Once viewed as the guru of Ambient music, Brian Eno is now hailed as a prophet of the digital revolution. In this extended interview, he talks to fellow musician Paul Schütze about the vagaries of the new technologies he's supposed to be championing. This article was originally published in The Wire 139 (September 1995).
During a long and distinguished career nurtured at English art school and continued through Roxy Music and the early solo Ambient albums in the mid-70s, Brian Eno has eluded capture by remaining steps ahead of the men with the labels. His position in the culture of music and art has constantly evolved to the point where he now occupies a rarefied and diffuse status which he can alter according to the needs of the moment. If he faces a problem, it may well be finding a medium which can articulate his numerous impulses in a satisfactory way.
For now, he seems to be spreading himself across a number of individual media, including audio/visual/tactile installations (the recent Self Storage project with Laurie Anderson) and even the rock star charity gala (War Child). As far as music is concerned, he has recently returned to producing new albums by such major league players as U2 and David Bowie, and has just finished work on Spinner, a collaboration with bass player Jah Wobble which updates the music Eno produced for the Derek Jarman film Glitterbug (all projects which he showed little interest in discussing, as it turned out).
The interview took place at Eno's West London studio in July. I arrived at 10am, but he had already been there for four hours and seemed to be working on several unrelated projects simultaneously. The room, like its occupant, was neatly minimal and humming with emphatic potential 'stuff'. Two computers opposed one another across the space - these he later used to show me the numerous self-generating pictures he is working on. Notes, diagrams, paper cut-outs and CDs were strewn about. Prior to the interview, Eno proposed an excursion to the local record shop. He wanted to purchase the extended mix of Donna Summer's "State Of Independence", which, he says, ranks as one of the high points of 20th century art. Eno spent most of the interview lying back on a couch with his eyes closed - at times I felt like his analyst.
Paul Schutze: William Gibson has often gone on record, particularly recently, as being the unwilling prophet of virtual reality. You seem in a sense to be in a slightly similar position, as something like the Alvin Toffler of futurist aesthetics. Is it something you want to spend a huge amount of time doing - predicting the future for people - or would you rather be making it?
Brian Eno: Well, they actually amount to the same thing, in many
ways. In making it, you start to imagine it as well. I have always
asked questions about why I get fascinated by something that I'm
doing, or that somebody else is doing, so there's two things going
on. First, there's the fascination and the seduction of it, but the
second thing is me saying, I wonder why? I mean, I wonder what
cultural picture this is painting that attracts me? What's
different about it from other things? So I'm always doing that kind
of examination anyway.
I think that's also why I work as a producer actually, because I do that on behalf of other people. [If] they're starting to do something new, I try to describe to them what I think it is they're doing. So it's like articulating something that might otherwise have been a little vague. But the thing I don't like is that I've come to be seen as a supporter of new technologies for their own sake: 'Oh, isn't the Internet wonderful?'; 'Aren't CD-ROMs fantastic things?' And I really think a lot of these technologies have yet to prove themselves. They're very promising, and of course one can imagine all sorts of futures where they are central and terribly important. But to pretend that that has happened so far is complete hype.
Nearly the whole CD-ROM thing has been such a typically disastrous new media adventure, with all sorts of absolutely inappropriate intellectual baggage and cultural left-overs being forced into this medium, which it doesn't suit at all. So you get the History Of Pop video, the History Of The CD Recording, all pushed into a medium that 1) is not a good video player, 2) is not a good music player, and 3) is a very uncomfortable form of reading. So immediately the thing fails, because it tries to do things that are much better done by more highly evolved other media.
One of the biggest problems, I think, with computers [is] that all of the designed energy is going into multiplying the options inside this box. Now, fine: that's wonderful, we're very pleased, in one sense; but the important thing, as anyone who's played synthesizers knows, is not the number of options that you have, but the rapport you can have with the instrument. This is why people playing crappy 35 year old electric guitars consistently come up with more interesting results, musically, than synthesizer players do. Because what you are thrilled by is not a new sound as such, but a new type of rapport that you feel. This is whythere's a place for good players [and] why they don't disappear when sequencers suddenly come on the scene: because we still appreciate hearing that rapport. We feel that this is a musical activity. And these things [computers] as instruments are so pathetic. They depend so much on a kind of nerd's eye view of what sort of thing would be fun to do.
