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.
On January 1st Eno will release a brand new ambient record via Warp, although the release date is not handily planned to coincide with the soothing of splintered heads from the previous night’s partying, rather because the album is essentially endlessly changing. ‘Reflection’ is a single album release as per any usual record but it will also be released as an app, in collaboration with Peter Chilvers. It’s a generative piece of music that has a lot of statistical probability functions in the design, so that it’s evolving and morphing, most prominently in line with the temperature as the year goes on. “So, this piece, just like these lights,” Eno says as a rich red radiance transforms the room to a deep, rich warmth akin to stepping into a Rothko painting, “they will keep changing all the time. It’ll have the same identity but it won’t be the same from moment to moment and from day-to-day.” It’s not only the seasons that will change with the music too. If you listen to this piece at 3am it will be less dense to reflect the stillness of the night. It’s a record set with a certain amount of rules so even after it’s done a year’s cycle and begins to repeat again it will not do so in exactly the same way again. “Maybe three per cent of the time you’ll get some special exotic results,” he says, his ears constantly pricked for changes and such exotic flavours in the piece we’re currently listening to.
Like we are now, Eno will sit here for days listening to such pieces working out their role, function and viability as a project. The name ‘Reflection’ comes from the piece’s ability to instil such a process, with Eno telling me he’d sit at the end of a day reflecting on thoughts and things he had read, with this piece creating the breathing room to do that.
He begins to jot down a diagram on a piece of paper to explain the maths of it all and begins to go into detail of the generative process but soon cuts himself off. “It sounds much more boring than it actually is, it’s very thrilling,” he says with an air of excitement in his voice. I ask if the essentially infinite possibilities that generative music can create is where the thrill lies. “Yes. It’s this very nice combination of making something…” he stops himself and sparks up an analogy, which I soon find out he does quite frequently. “It’s a little bit like gardening – I always say the difference between classical and contemporary music is the difference between architecture and gardening. With architecture you know in advance what you’re going to get, you specify it all, it’s all written down and drawn out and it is brought into existence. With gardening it’s not really like that. What you have to do is put together some elements that you are kind of familiar with and watch what happens to them and how this garden turns out compared to that garden is dependent on a whole lot of factors and it needs observation; you have to pay attention to it… Another thing I would say is that you don’t finish a piece of music like this, you start it. You bring it into the world and then it has its own life.”
We plunge deeper into the details but Eno almost seems to be boring himself talking about the specifics of it. “It’s fun but dull,” he says. “I always say music is a bit like sausages, you never want to see it being made.” The beauty of ‘Reflection’, however, and again the rub of the contrast in what Eno’s doing, is that this doesn’t feel like a mathematical formula put to record. It’s one of Eno’s quietist, deepest and most thoughtful ambient pieces – occasionally resembling moments from 1992’s ‘The Shutov Assembly’ or a more withdrawn and invisible take on 1978’s ‘Music for Airports’ – and is in essence a beautiful record that, like so many of his ambient works, questions whether it is of itself an emotive piece of art or one that allows the space and time for one to think and feel emotively.
“Working with the sounds that you choose and create is crucial,” he says of the album’s palate. “If I were to use ugly sounds then it would be an ugly piece, nothing would save it from being an ugly piece. It’s like Italian cooking. I remember taking a band I was working with once to an Italian restaurant and I took them into the kitchen and they were cooking at light speed, making these fantastic dishes and I said, ‘look at that: good ingredients, not fucked about with’”. Although given Eno’s role as something of a mega producer for groups such as Coldplay and U2, does he not occasionally need to fuck about with the ingredients to make them taste better? “The temptation in studios now is to think ‘hmm, it’s not very good but we can make something with it’, saucing it up and processing it and I’m a great master of that, but I don’t recommend it as a working technique if you can avoid it.”
As you may expect from Eno, there is something deeper and more profound to be extracted from the creative process of working on these projects. “Simple algorithms produce very unexpected, very unpredictable results,” he tells me. “One of the reasons I like them is because they tell you why the world is so complex.” He continues as he becomes more animated and excited and a quick flash of his gold tooth cracks through his smiling mouth. “When you see a few simple rules operating together to produce these amazingly elaborate worlds of things, you think ‘bloody hell, that’s only three simple rules’ you could write this down in a paragraph and yet all this stuff comes out of it.” He then continues without pause into another world of conversation altogether.
“There’s a whole group of people in the world – many of them in America – who can’t believe that the complexity of the universe is possible without postulating a god, but I can pretty much prove that it is. You don’t have to be involved with this thing for very long to see how complexity arises out of simplicity – that was the big perception of Darwin. The most important thing to come from Darwin, that great scientist, was that he showed the history of evolution is the progression from simplicity to complexity and this is quite the opposite of what religious people think – they think God is the most complex thing and therefore God can create less complex things. This is not true. This is provably not true. I think in eight and a half minutes I could convince any creationist that they have got the wrong end of the stick.” It’s a little tangent that gives an insight into Eno’s clear love of all things scientific and provable and one also suspects that when he says “eight and a half minutes” it’s not some arbitrary figure plucked from obscurity and more a recorded time of his very precise argument made.
