INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Science Fiction Eye SUMMER 1993 - by Dan Joy
EYE TO EYE WITH BRIAN ENO
DAN JOY: Where does the word "squelchy" come from?
BRIAN ENO: Don't you use that word in America?
No. We have the word "squelch," which means to repress, or to hold. in check. Like: "That idea was squelched by the committee." But we don't have the word "squelchy."
That's very interesting, it's a completely different meaning. But it's rather a good other meaning, actually. We use "squelchy" to talk about something wet and slightly viscous. For instance if you're walking through soggy grassland, like a very wet lawn, you know you don't actually sink in but you feel it going: "(*#), (*#)."
Yes, under your feet. That's squelchy. "Squelchy" means unstable, wet, a little bit uncomfortable, awkward. Not quite reliable. It's gonna give away under you - it's not gonna disappear under you, but it's also rather unstable.
Not what we call "firm ground."
Exactly. It's the opposite of firm ground, or not quite the opposite. It's infirm ground.
You're very well known for a pretty broad range of collaborations of different kinds. We've been talking a little bit about introducing the element of chance or unpredictability into the process of arriving at a recorded product. Is collaboration another way of ensuring that the unexpected is gonna happen?
Yes, it does do that, but I think the most important thing about collaboration is that it makes you pay attention to yourself in a different way. If you're working with someone else, you see what you're doing also through their perception, either because they tell you what they're seeing, or simply because that other person is in the room. You're thinking, "what's it like from his point of view?"
One hopes that you're taking the other person into account.
Well, I think you nearly always do. I'm sure you've had this experience where you're writing something, and somebody comes and leans over your shoulder and starts reading it, and then you read it, and suddenly you realize you're reading something different. You're reading it in another way, you're seeing, "Oh God, that word is a bit pretentious, oh yes, that sentence doesn't quite fall correctly, oh, but that bit is really good." Suddenly, if there's another presence there, you have two minds available, even if that other person doesn't ever say anything. You still are reading through what you think are their assumptions.
One of the really nice things about being in a studio with someone else is doing something, and you think to yourself, "ah, it's just the same old stuff I always do," and having this other person say: "hey, that's really good. Just check that out, listen to that again." You listen to it and you think, "oh, yeah, that is rather good, actually. Yes, I hadn't noticed it." You can so easily overlook your own talents. Just as you can overlook your own shortcomings. You can fail to see your own talents; you're used to them. You're not that impressed by them anymore. And it's nice to have somebody else there who occasionally says, "Stop. Hold on. Listen to what you're doing. It's good." I do that a lot for other people I think. Just get them to stop and listen, focus on what they're up to, rather than to wait for the earth to move, to play something that's gonna be so devastatingly, shockingly brilliant that everything will stop. And those things actually are arrived at rather slowly by building from a seed that is promising.
I remember when I used to work with David Byrne and he would sit improvising rhythm guitar parts. And I'd hear a section, like two or four-bar section, and I think "well that's good, that bit" and then he'd come back into the control room I'd say: "just listen to this bit here." And I could learn it, I can learn guitar parts very easily. And I would just sing it to him over and over again 'til he learned to play it again. So I'd say, you know just, "dum-deedly-do-dum-da-dum-dum, dum-dadum-da-dooda-dooda-da, deedly dum-pa," something like that.
But if it hadn't been for your mirroring it back to him, he probably would have lost it on his own.
Yes. He wouldn't particularly have noticed it, just been part of him playing, you know. I mean he's a very good rhythm guitar player, but, he's always throwing out good rhythm guitar ideas, and he doesn't appear to differentiate between them that much. Sometimes one of them would strike me as a golden part, and I would just learn it and sing it to him, so he could learn it from me.
Recently I read some pejorative references to fundamentalism and fundamentalists that you made. I get the sense that you're referring to something more than the standard usage of the term - where we're referring to particular strains or religious schools, religious fundamentalism or Christian fundamentalism - that you're referring to a style of thinking, a broader application.
You've also been critical of New Age music. Now, beyond New Age Music, the so-called New Age movement strikes me as sharing a lot of characteristics with religious fundamentalism.
