INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
White Noise JANUARY 16, 2018 - by Darran Anderson
ABANDON NORMAL INSTRUMENTS
Brian Eno, the self-described "non-musician" who helped craft some of the most brilliant pop music of the twentieth century, has always had unusual methods. For work in progress month, Darran Anderson on how the producer and writer's oblique strategies cracked creativity wide open.
Ambient music was born in Maida Vale in 1975 shortly after the near-death of its creator. It came about by accident. Formerly of Roxy Music and by then a West London-based solo artist, Brian Eno had left a recording session in Notting Hill to return home. Crossing Harrow Road, he found himself thinking of an ominous feeling he'd been having all week, and wondered if the song he'd just been working on would be his last. It was at that moment a taxi ran him down.
Recovering in hospital, a friend brought him an album of eighteenth century harp music. Half-asleep and too tired to rise from his bed, Eno was initially irritated by the fact the volume was too low and the sound of the record became barely distinguishable from the rain on the window. Gradually, he realised that he was within an environment of sound: "I started hearing this record as if I'd never heard music before. It was a really beautiful experience, I got the feeling of icebergs, you know? I would just occasionally hear the loudest parts of the music, get a little flurry of notes coming out above the sound of the rain - and then it'd drift away again" (NME, 1977).
Eno would spend the next four decades, up to the present day, exploring the possibilities deriving from this moment, in ambient music and beyond. Yet the incident also encapsulates a factor that has a huge bearing on the creative process, whether you're a 'synthesist', artist, designer or writer: the element of chance.s
Chance played a crucial part in Eno's musical career to begin with. Coming from an art-school background, he happened to bump into the musician Andy Mackay on a train and accepted an invite to join his band. Almost overnight, Eno became the androgynous vulture-peacock of Roxy Music, accentuating the band's interplanetary lounge lizard-glam with Apollo mission synths, and distorting sax and guitar solos with tape effects until they sounded like newly invented instruments. Leaving the band after two successful records, Eno released the first of four avant-pop albums that still sound full of future directions for music. While fuelled by experimental and conceptual ideas and approaches, Eno rejected ideas of virtuosity in music. He called himself a 'non-musician' and even an 'anti-musician', criticising the elitism that had led to the worst pomposities of prog rock.
"I can't play any instruments in any technically viable sense at all," he told Rolling Stone in 1974, "And it's one of my strengths, I think, actually. Simply because I believe technique is as much a barrier as a way of opening something up."
Eno was more interested in innovations than craft, and he recognised that these often came about by accident. Penicillin, microwave ovens, LSD, X-rays, plastic, Coca Cola, Teflon, dynamite and, above all, the slinky all originated while their discoverers were looking for something else. Skill was being open enough to recognise something new, and having the nerve and talent to develop what had been unwittingly found.
Music was no exception. Eno began to look at the factors that blunted creativity and how he could break through these. Pressures in the studio to replicate demos or live performances abounded, but Eno saw deeper problems. One was in skill itself. Contrary to the '10,000-Hour Rule' of Gladwell and co (which suggests experts become experts having spent that amount of time in their field), Eno noticed accomplished experienced musicians falling into ruts and comfort zones, often repeating themselves with diminishing returns or relying on tired structures.
He set out then to encourage happy accidents that would snap them out of inertia, offer fresh directions and allow them to regain a sense of perspective.
"I'm always prone to do things very quickly, which has distinct advantages - you leave all the mistakes in, and the mistakes always become interesting," he told Chrissie Hynde in the NME in 1974.
Eno saw that fear of ridicule and the stifling nature of good taste could get in the way of greatness, just as virtuosity could mask mediocre ideas. Being uncertain or embarrassed could be the sign that you were on to something. Rejecting the tyrannical ubiquity of love songs, Eno would sing instinctively along to music using nonsense words, which then he would translate phonetically into language, sometimes evoking unconscious meanings in a kind of automatic singing. Occasionally he would include lines he remembered from dreams; in On Some Faraway Beach and The True Wheel, where even he did not know the meaning. The results could be less forced and more mysterious than deliberate verse. Eventually, he developed a system, which he could call to hand to suddenly shift focus and direction, acting as a spark in terms of lateral thinking and bringing out creative qualities people forgot or did not realise they possessed. And so, Oblique Strategies was born.
Harking back to tarot, I Ching, Dada and Surrealist games like exquisite corpse, Oblique Strategies are a series of cards ('worthwhile dilemmas' in the words of their creators), which Brian Eno put together with the painter Peter Schmidt. The participant would draw one from the pack, when they'd hit a creative dead end or were paralysed by too much freedom, and then be obliged to follow the instructions, often acting against common sense and their supposed best intentions. The very limitations of the one-line instructions would paradoxically free up the recipient. The aim was to bring out latent creativity by forcing them into territory they'd previously shunned or were unaware of. Very often this involved the courting of mistakes ("honour thy error as a hidden intention") or wilfully sabotaging a work in order to save it ("cut a vital connection").
