Synapse JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1979 - by Kurt Loder


Synapse has received more requests to publish an interview with Brian Eno than any other artist. It's easy to understand when one considers that he has worked with David Bowie, John Cage, Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, Cluster, 801, Devo, Talking Heads, Nico, John Cale, Kevin Ayers and Mike Oldfield, amongst others. What kind of personality does it take to collaborate with such diversity?

Kurt Loder: In your various recording projects over the past five years with David Bowie, Robert Fripp, Phil Manzanera, John Cale, Ultravox, John Cage and, most recently, Talking Heads and Devo, you've raised the art of collaboration to a whole new level of creative endeavour. What particular qualities do you look for in a potential collaborator?

Brian Eno: Sometimes I think any collaboration is worthwhile, because if it isn't a promising one, then I have to work all the harder to get something that interests me personally out of it. This is how I work with film scores. If I've got the time I'll accept any film score, as long as the director isn't a creep who I just don't get along with. I'll accept any film job quite independent of what I feel about the film, because it's an excuse to make some music. In a way, if I'm not sympathetic to the film it's even more interesting, because I've got a constraint that's bound to push something new out of me. So one theory of collaboration is that Ill do anything. The other theory of collaboration says, in fact, there are some people who are much more interesting to work with than others. So these two things vie with each other.

The collaborations I enjoy - in fact the ones you mentioned, and especially the two I've had recently with Talking Heads and Devo, arise from a sense that the other party of the collaboration has a set of skills that, in combination with my set of skills, will produce something novel.

Synapse: What was there about the first Talking Heads LP that intrigued you enough to want to produce their second one?

Eno: Well, first of all I found it very, very attractive material, full of potential, and certainly manifesting an intelligence that stood behind the music. And it struck me that the music was all the product of some very active brains that were constructing music in a kind of conceptual way. It seemed to me - and this was confirmed by later experience - that these people were making experiments. They were thinking, What would happen if we did this? And this? Oh, yeah. So what happens if we now do this with it? And when I talked with David (Byrne) subsequently, indeed this is what they do. He says that some of their songs have arisen from a purely intellectual basis. And my own work arises from similar ideas, from really just thinking, This might be a good idea. What would that sound like?, rather than the way people think songs are written. People think that you sit at home and have a melody and chord sequence in mind, and then you think, Well, what instruments would be good for this? You know, that kind of having a goal, which you then build towards. I don't think anyone works like that, or very rarely. Sometimes there will be a melody at the beginning, or a particular rhythmic configuration, but generally there's a sense of, Well, I'm going to set this project in motion. Where will it lead me? And furthermore, do I like where it leads me? Because if you don't, you abandon it; you start gain.

Synapse: How long do you give an idea to work out?

Eno: That's an interesting question, because it really depends on your confidence level at the time. There are some days when my confidence level is so high that I can make anything work. There are other days when it just won't work like that. It really depends sheerly on confidence and energy. Particularly if you work without a groups, as I do, you really need a lot of energy to push something through those first stages, where it's just a rhythm-box going bump-titta, and a piano going dum, dum, dum. I mean, that doesn't sound terribly interesting, so maintaining the conviction to keep going, in the hope or in the trust that it's going to turn into something, does require a lot of application. And some days I just don't have that.

With the Talking Heads, all the material on the album was pre-written, but some of it got changed in the studio. Some of it got changed quite a lot. Like in certain sections I would say, Now, look, this section is going to be interesting, I can tell, why don't you extend it now? If it doesn't turn out to be interesting, we can easily edit it back down again. But let's make it longer now; let's see. I just get the feeling that something's going to happen here. And we did that. On other occasions, a number that worked very well live didn't make it in that form in the studio. So we would chop it about, sections would come out, the thing would be edited to a much more compact form. And in fact, one of the differences, I think, between this and the last record is that there's a real conciseness about the ideas, and there's a very high rate of ideas per minute, much higher than the other record.

Synapse: Did you utilise the studio more? Is there more synthetic percussion, for example?