Oh, absolutely. It's a total retreat from dealing with the world as far as I'm concerned.
How would you dene fundamentalism as a style of thinking and what is it that bugs you?
The word I use, is not "fundamentalism." I invented a word, "rootism." Rootism is the belief that there are final roots, that there is something behind it all, that there's one language within which everything will be explicable. One vocabulary, if you like, with which everything could be discussed. If only everyone else would listen and learn it, we would all be able to live happily ever after. That's the basis of fundamentalism or rootism.
That describes what the New Age movement shares with, say, Christian fundamentalism...
Well, it describes all forms of fundamentalism. America is the fundamentalist country. America and Iran probably are the two major fundamentalist countries in the world now, which sort explains why they cross swords so badly. But America is the country that has to validate its actions by appealing to fundamentalist concepts, which are usually words with capital letters like Freedom, Justice, Truth, Liberty, God. Those kind of words are used to validate behavior. They're used to make behavior sound properly directed...
As if any kind of situational ethic was inadequate.
Yes, as if pragmatism was not a valuable way of working. I'm a pragmatist in the sense that I make decisions based on what evidence I have and what experience I have. I don't make decisions on the basis of principles of some kind.
I did a lecture the other night where I was saying that the primary role of the defense industry was to plug the gap created by the language we use to make our political claims, which is the language of fundamentalism, and the world we see around us, which doesn't map onto that language. That language doesn't describe things that really happen. It describes an abstract world that isn't here. For instance, America calls itself a capitalist free-enterprise market economy country, and yet it has embedded in the heart of it a socialist economy that is bigger than most of the world's economies - its defense system. The defense system is a socialist command economy in the sense that decisions are made there which are not subject to public sanction, which are not even made public very often, and that economy involves the circulation of huge, huge sums of money in a way that is just as socialist as Russia ever was.
Now I'm not against socialism actually, but the reason that that happens is that it is not possible to run a major economy in purely fundamentalist terms, be purely free enterprise, purely market-oriented. It's too difficult. That kind of economy would be constantly in catastrophe.
Just as running a huge economy in terms of purely socialist principles...
...doesn't work either. Precisely. The USSR had a defense system for exactly the same reason. Their defense system was the only place where there was a market, where a market actually functioned and it was the place where they could have the safety valve to cover the gap between what they claimed and what they had to do. This is always a problem that fundamentalism has. It has to talk in one language and behave in another language.
It has to respond to practical exigencies, and yet it claims to be operating according to principle. So the weaponry becomes a way of making it rather difficult to question that dissonance.
That's what it does. It's very difficult to argue with defense because the whole issue is complex, urgent, emotional, threatening, patriotic - and secret. This is the best part of it from the point of view of the government. They don't have to tell you what they are actually doing.
For instance, during Reagan's early years the Ford car company was in very serious trouble. It was likely to collapse, in fact. So the government ordered a huge contract to make an anti-helicopter tank called "Little David." "Little David" was probably the most worthless piece of military hardware ever produced. It failed sixty-five of seventy-three tests it was supposed to pass, and it was never deployed. It was a useless piece of machinery. But what it did do was kept the Ford Motor Company afloat. So it allows this government - which campaigned on an idea of minimum government interference and the free market - it allows them to do all the things that they said they weren't going to do to support a major company and get away with it. It looked like a defense project. The only thing it was defending was Ford.
I get a sense of two primary reasons why you find fundamentalism distasteful. First, because the principles it uses don't really provide a grounding for action and activity. It inevitably ends up justifying itself in a dishonest fashion. Second, I get the sense that the goal of fundamentalism is some kind of shared static state. In other words, the goal is to reach a state in which innovation is no longer required.
No longer a risk. Yes, well put. One of the bases of fundamentalism, fundamentalist thinking, is that "I have the right language." Fundamentalists must always end up as evangelists. They have to. Because they think they're right. They don't think: look, I've got the best information at the moment about this situation. That's quite different. I think it's legitimate to say: "I think I understand this situation and I think my information is good and I think I have a course of action to propose." That's a very different approach. Fundamentalists say, "My picture of the world necessarily will answer every question." Necessarily. There is not a type of question that couldn't be covered by this theory, whatever it happens to be.
