The Wire APRIL 2020 - by Philip Clark


As background music pioneers Roger and Brian Eno release their first collaboration since 1983's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, Philip Clark disturbs the ambience to grill them about ambient at Brian's West London studio.

The invitation to interview Brian and Roger Eno at older brother Brian's studio in Notting Hill, West London, comes with conditions (or as their PR puts it, guidelines) attached. Very much up for discussion is Mixing Colours, their new collaborative album released this month, but there are to be no questions about Roxy Music, and certainly none about David Bowie. Questions about Apollo, the first album the Eno brothers worked on together, which was released in 1983, are admissible "as a smaller nebulous topic" - and as to other soundtrack albums like Dune and Mr Wroe's Virgins, "no thanks (unless you really must)".

When I arrive, Roger is still making his way from his home in Suffolk, and Brian is sitting behind a large circular kitchen table finishing lunch. Which way around does the equation work? Has this vast stretch of studio, which he has occupied since the mid-1990s, allowed Eno the space to imagine pieces like his 2017 project Reflection, an app designed to regenerate itself into infinity? Or was someone minded to conceive of music and sonic architecture in that way, but who has also made his wad producing U2 and Coldplay, always likely to gravitate towards a space like this? Near to where Brian sits, a staircase spirals up to a mezzanine, and beyond that, at the far end of the room through an open doorway is his working studio. Speakers are hooked off every available beam in the ceiling, and large windows bounce light around the room.

Roger arrives and the spirit of the room changes immediately. Affable, with a booming voice, he gives his brother a bear hug. Then someone mentions photographs and Brian goes off on a tangent about how the problem with photographs is that someone, namely a photographer, makes an intentioned decision about when to take them. Which, I think, is applicable to his view on sound: he doesn't want to switch music on, or go to it. He just wants to be in it, which has long served as the basic premise of ambient music. Mixing Colours was never intended for public consumption. The album grew out of MIDI files, vignettes which Roger had been sending as sonic postcards since 2005, and which Brian decided to flesh out and arrange into a collection. Musically the album is a characteristic ambient project, although short pieces make the music breathe differently to the long-duration stretch of recent (Brian) Eno albums like Reflection and The Ship. Roger's taste for chromaticism is another obvious difference - Brian tends towards white-note modes - and as the interview moves forward, their differing perspectives on ambient music become clear. But I begin with a confession.

I enjoyed Mixing Colours, but found myself listening analytically and I wonder if that was the right thing to do?

Brian: You might be the first person to do that. So you'll have to tell me.

I was interested in how the pitches worked; that, for instance, in the second piece, there's a double sharp that makes the harmony leap; and also I was thinking of connections to Satie, Cage, Feldman, Webern. But that's not really the point of ambient music, you're not supposed to listen in that analytical way?

Brian: It's not forbidden, but I happen not to work that way. I work analytically in another area which is sonics - so I think about that a little but; but I don't think either of us are especially analytical.

Roger: No, not at all. My area is using few notes to make as big an effect as possible. So you talked about that technical term double sharp. You use that when you're changing key so it's like a pivot. But after you twig that it is a tool in your box, you don't think, I'll pull that one out. It's just the natural thing to do.

You mention in your notes references to Schubert - what aspects of his music did you draw on?

Roger: His subdued lyricism. I was thinking especially of a piece of his in [the song cycle] Winterreise - The Hurdy-Gurdy Man - which is based on the root of a fifth in the bass throughout, which is a really bold thing to do. 'Right, that's that area dealt with.' By picking a limit, you're saying I want to stay within this area.

Which is a springboard for other types of invention?

Roger: Precisely. And that allows Brian more to explore because the less busy I am, the more he can do.

Brian: The more space there is, the more landscape becomes possible. A lot of music is too busy to do that with. There's clutter. But when events are quite separate from each other, then you can have a perceptible backdrop - you can see between all the events. What I worked from was a MIDI performance and MIDI is a recording not of music but of what your fingers are doing - which keys you hit, how hard you hit them, when you struck them and when your finger came off the keyboard. That means you can apply that to any instrument that can receive MIDI. It can be a piano, or it can be a set of trombones - or completely invented sounds. And you can also change anything because you're only changing data. Sometimes it happened that Roger brushed a second note which I would get rid of. Sometimes I would listen to a piece and think that section is really nice, it should come back, so I'd edit it back in. One of the pieces - that became Quicksilver - started as a very long piece, twenty minutes, so I found a section that I liked. And some of the pieces I did very little to, other than give them a sonic body, give them an instrument...

