Sydney Morning Herald JUNE 6, 2009 - by Louise Schwartzkoff


Brian Eno's Luminous Festival will showcase one scientist's taste for the afterlife, writes Louise Schwartzkoff.

What if God were the size of a microscopic bacterium? What if He were a woman, a bickering married couple, or a species of dimwitted creatures? If humanity could design its own afterlife, what would it look like?

No belief system is sacred in Tales From The Afterlives, a performance that combines Brian Eno's music with the short stories of the American neuroscientist-turned-author David Eagleman.

Part of the Luminous music festival, the show will combine live readings of Eagleman's stories with original music written and performed by Eno. The speculative tales about life after death fascinated Eno when he first read Eagleman's book, Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives. He contacted the author and wrote twelve electronic scores based on particular stories.

"He works with music and I am a writer, but there is a similarity in what we are trying to do," Eagleman says. "I take the stories and beliefs we inherit from our ancestors and explore the possibilities in between, and he explores the possibilities of new sounds, outside the traditions of music."

Eagleman does not subscribe to any religion, but is interested in them all. It mystifies him when others claim their own religion is the one true faith. "People fight and die for this small number of stories passed down from our ancestors, each insisting that everyone else is wrong," he says. "But you can make up new stories, better stories. What I'm interested in is exploring possibilities."

In most of the stories, God exists, though often in a surprising form. In one, the world is run by three "cosmic programmers" and in another, human beings are nothing more than information gatherers, built by "planetary cartographers" to map the Earth.

"They are not supposed to be serious suggestions," Eagleman says. "They are meant to be funny and interesting and poignant. They are intended to shine a spotlight on human joys and complexities."

He worked on the scenarios for seven years, setting time aside after work at the neuroscience research lab. There is no great difference, he says, between the work of a scientist and a writer.

"Science done well is an artistic pursuit, full of creative leaps and new ideas. As a scientist, you come up with wacky stories and ideas and you put them to the test.

"Sometimes, you make up a beautiful, wacky story and it turns out to be exactly what Mother Nature made up."

With its combination of science, music and literature, Tales From The Afterlives is typical of Eno's approach to the Luminous program. He wanted to create events that ignored the traditional barriers between art forms.

The festival's final week includes performances from Reggie Watts, who blends hip-hop with comedy, and Jon Hopkins, who uses electronic techniques with beatbox, drums and piano. Hopkins will join forces with Eno next Sunday for a ninety-minute concert finale, also starring Underworld's Karl Hyde and guitarist Leo Abrahams.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Australian band the Necks will collaborate with Back To Back Theatre, a group of actors with disabilities. The reggae legend Lee 'Scratch' Perry will perform on Thursday night.