One of the things I've formulated recently, as a little rule of thumb for myself, is to say, a computer program should always allow you to continue working in the physical world that that activity suggests anyway. So if you're working with a music program, you don't have to keep going back to typing and using your mouse. People think that's being kind of picky, and rather stupid, but I've always had this theory that the body is the large brain; it's not like, this bit of you doesn't matter and this bit does. The whole physical experience is what you make things with. Anyone who works with any tactile art form knows this. And with any tactileinstrument. They know that a lot of your intelligence about what you're doing is not happening here [the head], it's happening all over other parts of your body. It's how your body feels about this sort of thing. Well, unfortunately, computer interfaces are so crude they've completely ignored that possibility. So, if I want drawing programs that automatically work with a pad or a pen or whatever - I have one in fact! - then I want music programs and I want synthesizers that give me that same kind of physical relationship, that physical musical relationship.
PS: A lot of contemporary electronic music gives the impression of having been designed remotely, by a music software programme such as Cubase. On paper, the software offers you an unlimited number of options, but the interface steers you in a series of very rigid and dull directions...
BE: Those programs always force you into other areas of the brain, which might not necessarily be the ones you want to be in. Some people make good use of that, of course, and some musics that come out of that are successful. But other musics that try to use the bit of the brain that it likes to use are frustrated.
When I make loops on a sequencer, I always try to play them all the way through, so I play the whole part, then I listen to it, and quite often I find a long section that I like. Loop that, cut it up so that the loop doesn't recur regularly. The idea of always editing in straight vertical cuts is the most single annoying thing about most of that music. Because a whole part of my feeling has been to make music that is 'unlocked'. And all that stuff like Thursday Afternoon, Discreet Music and so on, is very deliberately that music where the elements float separately from one another.
One of the things I love about soul music is that it's relatively unlocked, so there are things that are very tight, like the rhythm section, but it's not tied: tight, but not tied. People can shift around, and they create inflexions by not falling together when you expect them to and so on. So this unlocked thing has been a big issue for me for a long time. And then suddenly this kind of music appears that is not only locked, but absolutely fucking bolted down together...
[Another aspect of that] music - Thursday Afternoon, things like
that - is trying to capitalise on something that Cage opened up,
which is to say: the act of listening is in fact an act of
composing. Now, his extreme version of this was silence, where
there is only an act of listening; there is no act of composing on
his part, there's only an act of creative listening on your part,
if you're lucky.
PS: So it's pure interaction, in a sense.
BE: Without crap CD-ROMs in between, yeah. Interactivity's a very interesting word, because it implies that this is something we didn't do in art before, which is complete nonsense, because the only interesting art experiences are the ones that engage you in that way; in which you are invited to become part of the authorship of something in some way or another. And usually in some more meaningful way than [adopts dorky voice] choosing whether to open this door or that door.
BE: The great benefit [of tools like Cubase] is that they remove the issue of skill, and replace it with the issue of judgment. With Cubase or [an imaging program like] Photoshop, anybody can actually do anything, and you can make stuff that sounds very much like stuff you'd hear on the radio, or looks very much like anything you'd see in magazines. So the question becomes not whether you can do it or not, because any drudge can do it if they're prepared to sit in front of the computer for a few days; the question then is: of all the things you can now do, which do you choose to do? This is a whole issue for which there are not manuals! And nobody has actually discussed that side of it - they're all so thrilled by the thought that I can do anything! The real interesting question of 'So what do I do?' isn't being addressed. This is why I say I'd rather talk about abstract things because that's the kind of question that I want to talk about. We're now in a sea of unmoored judgments. Of people thinking that the judgment part is the bonus, the bit you put on at the end, once you've got a good beat... I think that's got to be right at the beginning of the process; it's got to steer you all the way through.
PS: That could be an aspect of the software: that you are actually called upon to make a judgment. I think that is a problem with a lot of software, that it presupposes that a judgment is contained within it. You don't need to actually make it.
BE: Well, I think it comes back to this options thing again. The glamour in software design is to multiply options. That's considered the clever thing to do. And this is such a pathetic form of hubris, you know: it's like, the glamour in being a piano player is to play more notes. Any artist knows this is a fairly redundant idea.
[But] there's an interesting other side to the story as well, which is that there continues to be an active market, in fact a growing market, in retro equipment. One of the things that fuels that is the understanding that certain things do particular jobs extremely well. They don't do any other job, but you're happy to have them to do that one job. And more and more people are getting the sense that it's worth collecting your equipment on that basis: not to have all the options but a few that really work.