In America you have the most frightening of all fundamentalists, which is the liberal fundamentalist. These are the people who nobody actually notices for quite a long time. But they're as dangerous as anyone else. In fact more so, because they appear to be on our side. They're sort of New Age fascists, the...
Here in California we have a phrase that refers to New Age fundamentalists: "White Light Nazi."
That's a very nice sort of phrase I should say. What does that mean exactly?
Well, it means the sort of person who 's trying to shove their so-called alternative... in the New Age, just as in Christian fundamentalism, they assign primacy of value to one dimension of human experience, and the agenda becomes one of purifying everybody of all the other dimensions. Hence the phrase, "White Light Nazi."
Yeah, yeah. Very good phrase.
I read that you were reading that Hillman/Ventura book, A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy - And Everything's Getting Worse.
That's a great book. Have you seen it?
I read an excerpt from it. It strikes me that maybe it ties into what we're talking about in terms of the hidden fundamentalism of this whole self-help industry.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely. It ties in very much. I think because the basis of what they're criticizing is an assumption that - at the root - someone else is to blame. A lot of the book is about the basic idea of psychotherapy that you can trace your problems back and blame them on something else, that it's your childhood or it's your parents, or it's your blackness or your Jewishness, or whatever. So let's spend our lives looking for what we blame and finding the root of our troubles.
That gets to a kind of rootism, then.
Definitely. I think Freudianism is an entirely rootist religion. It's just a modern form of Christianity because its fundamental premise to me is things are not as they seem. You know, if you dream about a pencil, it's actually a penis. Fucking hell! What a bizarre idea! The idea that things are simply traceable, and that nothing is as it seems, that there's a different, a deeper root to everything. Apart from it being impossible to establish whether that is the case or not, what is the value of establishing it? What is the value of even making use of that kind of metaphor? It seems to me to produce casualties - these people who spend all their time living in their childhood or living in some chaotic era of their past and reinvestigating and going over and over it again. Well, Christ, come on, we're grown-ups, man! Let's just live here and now.
One of the things in that book that I enjoy very much, he says, "what has happened to political activity in this country?" Talking about America. He says all the intelligent, sensitive people are now in therapy. This is very true in a way. The political arena has been left to the people who are not studying themselves, the people who in fact are motivated by hate and bigotry and defensiveness. Because the sensitive, intelligent people are so fucking wrapped up in the problems of their past that they're not living in the present. Hillman looked through a newspaper and counted something like a hundred and twenty ads for various sort of crisis groups and Alcoholics Anonymous and child incest victims survivors groups and that kind of thing. In the same issue he counted six meetings that were concerned with political action of any kind, concerned with the outside world rather than the interior world.
This is a real revelation to me. God, that really is where all the energy's going. Sure, you've got to be self-regarding, you have to be watching yourself, conscious of what you're doing. But watch the you that's living now, not the one that was then. There's not too much value in that for me, in constantly raking over the coals while blundering blindly through current life.
What all this suggests to me is the idea that the original agenda of psychoanalysis was to produce the well-adjusted person. And then what that led to is, I think, if people felt dissatisfied or angry in their present lives, that they assumed that their dissatisfaction or their anger, was somehow not a legitimate response to the present circumstance. Instead of making the effort to channel their anger towards reconstructing what's going on in the current environment, they try to get rid of that anger or that dissatisfaction, through some kind of therapeutic process which short-circuits any kind of political action. If the feeling is a "negative" feeling, like anger or dissatisfaction, then it's interpreted as some kind of neurosis.
That's right. You're not supposed to feel angry. That's the basic idea: if you feel angry, something's wrong. You've got to blame some part of your history for it. Well, fucking hell, there's a lot of good reasons for feeling angry. Just look around the world. It doesn't look in too good a shape. I think anger is a completely legitimate response. And it's a sort of energy. It should be made use of.
That's part of what I mean by the phrase "White Light Nazi," where one dimension of human feeling - like a sense of contentment or harmony - is assigned a primacy of value and we try to purge ourselves of anger, or assigning emotions and feelings "negative" and "positive" values.
