Wired JULY 1996 - by John Alderman


John Alderman: We're here with Brian Eno... Have you been anywhere interesting lately?

Brian Eno: I went to the most repellant place in the world: Las Vegas.

John Alderman: What did you think of it?

Brian Eno: I was really disappointed, it was extremely tacky; kitsch can be wonderful but it was supremely tacky. I suddenly understood the Unabomber. I thought of setting up a defence fund for him on condition that he would next target Las Vegas.

John Alderman: Did you stay mostly in the casinos or did you wander around?

Brian Eno: There's nowhere to wander around, everywhere you go is a casino. One time I was looking at the mountains and a security guard led me back to the casino. You can really understand the existence of the Christian right when you go to Las Vegas. The reaction to that kind of decadence is a kind of moral puritanism. Get rid of Las Vegas and you get rid of the Christian right.

John Alderman: You're often asked a lot of questions about the future which probably have more to do with the present. What questions have you been asked recently?

Brian Eno: A lot of the questions people ask me have to do with new technologies and what effects they have. What I'm interested in is the way new technology keeps generating new metaphors for us. So for instance, the Internet, in terms of content, is not all that interesting in my opinion, with exceptions, but in general it's not a place I would go to do my best reading. In terms of content it isn't a huge step forward yet. Structurally, it is terribly revolutionary. Content always follows.

John Alderman: Do you have favourite places to go on the web?

Brian Eno: I speak to one or two friends, that's the most important thing. It puts me in a community that doesn't have a geographical centre or boundaries.

John Alderman: This coming conference, if I didn't know better, I would think it was like a corporate management seminar.

Brian Eno: I'm going to be talking about generative music, in particular. I'll explain later what that is. I want to talk about the generative idea as a new concept of organisation; of how things can organize themselves. I think the generative metaphor is very powerful. I go on about metaphors because they actually control the way we see things. When we accept a metaphor we accept a set of concepts. Changing metaphors is the most important thing you can do to a human mind.

John Alderman: Let's go to some of those questions from the audience. What sort of control would the listener have over the generative music? Is it interactive or only perturbed?

Brian Eno: I'm going to explain, if I may, some of the characteristics of generative music, at least in the way I'm doing it. I'm working at another level of recursion as other composers. What a composer does is describe an entity which is then remade as exactly as possible by musicians. What I'm doing is a little bit different than that. I'm setting a set of probabilistic rules which describes a series of envelopes with which the music can form itself. Imagine that you had to make a human being. You could either do that by creating that creature molecule by molecule or you could put a sperm and an egg together. I'm building the seed, planting it in the computer and letting it grow. The seed is by nature probabilistic. The rules allow for a lot of different permutations and they're all expressed as percentages. What I would say is that instead of building whole organisms, which is what composition is, I am specifying the genetic code from which organism can grow. Each time you grow one of these organisms in your computer it grows differently, but it's still recognisable. The current floppy that I have out is, I'm pleased to say, in no sense interactive except in the single the important sense that you have to listen to it. That's the most important form of interaction. There are no mice to click, there are no stupid decisions to be made, you either play it or you don't. You'll eventually be able to have emotionally tuneable music.

John Alderman: It sounds like a very complex algorithm. You're describing it in terms of biological creatures; is it an ant or a human?

Brian Eno: It is fairly complex because it is the expression of about a hundred and fifty different parameters that one can control and their interactions. That's quite a big gene pool. It's not a simple program but it's very, very rewarding. Anything that's going to give you the subtlety that you want to work with is going to be very difficult to learn. I think the way out of that paradox is to be found in using self-evolving entities. For example what Carl Sims does in his work. I think that's the future of software. The future is not that you sit and learn but that you start nudging it simply by taste.

John Alderman: Unfortunately we don't have an example of generative music. We do have a track from your CD, United Colours... [plays track]...

We left off with Brian explaining generative music.

Motorcycle Boy asks: Has Mr. Eno explored cellular automata in the creation of his dynamic music?