Eno: In fact, there's not synthetic percussion as such, but there are quite a few cases where the drums are treated and electronified, if you like. Because the way I was set up was such that I had my synthesizer directly linked with the control desk (mixing board), so that as they were playing the basic tracks, I could feed any instrument - or all instruments, if I wanted to, but I never did that - through my system, and start playing with the sound of it. And on some tracks, this was quite decisive. It really gave a character to the track, which then modified how they worked on it. So there was a real interaction in that sense. Other tracks I left pretty much alone, because as far as I was concerned they'd already extended the things quite a long way.

Synapse: What kind of synthesizer set-up do you use in the studio?

Eno: If you work in different studios, you find that they all have a few bits and pieces around. And I always find it much more interesting to be confronted with their bits and pieces, which are probably not what I would have chosen, than to keep carrying my own stack of things. I'm not interested in developing a body of technique that works. So I just carry one thing with me, which is this little synthesizer that fits into a suitcase, which is a very idiosyncratic machine. It's made by EMS. I've had it for quite a long time, and I've never had it serviced, so it's quite quirky. It's rather unpredictable, and it does very interesting things. So I take that around, because it still surprises me.

Synapse: What was your approach to Devo? Aren't they almost entirely the opposite of a group like Talking Heads?

Eno: They're another polarity to Talking Heads on one continuum. But in another sense they're very close to one another. And that sense again, this experimental feeling of What would happen if...? I get the feeling with both of them that there's a kind of intellectual rigour about what they're doing. When you are working on a piece of music, you are constantly presented with easy ways out, ways you could get it finished easily, just get it out of the way. Put some strings on, you know, that kind of thing. That's the most hackneyed approach to the problem, but there are more sophisticated easy ways out. Now, it strikes me that both of these bands generally don't take them. They both have an idea and extend it as far as it'll go, until it collapses. If it somehow stays intact after the quite rigorous attack they give it, it's a worthwhile idea. I see the roots of Talking Heads being primarily drawn from funk and that kind of music, which they've added a layer to; so you still have this kind of slow bouncing thing underneath, but on top you have these rhythm guitars that are very very choppy and precise and accurate. That particular mixture is something new, I think. With Devo, you have something that makes the body move in a new way. It really does. If you listen to Devo's music, you suddenly find you're doing this (he leaps about robotically). It's really.... it has this stiffening effect on you.

Synapse: In their case, it seems to be a complete lifestyle.

Eno: Yes. Well in fact all the best approaches are lifestyles, actually. That's what you find with Devo, Talking Heads, and with me, what all of us do is to work with the way we are, the way we live and how we behave socially and so on; what our politics are.

Synapse: Speaking of politics, weren't you heavily influenced by Cornelius Cardew, the British avant-garde composer who became a Maoist?

Eno: Yes, I am an admirer, but not of his recent work. My personal opinion is that the Maoist thing for him is a very big mistake, and it significantly reduced his music. I think it nearly always does, because once you become political, what you attempt to do is codify a set of perceptions into easily handleable chunks, mainly language. Now, nearly always the most interesting things that an artist does are not defensible on that level. When you work, you find you're suddenly in a position where you're exposed; you can't defend what you're doing. You just have to say, For some reason this is interesting to me, I don't know why. Maybe I will in a year's time. And usually, sometime later, you do know why that was interesting. But at the time, you've extended yourself beyond the territory that the intellect can account for.

Now, normally, when people become politically conscious in the way that Cardew did, they forbid themselves that activity. They say, The job of an artist is to radicalise society, for example, and they say, How do you do that? And so then they start thinking, Well, you do it by this and this and this - and suddenly, the music becomes like an advertisement for a doctrine. Furthermore, a doctrine nearly always lags behind the real implications of the music that they were doing previously.

