The Sunday Times JANUARY 23, 2007 - by Rachel Campbell-Johnston


The Roxy Music star is about to light up Britain. To get the most from his work, know your maths.

Brian Eno first came to fame in the '70s. Flamboyantly kitted out in space suit and feather boa, he was the man behind the synthesizer in the Bryan Ferry-fronted band Roxy Music. But for a protean polymath who had ended up in the rock industry almost by accident, this was only the kick-start of a kaleidoscopic career.

Eno is the composer who pioneered modern ambient music. He is the producer whose talents transfigured the work of David Bowie and Bono, Paul Simon and David Byrne, and are even now coveted by everyone from Dido to Coldplay, with whom he is currently working.

Now fifty-eight, he is a diarist, a professor (of time-based media at the Royal College of Art) and a passionate opponent of the war in Iraq. He has dated Julie Christie, popped up as a character in a Philip K. Dick novel, relieved himself in Duchamp's urinal as an artistic statement, taken a cameo role in the Father Ted sitcom and - according to rock legend, at least - got through six groupies in a day before eventually collapsing.

His enthusiasms have an almost surreal eclecticism. And an interview only emphasises the fact. An evening which begins as an a cappella singing group in his Notting Hill studio moves, by way of the perfumes he mixes, on to taramasalata in a local restaurant. But his latest offering is on the subject of the visual arts. He is exploring nothing less than a fresh way of looking.

Over the past thirty years or so Eno has staged more than a hundred shows of his art work the world over. But next week he makes his debut in a British gallery. A multiscreen sound and light installation, Constellations (77 Million Paintings), will go on show at the Baltic in Gateshead, while, simultaneously, a similar configuration, Luminous, will be displayed in Selfridges department store in London.

Constellations consists of three hundred and sixty hand-painted slides. A computer program randomly shuffles about the layers of these pictures to produce a continuum of constantly changing images. There are seventy-seven million permutations. "The maths is sound," Eno assures me, and you can be sure he is right. This is the man for whom a square-root calculation is just a run-of-the-mill piece of mental arithmetic.

Appearing on a pattern of screens, the images transmute to the accompaniment of an entrancing electronic tune. The sounds cluster and recluster in strange unearthly songs. "What absolutely intrigues me," Eno says as he stares into the patterns that coalesce and change and dissolve, "is that I've never seen this before and I'm never going to see it again. Each image is unique... and each moment in the music is unique." Apparently, it would take more than nine thousand years to watch the entire show at the fastest speed available with the software.

Eno comes from a musical family. His grandfather, a postman in whose house (a converted chapel deconsecrated after the priest committed suicide) the young Eno first lived, mended organs as a hobby. Over the course of his life he gradually transformed his entire home into a musical instrument. He installed all the old organ pipes and fixed them up with ducts so that by the end, Eno says, "he could pretty much play the whole place".

Eno's father, also a postman, was the drummer in a little jazz trio. "But it's only because of the type of technologies that now exist that I can make music," Eno says. "I can't play an instrument. I never learnt because I was planning to be a painter and not a musician."

Brought up on a council estate in rural Suffolk, he fell under the influence of a "strange and wily" uncle who, having been honourably dismissed from the hussars in India, had stayed on in the subcontinent, only to return to England many years later as a sort of guru. "He used to show me paintings," Eno says, "and once I went over to his place and he showed me a book of paintings by Mondrian and I was absolutely entranced. These were the most amazingly beautiful things I had ever seen, and I decided that painting was the closest thing to magic that there was."

Eno won a place at Ipswich Art College with a copy of a Renoir nude ("I loved his big luscious sexual women," says the man who, at the age of sixteen, was already living with the girl by whom he had his first daughter). But it was the Russian Constructivists who persistently fascinated him. "I thought it was fantastic that you could make a non-figurative world that could still communicate, that could evoke the strongest feelings. People have always been able to accept music as an entirely abstract form, but they have a lot of difficulty with art. Even now they are always trying to find out what it means."

By the time he was at Winchester Art College Eno had begun to move away from painting to focus on working with light. He was "playing about with happenings and performances which involved music and tape recordings".

By the time he left art school, Eno was sure that he never wanted to have a job. "My dad worked so hard, it was terrible. I remember him coming home one day and my mother putting his dinner in front of him and he just fell asleep. It was so sad and I thought: 'I am never going to do that'. I also had this early feeling about luck. People say that some people are just lucky and some aren't, but luck isn't like that. Luck is being ready. It comes to those who are ready to act. So I thought I am just going to wait around and be ready."

He didn't have to hang about long. At a Tube station he bumped into Andy Mackay, who told him "about these guys who had written some songs and had a synthesizer but didn't know how to work it. I said I could probably figure it out, so I went along and I just started joining in. And the kind of things I was doing made their music sound modern." Roxy Music was born, and for a few years it took over.

It was only in about 1978 that Eno returned to working with visuals and light. "I was struck by the difference between paintings and music. The painting sits still and you move in front of it. The opposite is the case in music. You sit still and the music unfolds in front of you.

"I wanted to be able to listen to music the way I looked at paintings. I wanted music that didn't change very much - about the rate of change of a nice day out. I wanted music that was a bit like going for a walk in the forest, where you make decisions about which way to go, where you can stop, sit down and not feel like you missed anything. And when I went back to making art installations that was very much what I was aiming at also. I just wanted to make the sort of places that I would like to spend time in."

His multicoloured images, transforming and merging, mutating and melting, are mesmerising. They encourage a new - or maybe an old - way of looking at art. They have an entrancing, atmospheric, almost spiritual power.

"One of the most interesting things about these images is the new behaviour that they produce," Eno says. "People in galleries don't usually look at pictures for more than a few seconds. But in my shows they behave as if they are in a cinema, even though nothing much is going on. I think this is very interesting. It contradicts everything that people say about attention spans. It makes me think that there is a niche in contemporary culture for people who want to do something slow."