Brian Eno: That's a very pertinent question. In fact the origin of my understanding that it could be done by computer was from watching the game Life, John Conway's cellular automata game, at the Exploratorium. In 1978, I became completely addicted to this game. I would sit there five or eight hours at a time, watching Life play itself out. Many of you know this; Life is a very simple set of rules; three rules that govern the growth and decline of the population of dots on a screen. It's exquisitely elegant. If you tried to do it without a computer, it would take several years. The interaction of simple rules can lead to very complex results. I was thrilled at getting complexity out of simplicity. Since then, I've looked at other cellular automata.

John Alderman: There's a long history of making music like this that most people may not know about. One of your roles is as populariser of this. Have you spent a lot of time researching history of algorithmic music and composers who use that? As far back as Mozart, composers have been playing musical dice games.

Brian Eno: What I've always been interested in is ways of making music that went beyond the decisions I'd make based on taste. A lot of the music I've made has been rules-based, systems-based. A big part of the thrill for me is to set in motion something that makes something you didn't expect. I've done that with lyrics, with music, with sculpture.

Kevin Kelly wrote this book Out Of Control. That's always interested me. I've never been interested in forming an idea completely in my mind and then painstakingly building it. I don't have visions of final results. I have visions of interesting systems.

John Alderman: It's out of control within certain boundaries.

Brian Eno: It's out of control but not chaotic.

John Alderman: Alexander asks: So, generative music is more about setting up the structure that needs to happen?

Brian Eno: If you were to try to explain this on a human level it would be like having a group of musicians and saying to each one: You play in B-flat, but stress the F a lot... attack the instruments softly... Imagine all the things you could describe and then saying to the musician "now play!" These envelopes create a multi-dimensional space, so the journey that the computer makes through that is very complicated and almost certain to never repeat. Some of the rules are traditional musical rules: harmony, intervals, etc. Others are more synthesizer-type rules: envelope, attack, decay, etc. Others again, are structural rules how the piece will develop over time. You're working within that group of possibilities, but it's a lot of possibilities.

John Alderman: When you work with musicians, you make most of your rules up in the form of games. With computers it's much more straightforward, mathematical. Which way is more fun for you?

Brian Eno: Musicians are infinitely more fun than computers. Computers are hopelessly under-evolved. Let's not delude ourselves just because we're sitting in a room with two hundred of them. They're very powerful, but they're quite crude; the nature of their crudeness is interesting. They very rapidly put you into screwdriver mode. They discourage bold strokes and they encourage fiddling around with details. That's why a lot of the music you hear sounds very detailed and very uninteresting. I think its partly because you've gotten used to them.

John Alderman: Pope asks: Why do old synthesizers sound so much better than the new?

Brian Eno: Partly, it's because you got used to them. Sounds in the abstract are never that interesting. It's the whole collection of emotional resonances around a sound. When you hear an old Moog sound, you hear a collection of emotional ideas. Analogue synthesizers are slightly out of control. It's the nature of Analogue.

John Alderman: Do you think digital synthesizers don't age very well? You're interested in letting them deteriorate a bit.

Brian Eno: These are some of the reasons that people playing crappy old instruments consistently make more interesting music; it's because they've had a chance to have a rapport with their instrument. The evolution of synthesizers has been kind of in the wrong direction. You can do with fewer, more meaningful choices. Look at a piano or a violin. There's not a lot of different things one can do. You have a chance to develop a relation with each of the things that you can do.

John Alderman: So there is a tension in your work between the desire for automation and the need for more physical involvement.

Brian Eno: I want to extend the dynamic in both directions. Of course with the generative stuff I'm very interested in the way music makes itself. I want to use the whole of my body, not just my index finger. One of the problems with a lot of software systems is that they expect you to type, but it uses a part of my brain that I don't always want to be in the music process. I don't want to shift between being a musician and being a secretary. I suppose what I want are tools that allow me to stay in one mode. Computers are still entirely linked to their origins as word processors and calculators. They need to be moved away from that.

John Alderman: We have some more music from further back. Weightless, from the Apollo soundtrack.

...That was Weightless, from the soundtrack from Apollo.

You know Brian, I lost my virginity to this piece of music... Speaking of sex, you used to have a reputation as an eccentric, androgynous love-god. Now you're considered more of a theoretician. Do you ever miss the old role?

Brian Eno: No, it was actually international theoretician love god. Or it's internationally theoretical love god. No, I don't miss the old role. It was an exciting and fun couple of years. It was the reverse of being in the army. I had two years of complete and utter sexual madness.