Cardew is a very interesting case in point. He wrote a piece called The Great Learning, which was seven separate pieces, and one of them - they're called Paragraphs - one of them was called Paragraph 7, and for me it's really one of the most interesting pieces of modern music ever written. It's for singers with any degree of training. I've staged a few performances of it, and I wrote a long essay about the piece in Studio International. His score is extremely simple; there is no notation, and there are very few instructions. Somehow or other, this piece always comes out sounding very beautiful, and very similar from one performance to the next. And I started thinking, how can this be? He hasn't specified anything, and yet the piece always comes out the same - when I say the same, I mean the overall effect of it is identical in each performance. The constraints are very few; it's not hard to form. You can almost say to do what you like, but you don't quite. I started trying to investigate why this piece worked as it did, because there are many other pieces of modern music that try to do the same thing and fail. The performances are all totally different, and some of them are shit, and people don't enjoy them and people don't enjoy listening to them. The thing about this Cardew piece is that it's beautiful to do and lovely to listen to. So I thought, what is it? How has he constructed this thing so that it regulates itself in this way? Because basically that's what it does: there's a whole system of automatic regulators that come into being during a performance of this piece. They're not chosen, they just happen. For example, it has a paragraph from Confucius, and the paragraph is divided into eighteen lines, I believe. Some of them are just one word long, and some of them are two or three words long. Beside each line is a little instruction that says, Sing 8F3, for example. That instruction means sing this line eight time; any three of those times, sing it loud. The ancillary instructions say, Sing any note that you can hear. So that means when you move to a new line, your choice of notes is governed by the available notes in the environment, the notes other people are singing. So you choose a note that you can hear. Well, typically, there are a lot of them, so you've got a very wide choice. And it also says, Sing the line each time for the length of a breath. So if the word is just if, you go, iiiiiiif, right? Eight times, and three of them loud. That's all the instructions and somehow or other, this piece always sounds the same. When you hear three or four performances, you start to get really puzzled by this. There are a large number of reasons for this, and cybernetics and systems theory are actually the mechanisms by which you can explain this piece. Because it has very strong parallels with high biological systems, which again aren't governed by external controls.

How do systems like this keep themselves intact, how do they respond to interference, and how do they maintain their identity? In fact, all systems of that nature are what's called autopoetic, which means they serve to maintain their own identity. With the Cardew piece, just take the instruction, Sing any note you can hear. Now, a number of things can happen given that instruction. First of all, it's normally performed with a lot of people, therefore it's in a large space. In any large space, you always get an acoustic resonance building up. You know how in your bathroom you'll find one note, if you're singing is very, very loud? That's the resonant frequency of that room. Now, in any large space there'll be a resonant frequency, and if you have a lot of people singing, the probability is that any note hitting the frequency will be slightly louder than all the other notes. So the probability is reinforced that, given the instruction Sing any note that you can hear, the chances are slightly in favour of your singing that one. So what happens when this piece begins is, it very quickly settles down 'round a drone, and the drone is the resonant frequency of the room. So that's one thing that happens. It's not specified in the score. Cardew probably didn't even know that it was going to happen.

The second thing that happens is that, typically, it's done with singers of all different types of skills; that means you sometimes have people who are tone deaf. When they get the instructions to, Sing any note you can hear, try as they might, they fail. So they introduce new notes into the piece. If the singers were all perfect, the piece could only diminish in terms of the number of notes that were available as logical. They would all finish their lines at different times. So, say there are twenty singers. Number nineteen finishes. He's got a choice of nineteen notes to sing from, so he chooses one of them. Then number eighteen finishes; he's got a choice of only eighteen notes... it's bound to get smaller. But by the factor that people don't always sing the right note, or sometimes they sing an octave too high, or a fifth too low, or something like that, or adjust their own register - again, new notes are introduced. So the piece has a kind of vacillating range and number of notes.

Synapse: Sounds like the choral montage effects of composers like Penderecki and Ligeti - although they of course are composing toward their effects.

