; we have foreground and background. What about, instead of accepting these dichotomies, letting all of those things be a continuum. So, instead of having musical instruments and noise we have: musical instruments, sort-of musical instruments, vaguely musical instruments, kind-of-noisy-things-that-make-musical-sounds, things that are just noisy and are clearly not instruments at all. What about using that whole field of possibilities? And the same with foreground and background. When you sit outside and listen, you hear some things loud 'cause you're close to them. It's just an accident. It's not because they're more important. But if you listen, you hear things that you know are actually loud but they're just on the edge of your earshot. I wanted to make a music that placed you in a field of sound and implied that the horizon wasn't the end of it, that it continued right around the edge, right around the globe. Music that puts you in context.


CA: Who wrote the lyrics to the Talking Heads' Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)?

BE: On this record, which is not typical of the three records we did together, the lyrics were kind of consulted upon. Normally, David (Byrne) wrote the lyrics and, as far as I know, still writes the lyrics for the songs. But this whole record, in fact, was more of an improvised and group generated record. It was the first record they did where they went into the studio without a set of songs. They went into the studio with the assumption that they would work up some material in relation to the possibilities of the studio - which was what I represented in the equation.

CA: That's the way you Iike to work, isn't it?

BE: That's the way I always work, really. With a band it's usually more difficult because of the awful threat of democracy creeping in. There's nothing more certain to kill an idea than democracy, as far as I'm concerned. I'm not making a political statement here, but one about how things get done creatively. For me, the only way anything interesting gets done in the studio is by someone saying; I'm going to do this, not, Do you think maybe we should do this or Could we just do it a little more... could we? There's no point in taking a compromised stand. If you're going to make an experiment, just make it. I would hate to do something where people would think Oh Christ! that's a bit off, that's a bit weak, or just doing that old stuff again! You make the experiment, and either it fails or it doesn't. And most usually it fails - that's the nature of experiments. But then you don't release those ones!

CA: Somebody else does!

BE: Charles is referring to the fact that he's got a bootleg album which I've never seen before - which I hope he bloody won't play!

CA: Why did you choose as a kind ostinato pattern, repeating And the heat goes on, constantly throughout the...

BE: Oh, that was very simple. That song; we had got into a real fix with it. And I like getting into fixes because I think something interesting happens when you're backed into a corner.

CA: A new solution of some sort.

BE: Yeah, a new solution. All the solutions you already know don't work.

That particular song had been very difficult to write. In the past, David had always been writing over chord changes. This song didn't have any. On this record, we didn't have any chord changes because we'd been listening to a lot of funk and African music. We used riffs, grooves. It's a very different thing. If you're writing over a chord change, you can stay in the same place. The energy of the song is created by what's going on underneath. It drops, and it adds; it gives a piquancy to the same note. I have lots of songs that do that. In fact, that's the only trick I ever learned, really. What you do is sing - stay in place, and let the music change so it drops away like a cliff underneath you. Suddenly there's a real tension.

When you're writing over riffs, that never happens. If you want to create the feeling of chord changes, you have to imply it in the voice. Like you sing sevenths, or ninths, or funny notes, to create those tensions. So, writing the songs on this record was quite a problem for David. On this particular song, it was really getting critical because we all liked the music, but there was no song. So I said; Give me twenty minutes.

CA: Everybody leave the room, you mean?

BE: Everybody leave the room because I have to do Embarrassing Things. What I did on this and on The Great Curve was to build the vocals that were replying to the lead vocal that didn't yet exist. So, it was like I was filling in the answers. Now all David had to do, as a singer, was to ask the right questions.


CA: The Talking Heads are such virtuosos. Now, you've said in some interviews that virtuosity isn't what rock 'n' roll should be about. But when you're working with a group that can do the things they can do, it's pretty fantastic, Isn't it?

BE: Well, actually, the point wasn't to deny virtuosity, but to point out that as many interesting things come from ignorance as skill. For me, rock n' roll is contemporary electronic music. And the people making the records are not virtuosos in a musicological sense. Musicology doesn't have a place for rock music because it doesn't extend music in a way that musicologists understand.

CA: You hate most classical music.

BE: I despise it with a passion. A friend of mine who hates rock & roll and only cares for the classical pantheon says, Well, everything that's happening today in rock music had been done by 1820,... or 1790, or whatever date he puts on it. See, all he's listening to is the chord sequences which are, of course, totally traditional. Then the rhythms, also, are boring and ordinary. What he isn't listening for are all the innovations of popular electronic music. The extensions of sound and timbre that have never been possible before. The ability of a contemporary composer working in a studio to deal with place as a subject of the music. Then there's the fact that you're making a music that, within a week, touches three million people. Now these are all properties of music. But they're not in the academic area of consideration. So you still get whole books on electronic music that talk about Varese, Stockhausen, and so forth but never mention Jimi Hendrix. Well, surely Jimi Hendrix must be one of the first performing electronic musicians. Who else performed like that? He knew he was dealing with electronics. Now, the structure he was working within, the blues, was kind of an archaic structure. But, if someone working within an archaic structure does something exciting, that means the structure isn't the important thing. The structure is just a way of supporting what the guy is really doing. So to deal with contemporary popular music, you have to extend your definition of what music is.