John Alderman: Demanded by the pop lifestyle?

Brian Eno: They forced it on me. I didn't want to do it.

John Alderman: Were you disappointed when your early pop music didn't have the instant success of Roxy Music?

Brian Eno: I wasn't disappointed at all, I was amazed that it had any success. In fact, I've always been amazed that I've been able to carry on doing these things and never had to get a proper job.

John Alderman: In those early works with lyrics, there was a lot more of a sense of humour. More on your sleeve. How's your sense of humour these days?

Brian Eno: It's in a bad way. The English kind of live in their humour because the country's in such a fucking awful condition. It's only by our highly developed sense of irony that we can get up in the morning.

John Alderman: We're developing that here now, that British sense of irony.

Brian Eno: You need it. You need a lot of irony in your diet. It helps pregnant women.

John Alderman: They've started putting it in the water, you know. Why will the future be like perfume?

Brian Eno: That's a long story. That is a two-and-and-quarter-hour lecture.

John Alderman: Do you have a favourite perfume?

Brian Eno: At the moment?

John Alderman: Old stand-bys?

Brian Eno: No, there's nothing new that I particularly like. I like Guerlain... I mix my own, you know, and then throw them away. I've made a very good sexual perfume, actually.

John Alderman: Did you have a title for it? What's it like?

Brian Eno: I can't tell you that, this is not an ironic enough country to give you the full title of it. You'd like it.

John Alderman: Man Named Pants asks: Do you think you could have survived if you didn't start in England?

Brian Eno: England is a funny place. On the one hand we seem to keep having new ideas, but on the other hand we seem to discourage them as well. Ambient music was really shat upon. I started doing it just as punk was starting up in England. It was as far away from punk as you could get. It was regarded as the most wimpish thing. In fact for two to three years Eno-esque became an adjective meaning pathetic.

John Alderman: Or International theoretician love god... It made it over to Texas, where I was a teenager. It inspired me to go out and buy a Walkman.

Brian Eno: To tell you the truth, around about the time of making it, ambient had a much bigger affect in America than in England. I've always been very grateful to the American audience. Lately there's been this big ambient movement in England. This is a seed that really developed into something completely different. It's much more interesting if it turns into something you didn't expect.

John Alderman: Do you have a sense of paternalism about it?

Brian Eno: It follows me.

John Alderman: So you admit it, paternalism.

Brian Eno: These little buggers keep coming up asking for maintenance and support, you know.

John Alderman: How do you feel about concerts where the musicians only play their computers/synthesizers? Do you like to play live?

Brian Eno: I love playing with other musicians but I don't particularly like playing in front of audiences. I don't like playing live very much.

John Alderman: Do you have stage fright?

Brian Eno: I have terrible stage fright. Paralysingly badly.

John Alderman: You don't get any rush from it?

Brian Eno: Not as much as from talking.

John Alderman: When you go on lecture tours, do you have the same sense of altered states that touring with a band would give you?

Brian Eno: Lecture tours are quite undemanding. You don't have all the problems of equipment. What is demanding is that you have only your ideas to peddle, there isn't much distraction.

John Alderman: HackBartCelene asks: Were you interested in math before music?

Brian Eno: No, I've only become interested in math after leaving school. I think this is because we had a truly sadistic math teacher who was more interested in beating us than teaching us.

John Alderman: When can we expect to see generative music available for the Mac?

Brian Eno: I really wish it was sooner, I myself am a Mac user. I think it will be, before the end of this year.

John Alderman: A lot of your strategies seem to be about following accidents. Is this what a lot of your role as producer is?

Brian Eno: I would rephrase that as a different kind of paying attention. When you go into a work situation, you come in with ideas but eventually it goes off course. Look closely at the thing when it goes off course, it might going be better than the original place you wanted it to go. I encourage a love of the unpredictable, if I can.

John Alderman: PopeStyle asks: "Do you think that the size and complexity of the music industry is hindering musical innovation?"

Brian Eno: I'm not that interested to know the answer to that one. I can't think of anything interesting to say in response.

John Alderman: Are you interested in any subcultures like you were with new wave bands in the '80s?

