On 1 January Brian Eno will release ‘Reflection’, a new body of ambient music presented as a generative app. It’s the perfect metaphor for a pioneer in sound and art who has always refused to revel in past glories
I arrive 6 minutes early for my interview with Brian Eno but I am told that he favours absolute precision when it comes to time, and so I wait outside his Notting Hill studio on a crisp autumn day until I am called in. However, he’s not quite ready for me. He’s excited as he and his assistant are opening coffin-sized boxes with electric screwdrivers to gently lift out giant light box installations he has designed. There are currently several propped up around his studio already that gently switch colours, exulting a warm and glowing hue, changing the entire tone of the room in soft turns. A new, yet unreleased, piece of Eno’s ambient music plays prominently from the speakers and fills the room. The subtle shifts in the music seem to interlock with the colours, creating a soft, welcoming and gently pulsating essence making the room – filled with records, books and various other items that feel as much living room as they do office – into a womb-like hole.
“Are you recording?” he says after we sit down over a pot of tea and I nod to say yes. “Good. I only answer questions if I’m being recorded. I mean fucking hell, life’s too short – you don’t want to have to say it twice.” He follows up with a bit of a chuckle. The immediate swearing throws me somewhat. Maybe it’s the gentle pulse of the ever-shifting room and the reassuring sonic cradle that rocks me back and forth, or the fact that this is a man known for pioneering sonic wizardry of the most placid variety, but this immediate curse that powerfully cuts through the quiet hum of the room is just one of many contradictions that Brian Eno exhibits with seeming glee.
Eno, after all, is riddled with glorious contradictions. He is a man who loves to sing but rarely records his own voice, who flourishes in the beauty and ambiguity of art but adores the evidence and outcome nature of science, who explores pop music and avant garde music with little-to-no distinction, a person who had a job many people stuck doing the mundane activities of day-to-day life would dream of doing yet whilst on stage with Roxy Music he found himself daydreaming about his own laundry so decided to quit the band. He’s a self-proclaimed “non-musician” who has painted and then shifted the landscape of contemporary music more than almost any other British artist. Brian Eno is both the question mark and the answer locked in a constant battle.
To condense Eno’s achievements and projects over his life (he’s now nearing 70) into something digestible feels both arduous and somewhat futile. His musical life has been episodic. In just a five year stretch in the 1970s he went from his synth-playing days in Roxy Music to his art-pop solo career, to his ground breaking production work with David Bowie on the Berlin Trilogy, as well as the likes of Devo and Talking Heads to the ostensible invention – or at least popularisation – of ambient music. It’s the latter we’re here to talk about today. I am informed up front that past glories don’t much interest Eno and so talk of Roxy Music, nor his recently departed friend and collaborator, David Bowie, will not be permitted. He’s a man with his eyes locked firmly onto the horizon in a time when many are looking over their shoulders.