Eno applied Oblique Strategies in his production and collaborations with other artists, such a U2. Sensing that U2 were "looking for a way to unlock something that they suspect is in their music, but they can't quite get out" (Musician, 1988), he encouraged them to sound, wisely, as little like U2 as possible ("trust in the you of now" as one card encouraged). The results were the reinvigorated Achtung Baby (1991) and the left-field Zooropa (1993).
In the spirit of another card, "How would someone else do it?", Eno had written the proto-new wave song King's Lead Hat (1977), an anagram of the band he was partially mimicking, Talking Heads.
While later producing Talking Heads, Eno instructed that they play the song, The Overload, in the style of Joy Division. No one in Talking Heads had, at that point, heard Joy Division. Instead, they had to rely on descriptions of their music printed in reviews. Through such conceits, and even failures, unintended places could be arrived at.
At times, Eno's 'games for musicians' instructions do little else but prove how badly predictions of the cyberpunk near-future tend to age. This, from Bowie's album Outside (1995), is one such example:
"It's 2008. You are a musician in one of the new 'neo-science' bands, playing in an underground club in the Afro-Chinese ghetto in Osaka, not far from the University. The whole audience is high on 'dreamwater', an auditory hallucinogen so powerful that it can be transmitted by sweat condensation alone..."
Yet even absurdity can be revealing. What is our reticence hiding? Given many great ideas were initially ridiculed, perhaps level-headedness is habit or fear talking? If such experiments don't work, they can be scrapped. But what if, all rational paths having failed, they do work?
When they did, for Eno and his collaborators, the results were spectacular. Bowie's Berlin Trilogy is a colossal career highlight but it's worth considering how close these songs are to collapse. Indeed, it is partly this tension that makes the albums resonate so much. Using the Oblique Strategy of 'Change instrument roles', Bowie's band switched around for Boys Keep Swinging (1979). Much of the resulting energy of the song comes from the feeling that the wheels may soon come off. While recording the song Sense Of Doubt (1977), Bowie and Eno unwittingly picked two cards that opposed one another, "Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action" and "Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency", sending the music in two directions and creating an imbalance and a dynamism within. In doing so, they fulfilled a third card which sat nestled in the pack, "Faced with a choice, do both."
All through Eno's work you can see him playing with chance and chance playing with him. It's there in his generative pieces in recent years, which are designed to grow or flow along, never repeating, essentially forever.
His My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981) collaboration with David Byrne chimes with the card "think of the radio", given the album is built from found (or, perhaps, stolen) sounds of crazed preachers and talk show hosts. It also fulfils the "question the heroics' card given the album dispenses with the ego of a singer in favour of voices from the airwaves. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was not only highly prophetic in terms of its early use of sampling but also in geopolitical terms with its Christian evangelists, snake-oil politicians and Koranic chanting (later dropped from the record under religious pressure) looming large in the zeitgeist long after its release.
These exercises may seem the silly games of an intellectual or a dilettante; a view Eno acknowledged while defending himself in an uncharacteristic ambush on Desert Island Discs, "I am a dilettante. It's only in England that dilettantism is considered a bad thing. In other countries it's called 'inter-disciplinary research'." For all his reputation, Eno's work is not unapproachable. It is more concerned with the sensory than the intellect. For all his use of technology, he is one of its greatest critics in how it fails us and we fail it. He doesn't condescend by assuming ordinary people do not have the patience, intelligence or tolerance for different ideas. He rejects the attractive narrative of the lone genius and encourages instead the cultivation of scenes. And he is refreshingly free of snobbery, telling Reality Hackers in 1988, "If all of the Dada stuff, and Maya Deren, and the Futurists, and all the various other people who've made avant-garde film in this century, if that ever becomes part of the vocabulary of film watching, it will be through pop videos. It won't be through obscure art cinema." He is, after all, a doo-wop loving artist who chose to be in a glam rock band rather than paint, "My roots are Little Richard and Mondrian, really."
Yet the feeling remains that Brian Eno is somehow a chancer, an Irish term he is fond of. "It's a lovely word," he responded to Mondo in 1991: "It has a funny connotation because a chancer is usually someone who's slightly criminal. It's someone who know how to take advantage of situations... After having that idea for some years, I read this thing that Louis Pasteur said which is, 'Chance favours the prepared observer.'"
So whatever you're working on, if you hit an impasse, there is always the possibility of a little gamble, however ridiculous the instruction, that might lead elsewhere. Be prepared. The cards, and chance, are waiting.