Brian Eno: I'm interested to see what is coming out of Russia, it's an exciting place; nobody knows what's going to happen.

Russia has such an intense, vigorous, intellectual backbone to it, and when you marry that with utter economic chaos and complete artistic confusion you get something really interesting. So I am looking quite hard. Eastern Europe, in general. There's so much talent there that's recently been unlocked. In Europe you should watch East Germany's Viva. Viva is the weirdest music TV channel. It'll have a song by a completely obscure German techno band next to a Whitney Houston song, next to Al Green. Very often these tech songs will have state of art animation, animated videos. The music may be utterly forgettable. The videos are astonishingly beautiful.

John Alderman: In the '70s and '80s we get a lot of animation festivals, that's when they had the best work.

Brian Eno: It's such a strong tradition there, only Canada has matched it. They were both government sponsored. It isn't going to happen unless its Disney or government.

John Alderman: Disney's a form of government. In your diary you talked about not talking about money.

Brian Eno: If I had started out and really set my mind to getting rich, I would never have made a penny. One way of making something is by following an enthusiasm. If you don't succeed, at least you have fun. You really have to fight for an enthusiasm. I've spent years walking into record shops looking for particular records. This is the degree of persistence you need. I heard this thing today, white gospel, and they didn't announce the song, or the station. I will find it, though.

John Alderman: What else are you looking for?

Brian Eno: I heard this thing on NPR in 1978 and it was this guy from LA doing this phonetic poem about a pink Cadillac. I rang NPR, I wrote to them; I've never found this guy, but I will find him.

John Alderman: We were talking about collecting before we went on.

Brian Eno: Trainspotting: the tradition is to become obsessed with things that are hauntingly irrelevant and spend your life collecting them.

John Alderman: You were lucky to hit on one that seemed to work. EFrans asks: "What modifications do you foresee in the synthesizer interfaces?"

Brian Eno: I want it to be possible to talk to synthesizers in terms of concepts. Sharpen it up, make it more distinct or less distinct. I've been designing a synth for years and it works so that the user doesn't have to know how it works at all. I'm available to any computer manufacturer or synth manufacturer as a very highly paid consultant.

John Alderman: No one's biting, though? You'd think that being so prominent in the computer and music worlds, you'd have some companies interested in hearing what you have to say.

Brian Eno: You would think so; no, I'm not. I did once approach Yamaha, and said your synths are designed wrongly and they could be improved. They should think that the act of usage is part of the design. They should build a chip that records what is being done with the tool and then design it for the consumer. It should be fed back to the manufacturer to help along the process. The other ideas I'll keep to myself until I am showered with dollars.

John Alderman: Jumping subjects, what do you think of European unification?

Brian Eno: I welcome it with open arms. I love being European. I wish that the west coast of America was closer to Europe. But Europe is a fabulous place... this is the best thing that has happened to England in a very long time. In spite of all our complaints they have accepted us as partners.

John Alderman: CGeorge asks: "What kind of interface do you use to produce generative music?"

Brian Eno: The software is produced by a company called Sseyo. It's a good interface. It works on a PC which I'm not personally terribly fond of, but aside from that, it's well worth using.

John Alderman: Will it come out on the Mac?

Brian Eno: I hope so, yeah.

John Alderman: We're going to have another song, China My China...

Brian Eno: Do people listen in mono, that's a bad choice... you can play it if you like, but there are phasing problems.

John Alderman: We just had a bit of history. We're wrapping it up. Tim Leary used to say, everybody gets the Timothy Leary they deserve. Do you encourage this kind of thinking?

Brian Eno: I encourage it in some directions, I discourage it in others; I would like not to be the trainspotters dream: the sum of tiny details. People come up and ask about trivial details about my music. I don't care. It's sort of depressing to think that other people might care. As time has gone on, I've tried to strip away from myself things people might obsess about. Actually, I think my biggest message is you can do it yourself. I've spent a lot of time calling myself a non-musician. What I want to be is kind of an ever-vanishing crutch.

John Alderman: That's a big role. Thanks so much for joining us.

Brian Eno: If any of you are interested in hearing some generative music you can do it by contacting Sseyo. Drugs don't play a part in the creation of my music, there was a question about that... I drink a lot of tea.

John Alderman: There you go, the English drug... Thank you.