The economy of the pieces is like tantalising glimpses into worlds which as soon as you establish them are grabbed back.

Roger: I'll take that as a compliment. I don't hide influences. Over the years I've tried to play less and less and less, until my key now is to get a sound quality and a mood rather than speed and agility, I've never been interested in that. The element of craft, you find that in any area - like a good car mechanic isn't going to sit down and read a car manual, he's been doing it forever and knows it's going to be a spark plug or whatever. There is a preciousness associated with the arts that needn't be there. If you do look at it as a profession or a craft, then it takes an element of mystery out and you wonder whether that's been a deliberately perpetuated thing, whether that artist fancies himself as being a member of a priesthood, which not everyone can join.

Brian: In the fine arts certainly one of the biggest issues is how do I create enough mystique about this object that I can charge a lot of money for it. Art is very expensive compared to music which tends to be very cheap... so if you're making something that is sold as an individual item, a painting, it's very expensive to make. So what gallerists have to do is make you think its very valuable. Lots of deceitful ways to do that.

You say that music is cheap, so how do you distinguish your music in an environment of digital overload in which everyone is consuming music all of the time on Spotify? Back in the day when you were making your early ambient records, and Apollo, this sort of thing wasn't an issue.

Brian: What makes a difference is that now people are much more inclined to listen to single tracks than to a whole album, as people make their playlists and so on. And I think you can't really make an allowance for that - you can't prevent them from doing that.

Roger: People can make their own selections, track listings from an album, and you can put it on random. Things like that are great, but I like vinyl and CDs because they're objects and there's something very human about it.

But isn't that an interesting contradiction because ambient music, I thought, was this thing that filled a room and it wasn't about physical objects?

Brian: My feeling is that I welcomed digital technologies so much because they were relatively invisible. I like the idea of the source of sound being invisible. I just want to be in it. I don't want to sit in front of it. Old hi-fi magazines used to show the listener sitting very intently with the two speakers and I'd think that's not how I listen to music. I listen to music through as many speakers as I can - here I have speakers all over the place.

At this point, Brian takes me into his workroom to show off his speakers. The room is dominated by two giant computer monitors and, suspended from the ceiling, are a series of large circular wooden discs into which Eno has embedded tiny speakers. "I've been working for a while with really bad speakers," he says, before revealing that they cost about eighty pence each and are often used for doorbells. He has two hundred more in a box waiting to be used. "They don't sound like loudspeakers," he says, beaming broadly. Then we return to the main room and pick up where we left off.

Roger: Ambient music is not a term I use about my own music, that's a term Brian invented about his own work. If, like Brian, you're not adept at playing an instrument but have strong artistic ideas, music technology allows you to apply those ideas. But it's very easy now for people who have no particular artistic idea to use sounds that are related to what people think of as an ambient palette, and to make their own. And it's pretty weak a lot of it, because there's not a lot of thought or heart gone into it.

Brian: I don't really feel proprietorial about it. That genie was out of the box anyway, I just gave it a name. Any new kind of music is not only a new sound, it's a new way of making music and it's a new way of listening to music. So somebody who grows up with symphonic music as their background has expectations of pace, direction and variety that they will think of as essential to music. They think all music has to have those things. I remember when one of my first ambient records came out, perhaps Discreet Music, a critic said, 'This music has no beat, no melody, no words and no tunes.' That was a sign of a success because I wanted to get rid of all of those things.

With the arrival of Aphex Twin and the Japanese ambient thing, did there come a point where you thought, shit, I've become the legacy ambient artist, forever doomed to hear my stuff alongside chillout music on playlists?

Brian: I don't think about it in that way. Also I'm aware that so many of what are called 'my ideas' are really somebody else's that I've just played around with. So I couldn't possibly resent anybody else for doing the same with my work. I don't think of music being a product of the people Roger was talking about, the artist. There's a whole conversation going on. New ideas are articulated by one person, but they're created by whole huge communities of people and the articulator always gets the reward for labelling it. I didn't hear Japanese interior music not through lack of interest. I just didn't know about it. I don't listen to that much music. I'm always making it and you can't listen to music when you're making it. The people who listen to music actually are designers, painters, people who work on their own. Writers, a lot.