Brian Eno’s discovery of ambient music is a relatively well-known one. When recovering from being hit by a taxi and bedridden, a friend of his brought him an album of 18th century harp music to listen to. He hobbled to the record player and put it on but once back in bed Eno quickly realised the volume was irritatingly low and he couldn’t hear it properly. Unable to get up again due to the pain he kept it on but this soon led to an epiphany. “This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music, as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience,” he said in 1975 when he released ‘Discreet Music’, his first step into ambient. In a startlingly prolific year he also managed to create his pop masterpiece in ‘Another Green World’, release the collaboration album with Robert Fripp, ‘Evening Star’, and produce Gavin Bryars’ ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’, as well as other production credits. In 1978 his ambient leaning had gone full tilt with the releases of ‘Music for Airports’ and ‘Music for Films’. In the linear notes to ‘Music for Airports’ Eno described ambient music as “intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
I ask him if his own definition of the genre has changed over the years? “I’m quite happy for it to have expanded,” he says. “It now seems to cover all sorts of things, many which I wouldn’t recognise as ambient.” He laughs, and continues. “But I don’t mind. I don’t think I own the definition. I was trying to describe what I was doing, what other people choose to do is different and surprising and very wonderful if they choose to use that name. I’m not proprietorial about it at all.” Given his role as the appointed godfather of the genre, I ask whether he ever feels any sense of pressure or even duty when operating in this area? “No, no…” he stops himself for a minute and strains to think, asking himself, “Do I feel pressure?” before reaching a conclusion swiftly afterwards, “ No, I don’t actually. This is a very nice area of music for me because it very much feels like my field and I can plant whatever I like in it, I don’t really care whether it doesn’t sound dramatically different from anything else that I’ve done before. I just want to keep finding these new colours – mood colours if you like – and seeing what you can do with them.”
Similarly, Eno set out what was something of a mission statement early on in his career that he was a non-musician, unable to play instruments properly and unable to read and write music. Has he had to forcibly stop himself from becoming accomplished in this area? “I think it’s a little bit like that but rather than actively avoiding something, what I’ve been doing is wanting to find a way of defeating my own habits. What happens with anyone who plays anything is that you get into a certain habit, your taste is a habit, it’s a habit of things you like as opposed to things you don’t. So what these processes do [in generative music] is they start doing things that are beyond the envelope of your taste. You think ‘oh this is horrible’ or you think ‘oh that’s very unusual, I wouldn’t have done that but I like it’, so it sort of keeps extending the envelope of what you’re operating in. That’s what I like about them. I like to be put into a situation where I am surprised by the music.”
Eno’s fascination with new terrain is clear but in the world of reforming bands, group’s playing classic albums in full and a general air of nostalgia hovering over a great deal of the music industry like a murky rain cloud, is he approached about such things himself? Is he nostalgic in anyway whatsoever? “I don’t think back that much really,” He says clearly and exactly. “I hardly ever listen to my old work and when I do I always think ‘I don’t even know who did that’, I don’t recognise the person who did it very often, I don’t know how I got to it. So to remake it would be as difficult as remaking a Snoop Dogg song – it’s as unfamiliar to me, really. I would go back to it and think, ‘how do you even play this?’ I have no idea. I’m not tempted by that. It doesn’t mean I never will be but at the moment I see no point in doing it and I have so many new things I want to do – this sort of thing [music playing] I’m fascinated by.”
He tells me that he’s already talking and thinking about his next new project. “I just did a piece last week that is entirely different to anything I’ve done before and I really want to explore it,” he says. “It’s a 13-minute long piece and it sounds like an orchestral piece and I’m going to talk to a friend of mine about potentially scoring it for an orchestra. It sounds like an orchestral piece played on a synthesiser.”
Given Eno’s role in so many moments of universally agreed upon cultural landmarks in British music scattered across numerous decades, I wonder if he buys into the notion of the golden age? That music has peaked and all we’re left with is x-rayed overspill? “Yeah, it’s bollocks,” he says firmly. “Complete bollocks.” He then goes onto shutdown any such false belief in an irreplaceable musical past. “I think there is so much fantastic music around now. It’s a historical mistake that people make. When Roxy Music started pop music was about thirteen or fourteen years old – the whole history from doo-wop and rock and roll to us, and it wasn’t really that many people because it wasn’t a big business yet. So everybody knew what the Beatles’ next record was, what the Rolling Stones’ next record was and everybody had an opinion about it – there was a cannon and everybody knew what the cannon was. When that happens people all then agree that Jimi Hendrix was great because they’ve all heard him, so there’s a conferral of greatness on the few people who were doing it but it doesn’t mean that people who are doing it later weren’t as good – or often I think a lot better – it’s simply that they are never going to get that same level of attention because there are so many people, the field is so broad.” At this stage he pulls out a piece of paper again and begins to illustrate the history of music, which starts to resemble a sort of spontaneous matrix diagram. It’s the scientist and the artist in him wrestling it out in real time.