Eno: The old method of composing is exactly that - you specify the result you want, and then you present a number of exact instructions to get to there. Which is like any old social system where, by systems of laws and constraints, you attempt to specify behaviour. Now the Cardew piece, for me, is a radical thing socially, because he doesn't do all that, and yet it happens. The behaviour remains governed. I think political systems are all doing what the old composers were doing. They're all saying, What kind of society do we want? If you give the most generous interpretation, they're saying that. Then they say, Alright, so let's constrain this behaviour here and let's encourage this here and blah, blah, blah. And they're all trying to govern by rote a highly complex system. You don't need to do that, that's the thing. The Cardew piece, for me, proved that, under the right circumstances, you can set the system up so that it goes there itself. In fact, Stafford Beer, the cybernetician, has a very good sentence in one of his books. He says, instead of trying to specify in full detail, you specify only somewhat; you then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go. There are certain organic regulators; you don't have to come up with them, you just have to let them operate. All of the current political systems seem obsessed with this old idea that the job of government is to constrain the natural course of events. Now, I can see quite the opposite - the job of government being to take advantage of the natural course of events. For example, if you look at two ways of generating energy, one way is where you rip holes in the earth and pull coal out and leave a great big mess and make a lot of smoke; and the other way is to find a waterfall and stick a water wheel on it. So all you do is, in fact, interrupt an entropic process - there it is, it's carrying on, it's still carrying on. You haven't taken anything from anything. All you've done is intervene in a procedure that's already happening, and tapped something off.

Synapse: Of course, water wheels are hardly the solution to our energy problems on a national scale, are they?

Eno: The scale is certainly the biggest consideration in this. I suppose the main reason I'm interested in cybernetics is that it does deal in terms of those very complex situations. Cybernetics, under some definitions, is the science of complex systems. So it deals with systems that are probalistic rather than deterministic. It says that, This is a very complex system; all we know is that it's likely to give this class of results - this class of results, not this particular one. Now, in that sense, it's an inexact science, and it's the first real science that is inexact that actually can do something. As far as I'm concerned, those other ones, like sociology and psychology, are very inexact and they really don't seem to work. In Warren S. McCulloch's book, Embodiments Of Mind, he says a very interesting thing. He says, at the end of a series of psychological sessions, the psychologist will say, The treatment is finished. And McCulloch says, I've never actually heard one of them say, 'The patient is cured.'

The thing is, we can't accurately predict. One of the central ideas of cybernetics is that the system itself will inevitably produce a certain class of results. That's what it does. That's in the nature of the system. And one of the major results is that it will prolong its own existence. So two things are operating: first of all, the system is seeking to prolong its own existence; and, secondly, the system is degenerating. It always is; information is always passing out; we're getting older, a process of decay is always at work. So these two things are happening. Again, most of the political systems don't recognise this. They say, There's this institution that does this, and when something different is required, there's a huge effort to manoeuvre that institution to do the new thing. But it won't. It's in the nature of systems to do one thing, and not something else. The structure of a system governs its behaviour. That's how simple it is for me. And if you want to change the behaviour, you have to change the structure.

We both share a vast civil service, a bureaucracy that hasn't realised this point, and which is highly autopoetic, I mean, most of its behaviour is an attempt to prolong its own identity, and to produce more of itself. I don't know which country has it the worst. It's certainly bad in England.

Synapse: Can these systems be changed, then? Are you interested in trying to change them?

Eno: I'm not a proselytiser or an evangelist of any kind, because I don't think that's how change happens. I think that serious political change is always personal. All that could happen is that you might happen to say something to someone just at the point where they're ready to change. That's fine; you might be the person who says to them. For that change to be real, and to be properly realised, they must have reached that point. You might just crystallize it for them, you might clinch it. But for me, the idea of actually convincing someone doesn't work. If the necessity for a change isn't already within them, they won't change. If the necessity for change isn't there, that means they don't see the same world as you. And so the procedure of introducing them to the world is quite different from evangelising about it, and it's one of the result which you can't predict. They might come out with a system much better than yours, actually. Or quite different.

For me this Cardew piece was a radical lesson in how a little society could be organised - a micro-society - or how it organises itself. Every contribution was valuable. The contribution of the tone-deaf singer - the system was constructed to use that as well. I really don't know another piece of music that is so extraordinary as Paragraph 7 in those senses. It really is a unique piece. I only wish that he'd gone on with doing more of that.

Synapse: How did your collaborations with Bowie come about?