When you're creating work, of course you listen to what you're doing, but you're not composing in the sense of putting music onto manuscript paper. Is there a big difference to the way you listen to the processes, and the way a composer would?

Brian: Well I'm quite aware of having two different modes. One of them is a making mode, and the other is a listening mode. So when you're in making mode, the mode I'm in is, let's put more in, let's do something to this. That's completely different from the surrendering mode that you need to be in to listen to something. So what I often do when I'm working is I have it playing through here [the sitting area], so when I'm doing phone calls or writing or whatever else I do, that's when I'm listening. And as a listener you always find that you need far less information.

When you're making music, setting systems going, how willing are you to change and manipulate those systems? I'm thinking of the Cageian ideal of removing intention and taste from music.

Brian: I like to work with quite a lot of statistical software because they make choices that my taste wouldn't make. So I find myself listening to things and thinking, wow, I wouldn't have thought of that, and sometimes I don't like it and sometimes I do. The big difference between the way I work and the way most procedural systems composers work is that they believe that the system is sacrosanct, and you must accept the results of it. Cage was very much like that. The point of the system is to get me somewhere where I wouldn't have got to by ordinary tastes. It's to take me beyond my own envelope, my own boundaries, but the point isn't to be paralysed once you're there. I remember having a big argument about this with Pauline Oliveros, who I think thought it was a symptom of how completely decadent and pointless my work was that I wouldn't accept...

An imperialistic pop artist?

Brian: Yeah, yeah. Just a crowd pleaser.

You've talked about your work relating to geology and standing outside political, hierarchical systems, and using systems take you there as well.

Brian: Yeah. I think those are the things that one has a taste for. I like systems that are self generating and self regulating and evolve. I don't like, or at least I don't know how to use, traditional, hierarchical, rigid systems. I don't know what you do with them. Given my skillset, I wouldn't be able to use them anyway.

But do you worry that an album like Mixing Colours, once it's floating in the ambience of playlists, juxtaposed alongside easy chillout music, that it becomes disposable and your original intention disappears?

Brian: Why would that worry anybody? And what can you do against it?

Roger: But things don't disappear, they morph into other things, just like our bodies do. Compost, or something. I don't think it's such a bad thing to be compost, to be part of the soil that other things grow out of it.

The legacy is an idea about music not music itself?

Brian: Legacy, it's an idea I really haven't thought about. It's funny that you think it should matter to me.

Well, you've both devoted your lives to this, you spend hours doing it, and you produce something that people care about...

Brian: If people care, and continue to care about it, it will continue to exist. If somebody does something better with it, that will continue to exist, and if it all turns out to be temporary and nobody cares about it much, that's OK too. I was listening the other day to a song by Timmy Thomas called Why Can't We Live Together. It's really worth listening to. It's the most primitive piece of pop music that could ever have been made. A cheap rhythm box, a cheap organ, and a vocal. And it must have been made in twenty-two minutes at the most, if they even took that long. It was a big hit in 1972 I think, then disappeared for three or four decades, and suddenly everybody's listening to it again and thinking, geez, that's amazing. This is something that could never, ever have happened in classical music. Somebody who has no musical background takes the cheapest piece of crap instrument, the very opposite of the scale from Stradivarius, makes one great hit, then disappears. The great thing about pop music is that it's so much more surprising. It's amazing how surprising it is, when you think, where on Earth did that come from? I've got to play you a bit!

With Roger burying his head in The Times newspaper, Brian finds the track on YouTube and pumps it through Bose speakers. Timmy Thomas is new to me, but the track is indeed fantastic (though Thomas studied with Stan Kenton and Cannonball Adderley, and recorded for the Goldwax label, so is not quite the one hit wonder Brian describes). Brian starts feeling the groove and dances round the room - like he's back in that pop group I'm not allowed to mention. Our allotted hour is up, Brian goes back to his iPad and his busy day, and I say my goodbyes.s

Roger and Brian Eno's Mixing Colours is released by Deutsche Grammophon