That's right. The attitude that that produces in people, for me, is so smug, so cloying. I just find it despicable.
I had a terrible New Age experience in America once. It made me absolutely livid and sick. I certainly understand exactly what you mean by this "White Light Nazi" concept.
I was at a music conference in Colorado, a pretty New Age place. There was a lot of discussion about untempered tuning, pure tuning. This is a whole thing that's been going on in music for years which I find rather uninteresting. It depends on the idea that if the numbers are pure, the ratios between the frequencies are pure, then somehow the musical experience will be transcendental. This is a kind of fundamentalism too. I remember going to this concert of music that sounded like shit to me. It sounded way out of tune, because it was an exotic tuning using whole number intervals which made tremendous mathematical sense and, to me, no musical sense whatsoever. I remember being involved in a long argument where I kept saying: "Look. it sounds like crap. You'd never want to hear this kind of music." But these people did want to hear it because they thought it was doing them some good in some way. It was like crystals translated into music. The idea that if this thing was all mathematically hunky-dory and perfect, then your body would somehow be set into a good vibration with it.
First of all, there's no evidence whatsoever for such a correlation. But also there's no evidence that the body is excited by or interested by purity of that kind any more than it's interested by impurity and things that are mixed up and confusing and uncertain. I took the position of arguing for bad tuning because I said I found it much more interesting to listen to. And much more stimulating. It wasn't a popular argument in the context. I realized I was surrounded by people who believed. That was the difference: I was listening, they were believing.
This is what often seems to happen, the difference between fundamentalists and the-pragmatists. The pragmatist is saying: "Well, look, it doesn't work. I don't care what you believe, this is not working." And the fundamentalist says: "It must work. It will work."
Becoming blind to the evidence to the contrary, having to create some kind of structure of lies to explain that it really is working.
What normally happens is that when it doesn't work, and it's conspicuously not working, they say "It's because we're not doing it right." It's not because the theory is wrong. It's because we aren't doing it with enough purity.
This is what happened in Russia. The reason Communism didn't work, it was said, was that it wasn't being done completely enough, fully enough, in the most doctrinaire enough way.
This is what Reaganism was about as well. Reaganism was the attempt to say: "Look, we're not being capitalist enough. It's not that we're being too much of it, we're not being capitalist enough." Maggie Thatcher was the same theory. They both wanted to push toward the sort of pure form of their fundamentalist doctrine. When things still didn't work, or got even worse, they said, "It's because we still haven't reached that point yet. When we get there, everything will fall into place."
Are there any other ways that this idea of fundamentalism applies to music? Musical fundamentalism?
They're not terribly interesting, most of them. There's a lot of superstition among people. Some people won't use sequencers, some people only use sequencers. Some people refuse to do this or that or the other. Whereas I just use any technique that's around I can handle. Record companies, of course, sometimes exhibit considerable fundamentalism, or used to in the past. They wouldn't sell things that weren't songs, because they assumed people needed to be led by the hand through a piece of music, to be led by the words through a piece of music.
I'm intrigued with your current interest in aromas. Listening to your music over the years, the aspect which presents itself to my ear as foremost is attention to texture. To me there 's some kind of intuitive connection between timbre to overall musical or sonic experience, and the relationship between aroma to the sensorium as a whole.
One of the interesting things about aroma is that there's no language for it. There's no system within which you can classify it, divide it up, and relate smells one to another. It's quite unlike color. With color you have several terms like "hue," "saturation," "brightness," "reflectivity" and so on, which allow you to describe a particular color in the whole space of possible colors quite easily, to be able to relate it to all its neighbors and to the ones that are furthest away. So if I describe a color to you, you could mix something up that would not very far away from what I've been seeing in my mind.
With perfume that's utterly impossible to do. If I say to you, "sandalwood," the conversation goes no further because I wouldn't know how to describe it to you. I wouldn't know how to say, "Well, it's..."
"...half way between patchouli and ozone."
Exactly. You have no structure in that sense for talking about smells.