Hendrix was a musician who understood the system that he was dealing with. And the system wasn't just six strings. It was six strings, some electronics, an amplifier, some big speakers, an auditorium, a public, and the accumulated resonance of pop music up til that time.

CA: Is classical music oppressive in England?

BE: It's pathetic. Classical music in Europe is pathetic. It's like yards of wall-to-wall carpeting. But you know, the most interesting musical experience I had in Russia wasn't listening to all these new punk bands that they have now, or scratch or hip-hop or anything like that. The experience that stayed with me was switching on the radio in a friend's apartment one evening and hearing a Russian orchestra playing a contemporary Latvian orchestral piece. It was sort of reminiscent of Shostakovich and wouldn't excite a Western musicologist - I mean it wasn't radical. But the way it was played was absolutely galvanising to me. Because it was played with real muscle, you know. It wasn't this kind of perfection-oriented approach to classical music. Nobody can make a mistake. It's got to be just so. God! I hate that! I can't tell you how much that annoys me. I am actually secretary-treasurer of The Society to Melt Down Flutes, if anyone wants to join. (laughter) Classical music in England is about as interesting as watching someone do trigonometry exercises. But when I heard these Russians, I suddenly realised that classical music lives for them. It means something now. It's not, Isn't it comforting to hear these nice songs again. It wasn't comforting. It was abrasive. It was tough and powerful.


Audience Member: What is the impact of commercial television on music, including MTV?

BE: MTV has had a funny impact on music because people started constructing records rather visually. I've noticed it when I'm in the studio. They say things like: Hold on, this bit! We could do a great thing with the video here. Let's have it twice. But I don't find that uninteresting. The nature of pop music is that it's always absorbing other things. Suddenly, it isn't just dealing with music, it's dealing with television, or it's dealing with safety pins... the punk thing. The breakdown in interest comes with the videos themselves, where you have absolutely huge budgets and absolutely minute intelligence. And the results are clear, you know?

CA: On the other hand, a lot of the Surrealist and Dada film techniques have been incorporated and included into the everyday language of video. Yeah.

BE: I absolutely agree with you. If all of the Dada stuff, and Maya Deren, and the futurists, and all the various other people who've made avant-garde film in this century, if that ever becomes part of the vocabulary of film watching, it will be through pop videos. It won't be through obscure art cinema.


BE: I have never believed that artists work better without limitations. Art freed from limitations isn't necessarily interesting, and art absolutely bound up in limitations can sometimes be extremely interesting. So I think that you can take a guerilla approach to being an artist. I was quite fascinated by military strategy for a long while. I gave a talk about the difference between the traditional Western European army and the guerilla army. One of the things that I realised from that study was that, for a traditional army, every emergency was... an emergency. Every lump in the ground, every deviation from the right time of day or season for the battle, was an emergency. For the guerilla army, every emergency is an opportunity. Every bump in the ground is a place to hide. Every hole is a place to hide. Every spot of bad weather is a place where the regular army is going to get bogged down.

Applying this to being an artist, you can be a regular army artist where you walk in and say, I've got to have this and that and that's not good enough, plus I want fifty thousand dollars. Or you can be a guerilla artist and say Well this situation is sort of complicated and I've never been in one like this before, and somehow I'm going to try to turn all of these things to my advantage. I'll use this in my attack. And that, I think, is what makes artists interesting. Not that they can specify ideal conditions but that they can deal with rugged field conditions.


BE: Recently, I had to give a formal lecture on the evolution of my work, so I tried to push it back beyond Art School to what you might call the first imaginative enterprises I could remember. The first one on the list I call making special places. That meant designing houses. Thinking of places I would like to live in. These places always have strange corners and labyrinths and secret rooms. They had streams running through them, or trees growing up through the middle of them, or they would be suspended across chasms, things like that. I was designing houses from the age of about seven. The second one was rethinking systems. These were not the names I gave them at the time, you understand. I had a train set, and instead of making it into a loop and having the thing running around, I used to build these different structures. Like I'd pile a few books up here and there and the idea was to make the rails so the train would take the most gradual possible route to the ground. So it was another way of using a train set. And the third one I call mud technology. This game involved me digging a hole and collecting a number of sticks that were not long enough to span it, and then weaving a roof which I would cover with mud. And I'd weave a second roof and cover that with mud as well. And then I would ask my Dad to jump up and down on it. And if it could support my father I considered it a success. Now these three games - I've been thinking about this - were my earliest games, and I haven't really played any other games since. That's all I've done since. It's sort of depressing to think that every idea you've ever had, you had by age four and a half. The mud technology one is really about enjoying limitations. Making special places is installations, environments or making places special, as with Music For Airports and the concept of ambient music. Rethinking systems is using video monitors for lights, or using tape recorders to make non-repeating music, that sort of thing. When this realisation dawned, I was sort of jubilant thinking God, there's a thread connecting everything I've ever done, and on the other hand I thought Christ! It's time I had a few new ideas! (laughter).