Eno: What was happening to him - what was happening to everybody - was that a chain of ideas was running out. When that happens, you can easily keep going on, rehashing them, if you want to. Or else you can be brave enough to say, Look, they're just not doing any more for me, I've got to start doing something new. Now, for him, I think that's quite a risky thing to do. It's not for me, because I've sort of set myself up as someone who does that kind of thing. It's almost expected. And I've been careful to guard that position, in a way, maintaining my mobility. But I think two things were happening: first of all, a chain of working approaches was running out for him, and he was beginning to sense that another one might be starting. He liked Another Green World a lot. He saw in that an approach that he liked, I guess. Similarly, I heard Station To Station and thought that was a great album. And I thought, in the same way, There's ideas in here that I'm gonna nick. And so coming-together was fairly natural. Mutually interesting.

Synapse: So Bowie influenced you in certain ways?

Eno: Yes he did.

Synapse: Some of the songs on Before And After Science, especially on the first side, sound a lot more percussive than your usual material, much in the manner of Bowie's Young Americans and Station To Station.

Eno: Well, I used to have this little badge which said, Join the Fight Against Funk. Because in 1974 or '75, I absolutely despised funky music. I just thought it was everything I didn't want in music. And suddenly, I found myself taking quite the contrary position, and I had to chuck my little badge away, because it wasn't true anymore. And I suddenly found that, partly because of what he was doing and one or two other things - mostly Parliament and Bootsy and those people - I suddenly realised that if you took this a little bit further, it became something very extreme and interesting. And Bowie did; it was like grand funk. It was so exaggerated that it became a new form, it wasn't just schlocky gloss. And also he left all his rough edges in. He always does.

Synapse: Given the curious course your career has taken, I wonder what sort of music you grew up listening to?

Eno: I had a very interesting selection of music. I lived in a little town in Suffolk which was within five miles of two very, very large American air bases, and there were lots of cafes in town which all carried American records, as well as English ones - even quite obscure American records. Then there were the PX stores. My sister used to be a Yankee basher in Suffolk; that meant she went out with or two Americans, which was terribly frowned upon by the locals. But it meant that she also used to go to the PX there and come back with all these really interesting records that you never heard in England otherwise. They never were on the radio. So I grew up with a very transatlantic background in music, and I was interested in music very early. We had a player piano, one of those things that you pedal, and I used to absolutely love that. I played that all the time. All we had were old hymns, like Jerusalem and so on, which I thought were beautiful. And I think that the kind of melancholy quality of those is something that's actually persisted in anything I've done since.

The thing about all this American stuff was that I had no idea what its antecedents were. It was just mystery music to me. I'd hear like Chicken Necks by Don And Juan, or Get A Job by The Silhouettes, and I'd think, This is just weird music. Nothing at all in England was like that. So it was like space music, and I found that I was very excited by music that was as strange as that. Because you must remember, English music at the time was really boring: Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele and... just a lot of very poor imitations of the larger American stars.

The other thing was that I had an uncle - he wasn't really an uncle, he was just someone that we called an uncle - and he was really into big band jazz; Jack Teagarden and that kind of thing. At one time he didn't have anywhere to live and dumped this huge pile of albums on us. My parents didn't like them at all, but I used to get up early in the morning and listen to these records which, again, were totally mysterious to me. And I did it unselfconsciously - I wasn't thinking, This is the music I listen to. I was just interested in it, for some reason, I didn't know where it came from or what jazz was.

Synapse: What first got you interested in music as art?

Eno: At the age of eleven, I had an uncle - a real uncle this time - who's like the eccentric of the family, very nice man, and he had spent some years in India. So he had these kind of strange Indian ideas about things. He's quite eccentric, very strange, always trying out weird experiments at home, building ways of distilling liquor and stuff like that, and taming the strangest animals, like rooks. He was very important to me, because he represented the other half, the sort of strange side of life, and he was to me like all the music was as well. And I would think, Where's he coming from? as they would say now. I used to go and visit him regularly, once or twice a week, and he used to talk and introduce me to ideas. One day he showed me this tiny book of reproductions of Piet Mondrian. And I thought, God, these are beautiful. They really were the best things I had ever seen. And again it was the same thing as with the jazz, of suddenly jumping in, with no concept at all of what the antecedents to that were. I hadn't really been that interested in painting before. In fact, I really can't remember looking at pictures much before that, though I'd been so good at art in school. Which meant copying things, really. But this Piet Mondrian, I thought, Boy, this is really exciting. And at that moment, in fact, I decided, I'm going to be a painter, that's what I'm going to do. On my next birthday I got a set of oil paints, and I started painting.

