The Herald MAY 28, 2000 - by Michael Bracewell


Take ten CD players, add comfortable furniture and mix in the philosophies of ambient inventor Brian Eno. Michael Bracewell looks at the results.

When you try to describe Brian Eno's career you find yourself faced with a job description that would suit a present-day Leonardo da Vinci. In the true spirit of Renaissance thinking, Eno is an inventor, conceptualist, musician, artist, diarist, ideologue and philosopher for whom the social application of his ideas - how art integrates with the way we live - is the basis of his creativity.

A founder member of Roxy Music in the early 1970s, Eno is also regarded as the popular embodiment of the avant-garde. Now in his early fifties, he has worked as a collaborator and producer on landmark LPs by David Bowie, Devo, Talking Heads and U2. But, more importantly, as regards the development of his own career as an artist, Eno has invented new ways in which recorded music is both made and heard.

We meet in Eno's London studio, a light, airy suite of rooms tucked away down a quiet mews and the place where his most recent exploration into sound adventures took place - the creation of an audio-visual installation for Sonic Boom: The Art Of Sound, currently on show at the city's Hayward Gallery.

Dressed in a simple grey suit rather than the pale blue eyeshadow and peacock feather collar of the Roxy years, he radiates youthful energy and generous good humour. He also has the ability to speak in what seem to be perfectly formed paragraphs, articulating complex ideas almost as though he was reading from a script.

"I can have a very authoritative voice," he remarks at one point, laughing. "It sounds awful, but I can convince people to believe in almost anything. Such as persuading them that the Belgians invented water, as I did last night at dinner."

Back in 1975, Eno released an album called Discreet Music on his own Obscure label. This was a thirty-minute piece of instantly mesmeric, but seemingly simple tones, and it demonstrated how a recording system could be made which would literally create its own music.

Described by Eno as "ambient" music, the ramifications of this process were rather like the invention of oil painting or Cubism. They opened up new areas of cultural practice, rooted in a dialogue with scientific thinking. In fact, it was Eno's firmly held belief that the arts should make themselves as answerable to public debate as the sciences which formed the basis of his controversial speech at the Turner Prize dinner in 1995, prior to Damien Hirst being announced as that year's winner.

"I don't see why it should be considered incompatible with being a good artist that you might be articulate as well. I take that as a part of the job. If you ask me a question about what I'm doing, I want to be able to tell you, at least, this is what I think I'm doing, this is how I'm doing it, and this is why I'm excited about it."

Eno expanded the concept of ambience, through new applications of technology, to pursue wholly "generative" - or self-creating - art forms. These pieces are conceived and designed hardly ever to repeat themselves, but endlessly to remix their own particular effects. Over the past few years, he has been invited to install such works all over the world. "This'll be the first time I've made one of these types of pieces in England," he says of his Sonic Boom installation, a set of ten CD players which combine to create the hauntingly atmospheric minimalism of the new work's musical element.

"These are pieces which use slide projectors that are computer controlled to do very slow dissolves from slide to slide. In fact, the images are made up of overlays of many slides, which I have either painted directly on to or etched through a varnish. There are other objects in the room as well. Pieces of 'semi-three-dimensional' furniture, which I make, and, of course, the music. What nearly always happens with these shows, because they move at a slow, hypnotic pace, is people come in and settle down. I always have chairs in there, actually, and this provides the only ergonomic problem we encounter - how to get rid of people."

Whether heard as recorded music or experienced as installations, Eno's generative projects are far more than simply refined aesthetic experiences. They demonstrate the ways in which his genius for conceptual thinking - the ability, above all, to test ideas across a wide range of social and artistic phenomena - has singled him out as a philosopher whose ideas about music can have a far-reaching effect.

"If you can get used to the term 'generative' and start to think of yourself as a generative being, so you stop having the notion that there is a perfect, Platonic version of yourself which you'll finally achieve. You begin to think of yourself as a continual mix, with some things added and some left out. Sometimes this mix is going to produce brilliant, beautiful surprises, and sometimes it's going to be a bit dull.

"Every kind of music embodies a social philosophy. What it requires of the listener is an embodiment of their participation in that philosophy. And the implications of this are quite profound."

Eno's art works can be seen as practical demonstrations of his philosophies, and in many of the cities where he has shown them there has been the response from the public that such meditative, peaceful environments should be a permanent fixture. In London, Eno would like to site his installations both in public waiting areas - such as airports or stations - and in places used a lot by elderly people.

"With these generative pieces, I've hit upon a territory which people really like and instinctively understand. Because a lot of our reflective spaces have disappeared in modern city living, there are fewer chances to just sit and let your thoughts go by. As much as anything, these works give people an alibi to do just that. Because they give the impression of something happening, you can say to yourself, 'I'm not wasting time, I'm looking at art'. In fact, they allow you just to sit still for a while."