San Francisco Chronicle JUNE 2, 1996 - by Joel Selvin


Brian Eno belongs to rock's intelligentsia. His work has often been theoretical, yet his hand can be found in the most popular works of such best-selling collaborators as U2, David Bowie and the Talking Heads.

On his last visit to San Francisco, in 1988, Eno erected a fascinating soundscape called Latest Flames in the bowels of the Palace of Fine Arts, where a series of tape recordings, starting at different times, intersected randomly to create accidental music. His latest project extends that groundbreaking work into a computer program available on Koan software, Generative Music.

He was commissioned by Microsoft to design the little arpeggio that sounds when Windows 95 is booted up, and he has also recently published his 1995 diary, A Year (With Swollen Appendices). Eno will appear Saturday at the Imagination Conference (along with film director Spike Lee, performance artist Laurie Anderson and others) at San Francisco's Civic Auditorium.

Q: The producers describe your appearance next weekend as multimedia, which is a great cliche. If you speak and hold up a picture, you're multimedia, aren't you?

A: That's probably not far from what I'll be doing. I'll be doing a demonstration and I will also be showing some examples of things, so I guess it is multimedia. My part of it is going to be a speech with a rather dramatic demonstration, which I can't give details of because it must remain a surprise. But I'm going to be talking about this idea of generative art.

Q: Is your new computer program similar to your installation at the Palace of Fine Arts?

A: It's very much in the same line of work as that, trying to think of ways of setting up systems that keep generating new music for you. It's new music in the sense that it isn't identical to anything in its history, but it does have an identity. It's new music in the sense that, if you're sitting by a river, it's always a new river that you're looking at.

Q: How did you come to compose The Microsoft Sound?

A: The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I'd been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, Here's a specific problem - solve it.

The thing from the agency said, We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional, this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said and it must be three-and-a-half seconds long.

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It's like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made eighty-four pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I'd finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

Q: Are you working on the new U2 record?

A: I decided not to work on this one. I needed a break from being in the studio and also a break from working with other people. I mean, there's no bad feeling or anything. They've got quite competent people doing it, so I'm sure they're going to be just fine.

Q: So you are working on music of your own?

A: Yes, but I'm not getting very far. I suppose the thing I'm working on is this strange kind of music that nobody seems to like very much. But I don't know whether it will come to anything or not. I've got a feeling that music might not be the most interesting place to be in the world of things. And this is rather undermining my commitment to doing it.

This self-generating music is so exciting to me. I think that's really something. I think talking is really something, thinking, having ideas and all that sort of thing. I'm fascinated by all those things. Teaching, as well, I do a lot of. But adding to the obscene pile of CDs in the world doesn't thrill me that much at the moment.

Q: When you invented ambient music did you envision the New Age onslaught that followed?

A: In England and Europe, we have this huge music called ambient - ambient techno, ambient house, ambient hip-hop, ambient this, ambient that. We've done New Age here. That's finished.

For eight years there's been a whole new movement which actually called itself ambient. And it's been a huge thing here. It doesn't sound much like what I was calling ambient music, but that's good, isn't it? Would we want our children to grow up like us? You want them to be different. You hope to God that they can be different.

Q: How do you explain the proliferation of unplugged performances by rock stars lately?

A: I think I can sympathize with what it is reacting against. Because a lot of music in the last ten or fifteen years has been made on computer-driven sequencers, it has a certain flavor to it. Sometimes that flavor's all right. But I'll tell you what the main effect of sequencers has been: Everybody thinks that when new technologies come along that they're transparent and you can just do your job well on it. But technologies always import a whole new set of values with them. And one of the values that sequencers imported was everything's got to be exactly right.

It's so easy because a computer is basically a nerd-designed, screwdriver addict's machine. It's a machine that's perfect for making small adjustments and not very good for making bold strokes. I think people just got sick of sitting in studios for hours while some bloke in front of a screen kind of tightened everything up, so that every kick drum beat fell exactly on the one.

If you've been around that way of composing and you pick up an acoustic instrument and hit it, you think, Jesus, it's so full of life. There's so much going on in here. So I think people are really reacting to what has been rather an unimaginative use of computer technology so far. What I think is, of course, that there'll be a new generation of people who'll use computers with the same freedom that Pete Townshend uses an acoustic guitar. But those people are just starting to emerge, I think. The computer brings out the worst in some people.