Now in music there's a whole language for talking about music called "musical notation." And it's absolutely It does not discuss texture at all. Musical notation came about for classical music, and deals with a situation where you have discrete pitches, discrete islands of sound. The clarinet is an island of sound, the flute is another island of sound, the violin. They're quite finite little areas of sound and there's nothing in between. There is no such sound in classical music as a "violoflute." You either have a violin or a ute or you play the two together. And rhythm, as well, is very crudely dealt with in classical music. The language is nowhere near sophisticated enough to talk about how African musicians play or even how funk musicians play. So the language of classical music is not any use for what people are doing in music now. It's a very crude approximation. It's even less useful for talking about texture because it never bothered to evolve any terms for it. It didn't need to. There was no need to describe all the points in between the islands of the few available classical instruments.
But now with electronics we have a situation much more like perfume where there's a continuous tembral space which is indescribable and fuzzy. Things overlap from one to the other. You could not say for instance, "electric guitar" and have any clear impression of what that meant. So if I say "electric guitar" to you, you might think, "Jimi Hendrix," or you might think "Mark Knopfler," or you might think somebody else. But you wouldn't think of one sound. An electric guitar is not one sound, in the sense that a viola is one sound. And it's not even a small group of sounds. It's an endless field of sound. Just like in perfumery. A field of sound which is difficult to describe and hard to locate points on.
In my lecture the other night I said that I thought the whole culture was like this now. If you take what _l've said about perfumery and musical texture and now apply that idea to the whole of culture, this is the opposite of the rootist view of culture, the notion that all of the objects of culture are in a continuously evolving relationship in relation to one another. And they do not and will not ever be subsumed into a single clear structure. Despite the efforts of critics and artists, we will never write another book called "The History of Art." There's not going to be one history of art. Nobody's going to look for that any longer. There are gonna be endless histories of art.
I get the sense that you find this kind of multiplicity of description a desirable situation, whereas for whatever reason the fundamentalist finds it undesirable. For instance, you've got all these schools of critique trying to get at roots, as if it's necessary to have them.
Well, roots are very comforting. It's very reassuring to think that you rooted. Take the Alex Haley book, Roots. It suddenly gave a kind of historical dignity and self-respect to a lot of people in America. Suddenly they thought, "We really did come from somewhere, and it was dignified. We weren't just slaves, we were something before that." On the one hand, one applauds that because it's very nice that people have dignity. But on the other hand you think, why didn't they have dignity anyway? Why do you have to appeal to that in order to acquire your dignity? Why not have dignity in the fact that you're alive here and now and you do something you like - if you do - and you're happy with your existence as a human being? Why does it have to be justified in terms of your background?
Roots was the smiling side of Freudianism for me. Freudianism's saying "The way you are is because there was a problem in your past." Roots was saying, "The way you are is because there was a great, wonderful Golden Age in your past." It's the same story, it's just the upside of the story.
Either of those interpretations is an escape from immediacy.
I've been wondering recently whether pragmatism as I'm talking about it here, is sort of a luxury condition. Maybe it isn't a condition that people who are not as well off as me, or leisured, or whatever I am, can afford to take. Maybe if you are stuck in a shit job, you've got bills piling up every month, maybe you really do require the reassurance of saying, "Oh, there's something better than all this, and it's all being held together at another level" or something like that. So I'm aware of that being a possibility, though I'm only aware of it as a possibility, I haven't thought out whether I really do think that's true or not.
I read somewhere where you said that your daughters asked you what you were frightened of and you said, "The impending collapse of American society and the global nastiness that could be released. " I was wondering if you had any comments on the riots in Los Angeles, as they seem to me to be portents of that kind of process.
There's only one comment I have and I think it's probably different from what other people might say. Everyone's criticized Daryl Gates for not sending in the police sooner. I don't know what his motives were, I'm sure he was just off to a fund-raising dinner and wasn't thinking about it, but I think that turns out to have been exactly the right course of action. I think if he'd sent in armed police that would have escalated it into something absolutely terrible. Because they were the enemy, you know. It was the police that made those people really mad. If he'd sent in armed police into such heavily armed area as downtown Los Angeles, there would have been total carnage there, and it would have spread to every other city. You'd have seen pictures of police shooting demonstrators and rioters. I know Daryl Gates got a lot of shit for not doing it right, but by accident he did the right thing. The riots just worked themselves out very quickly, relatively quickly. I expected to see much much worse. Though they seemed shocking, terrifying; I think they were quite predictable.