I had also made also the other important decision that I was never going to have a job, which I made a bit earlier than the age of eleven. Because my father had a very hard job, and I could see that his life was totally his job, and that, effectively, it was killing him. He would just come home, fall into a chair and go to sleep. And then he'd get up and go to work again. He was so tired he couldn't eat sometimes, and I thought, I'm never going to do that.

So with these twin ideas - I'm never going to get a job, and I'm going to be an artist - I finally left grammar school armed for the outside world. And by an extraordinary coincidence, I happened to get into a very good art school. It was very good for exactly the two years I was there, because for those two years, a group of extremely liberated teachers took that art school over and set it up as a kind of experimental teaching unit. They were really very brilliant men. Of course they were sacked at the end of the two years when their contracts expired, because the education committee was horrified, literally, by what had been going on there.

The first term was a deliberate disorientation process, which we weren't told at the time. Projects were set up which were extremely difficult. And we had all gone to art school with our little box of paints, thinking that we'd get there and start painting nice pictures. Well, a typical project, the very first one we did, was: Discuss visually the differences between a hot water tap and a Venetian blind. And we looked... what do you do, you know? And that was the easiest one. The others didn't even involve making pictures, they involved building games, methods of testing people's behaviour. Very, very interesting stuff. I think three people left because it just wasn't what they had hoped for. But those who stayed were very committed to this art school. It wasn't big; there were only forty people, maybe. In its time, it was very revolutionary. They were deliberately setting up situations that they knew would give rise to expectations, or predictions, about what would happen, changing it. The whole first term was based on a kind of discover-your-rules, organise-yourselves, don't-look-at-us-for-answers kind of thing - but in a way, we can also help. That's a very different teaching proposition.

It was really at that art school that I started thinking about music, and realising that there was a way that I could be involved in music without technical skills. The tape recorder was the first thing. The art school had got a tape recorder, because they figured somebody was going to start making music. And the thing about tape that I realised very quickly is that it turns sound into a plastic art. Literally. By putting it onto plastic tape, it becomes a malleable medium. So suddenly you can disregard all the rules about real time. If you want to, you can do it over a period of days and edit it all together and get it that way. Or else you can stretch it it, or slow it down, or speed it up, or you can expand it by doing things to the frequencies involved. You can remove bits from it. Tape suddenly makes all the difference. And as soon as I realised that tape made sound malleable, it became something that you could treat, like you treat a piece of stone if you were making sculpture. Or even better, a piece of clay, or a painting, or anything. Something you could build on.

It started as almost a dilettantish thing, then gradually it started to assume more importance, because I started finding that where I was getting the most surprises was from the music, not from the painting. There weren't any instruments; the only thing that was there was this wacked-out old out-of-tune piano, which I used to use. But mainly I used my voice as the source, and I used to build up layers of phonetic, vocal things. Not really singing, but just voice noises built up. One of my other favourite sound sources was this big metal lampshade, and it made a beautiful bonnnnnng! And so by recording that at different speeds I could get notes. It was a pretty slow business.

I used to perform with them (the tapes) at the art school. Because the other thing that I was into then was phonetic poetry, which was big at that time. The pure-sound-type poetry. Kurt Schwitters was one of my big heroes then.

Synapse: A fragment of Schwitters' Ur Sonata turns up on Kurt's Rejoinder on Before And After Science. How did that come about?

Eno: That recording was made in 1930, I think. It's the only existing recording, as far as I know, of Schwitters. He's dead. That's his voice, but it's just grabbed out of that recording. Somebody's gonna sue me one day for that, I think, because in fact the BBC own the recording. I expect some day it'll come up in court. I was listening to the radio, and there was a programme about the Dadaists, and they had this piece of Schwitters', and they also had this other guy called Hausmann, who I used to like a lot, who was in a similar vein, with a much rough voice than Schwitters. And in fact that track started out with Hausmann on it, but Schwitters suited the track.