He continues speaking about his love of new music: “Julia Holter I was listening to again the other day… just fantastic. There was nobody as good as her when I was making music back in the day. If Julia Holter had existed in the 1970s she would be a goddess, it’s just because she’s doing it now and that there are a lot of people doing things that it sort of dilutes it a little bit.” We’re given a five minute heads up by Eno’s PR and he responds, “aww, we’d just got onto goddesses.”
As it goes Eno himself was once spoken about in similar canonized ways. If you’d have walked the streets of Greenwich Village in New York in 1980, you would have come across graffiti that read: Eno is God, a sentiment perhaps cemented from 1978 when he compiled and released the genre-defining No Wave compilation ‘No New York’, releasing the mutant art rock and jazz punk of James Chance, Mars, D.N.A and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks into the world.
If Eno were to be a god he would be a benevolent one, it seems, as we move onto talking about politics and the future of art and its role and impact on society. It’s something he touched upon in his 2015 John Peel Lecture as he criticised the then Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan. “It’s just exactly the wrong time to be taking art out of the mix, isn’t it?” he says in reference to the recent proposals of removing Art History A-Level from schools. “Because we’re now looking towards a future where there will be less and less employment, inevitably automation is going to make it so there simply aren’t jobs. But that’s alright as long as we accept the productivity that the automations are producing feeds back to people, so we don’t end up in this situation where we’re heading to at the moment where you have this huge underclass and a few really really wealthy individuals because they own all the robots and control all the systems. So we have to change that so people are simply paid. I believe in universal basic income, which is basically saying we pay people to be alive – it makes perfect sense to me. We don’t object to the idea that people don’t pay to go into parks or to experience the sea. There’s lot of things we’re happy to accept as being givens, but of course what are people going to be doing? People don’t want to feel irrelevant; that is the worst feeling. Have you seen the new Ken Loach film [I, Daniel Blake]? Oh Christ, what an amazing film. Absolutely heart-breaking. You have to take a man-sized box of tissues, it really is, oh my god, it’s harrowing, but so to the point. What you see is it’s people that have become irrelevant and it’s the most painful thing that can happen, to suddenly be meaningless, to be of no value to anybody. There can be no bigger source of depression, so what do you want art for? So that people can start to make things. It works.
“For instance, in prisons, if you give people the chance to actually make something instead of just sitting in a cell watching fucking shit on television all day – you say to them ‘make a picture, try it out, do whatever’ – and the thrill that somebody gets to find that they can actually do something autonomously, not do something that somebody else told them to do, well, in the future we’re all going to be able to need those kind of skills. Apart from the fact that simply rehearsing yourself in creativity is a good idea, remaining creative and being able to go to a situation where you’re not told what to do and to find out how to deal with it, this should be the basic human skill that we are educating people towards and what we’re doing is constantly stopping them from learning. It makes me so angry. Sorry. I get in a bad mood when I start to think about it.”
Before I leave, Eno will take me into his separate music studio in a side room – filled with computers, keyboards, percussive instruments etc. – and show me, with great pride, paintings he has on the wall from some prisoners.
On a closing note I remind him of a conversation he had with the comic book writer Alan Moore back in 2009, in which he stated that he feels like he’s been having a mid-life crisis since he was 18, constantly questioning the importance and relevance of what he does. It was a stark and striking revelation that an artist as universally accepted pioneering, often genius, could have such crippling doubts about his output and its function in the world. I want to know if he has found any comfort or respite from this fifty-year mid-life crisis?
“No, it’s never stopped,” he says, although with a smile. “It’s a question I’m always asking and it’s partly because a lot of my friends are scientists and it’s very easy to see what scientists are doing. They look at things in the world, find out how they work and by doing so give us better control of the world. That’s what science and technology is. Apart from the pleasure of understanding how things work, there is a quantifiable result to what they do. So my question has always been: ‘What is the result of art?’ It’s fine to say we like it but why do we like it? What is it that makes us like that selection of notes rather than that other selection of notes? What makes us even interested in notes? Why would we bother? You can’t eat them, they don’t make your hair grow longer, they don’t do anything obvious for us. It’s amazing to me that that whole topic is so unexplored. So this has been the question that has kept me alive and reading for the last fifty years”. He finishes before the inevitable comes: “Although I think I have some answers to this question now”.
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