It would have happened somewhere at some point because American society is so committed to consuming and to wealth. What did you expect of all these people who aren't consuming and who aren't wealthy? What are they doing to do? They're told every moment of every day, "You're a nothing. You're a loser. Your life has no value. Fuck off and leave us alone. Do a shitty job. Your life is of no value." Well, not a great message. In England we don't have such a bad situation as in America, though we've recently had riots as well.
In what ways are conditions better over there?
First of all there's not such huge validation given to material affects. You don't really have an aristocracy in America. The only aristocracy is one of money. We have a lot of interpenetrating systems, hierarchies of different kinds. The aristocracy here is not necessarily wealthy. People do admire money and are interested in getting it. I'm not saying that money isn't a motivator here, but there is also the motivation of glory, or position, or status. Status is a very strong motivator in most societies. But in most societies it is not so strongly linked to money as it is in America.
There's virtually no difference between status and money here.
That isn't the case you see in most of Europe. There are people who are extremely high status who are not wealthy, and there are people who are very wealthy who do not have high status. Those two systems overlap but they do not map onto one another. For example, I'm going to stay with a friend tomorrow. She's definitely an aristocrat. She comes from a good family and knows all the Dukes and everything like that. Her estate is next to the Duke of Northumberland's, in fact. And she's absolutely piss-poor. She has been ever since I've known her. In fact, I once gave her two thousand quid to repair the roof of her manor 'cause she has no money whatsoever. But socially she has very good standing. It's quite possible for there to be a complete distinction between money and status here. And so it's possible for people to imagine validating themselves in different ways from what seems to be a very singular way of doing it in America.
We have a very big problem in England with cynicism. I know that most of what I've been saying today is critical of America, but I'm always defending Americans here, funnily enough. I think they have one fantastic quality, which is an enthusiasm for the future, a real interest in seeing "What happens if we do this? Let's try this. Let's see what happens. Yeah! Let's do it!" You being an American, you might think, "Oh God, he doesn't know what's happening." But honestly, compared to Europe, you're so bold. And I'm constantly saying that amidst the criticism that we make of America from our European vantage point. I'm always saying, "Yes, but you have to remember the other side of the coin."
In England, there was an incredibly negative culture, from the mid-'70s to the end of the '80s, a culture of absolute cynicism, of people saying, "Fuck off. What do you want to try that for. Oh God, it's so stupid, it's boring." Anything you wanted to do, people could find twenty reasons why you shouldn't do it. Most of my encouragement during that period actually came from America. So I'm in debt to Americans in that way. It was their enthusiasm, rather than British enthusiasm, that kept me going for a long time. Now it's changed a bit. I've become very hip in England. But there was a time when I was kind of a dirty word here for being so wide-eyed about things.
Do you think the Rave scene over there, the acid house scene, has had any real significant impact in terms of defusing that cynicism?
Yes, I do, but I don't know which is cause and which is effect. Certainly there's a change of attitude. The press is behaving differently now. The feeling is that a good journalist is someone who finds interesting things and brings them to your attention. Which seems obvious, but that wasn't the case for the last fifteen years, during which a journalist was a person whose job was to puncture hot air balloons. To go around and actually be very insulting. To break taboos. There's value in doing that, of course, I can see the point, but it became such a religion in England.
This is another great thing about Americans. Your press is so much better than ours. I mean, a hundred times better. We have such a vile press tradition, one of the worst in the world.
Well, our press tends to look pretty poor from our own vantage point But I suppose that's an encouraging analysis in a perverse sort of way.
Of course you have a lot of shitty, old-time papers, but there are several really world-class newspapers in America which employ, as far as I can see, intelligent journalists who work quite diligently on producing well-researched articles. What do we have? Well, it's not the same situation. Plus we have much less free press. Whereas you have a Freedom of Information Act, we have an Official Secrets act. You have an Act which theoretically is intended to empower people to discover. We have an act which is exactly the converse of that, intended to prohibit people from discovering things. That says a lot for the press in this country. That is actually probably the single most important observation you can make about it.