I was working with Howie B a couple of weeks ago, in Dublin, and he has an old Echoplex, which is essential to what he does. Because you know, the old Echoplex, you move the thing so the echo goes 'wreee, wruup, whup whup', that's a big part of everything he does. Now, Howie B, if he wanted, could have all sorts of digital processing boxes, but he wants that. He's focused on it and he's used it with such good taste and skill. He's like the guy with the Stratocaster who really understands what you can do with this thing, even though it's only this thing.
PS: People seem less inclined to explore a piece of equipment and hang onto it. They prefer to use the factory presets and then sell it before it loses its value and buy the next thing. I remember you talking about this with regard to the DX7...
BE: They're all back there, I can show you them later!
PS: I read an interview once where you were talking about the value of music not necessarily being connected to its complexity or its sophistication, but being very much contained within the experience of the listener. I think you used the example of some Thai music, which was obviously enrapturing the audience but didn't do anything for you. With the current explosion of experimental creative music, I wonder, if we completely set ourselves adrift in a free-for-all of experimentation, is the actual meaning of that work going to start to fall apart, because it has no cultural, historical or contextual references: does it become hermetic?
BE: Well, I think the meaning of a lot of work does fall apart in time. One of the assumptions of art for a long time has been that things have value, and that it persists. Because it's somehow some quality intrinsic to things that is eternal. Well, I've come to think that that isn't the case. The value of a piece of work is the result of the quality of the interaction. You're part of the thing. It doesn't have value: value is something that you confer, that you make happen. Just like the I Ching doesn't have meaning in some abstract sense of having meaning invested in it; but your interaction with the thing generates meaning. That's a different thing from saying it has meaning.
Now, what I think can therefore happen, if you say that meaning and value - they're rather similar terms in the way I'm using them - are generated by a process, then you can also say, that process can stop. For instance, Duchamp's urinal, the famous piece, I'm sure was a very important work of art in 1914, and it is now not: this is my opinion. It has only a historical position in the chain of how things came into being. It doesn't live now. In the same way as some distant ancestral species undoubtedly was part of the story of how we got here, but it isn't alive now. Neanderthal Man is gone. That doesn't mean we say he didn't play any part; but it does mean we say it is not a present reality for us. And I think one of the great confusions of art criticism and art thinking in general is the inability to see that. This is why popular art has always been so demeaned by 'proper' art critic: because it clearly is ephemeral. In fact, it turns out that some of it isn't. But it presents itself as ephemeral. It doesn't present itself as eternal. And so, since it was always seen as a condition that art had to have eternal qualities, it therefore disqualified itself straight off.
PS: In your interest in visual arts and installations, you seem to be drifting in a more 'high art' direction, moving towards a more 'rarefied' area of working than previously.
BE: That's true in a way, but I think there's an equally inexorable movement in people's tastes in what they want to see. For instance, 15 years ago Ambient music was a completely obscure and oblique idea. I remember taking that into record companies, and them saying, 'Nobody wants to listen to music that doesn't have a beat, doesn't have a melody, doesn't have a singer, doesn't have words.' All they could see were all the things it didn't have. Well, it turns out they were wrong: people's tastes have very much drifted in that direction, and people are very able to handle long pieces of music with or without structures and key chord changes... So what you say is true, that I am drifting that way, but I think everybody is. And I don't doubt that on the horizon is some new melange art form which mixes things that come from pop video, from art video, from installation work, from performance art, from rock 'n' roll performance, from all those things. You can see it starting to happen: even in U2's Zoo TV tour you can see the beginnings of something that quite self-consciously was grabbing those kind of ideas and putting them together and saying, 'We can do it. We can get away with it, and people will like it!' That was the other triumph: they did.
PS: How do you analyse your own work?
BE: I think I can talk about quite a lot of it, but probably not the bits I'm working on at the moment: those are the bits that by definition are still untalkable about. Things become talkable about only in retrospect.
PS: Let's take some of the older music like Another Green World, Tiger Mountain...
BE: I don't think I'm inventing it retrospectively, but I think there were quite a few issues in there that are interesting to me. A very important one was the idea of removing the narrator as the centre of the music. I tried to do that in quite a few different ways: for instance on Another Green World there are 14 pieces of music, of which only five actually have a voice. Most people don't realise that that's the proportion - that was quite a bit of sleight of hand. People tend to think of that as a song record. But it isn't: it's an instrumental record with the odd bit of vocal.
PS: The songs are very conspicuously placed, though: you were still remembering the vocal several tracks after it had finished.
BE: I was very interested at that time to see if there was a way
of making music that still connected with one emotionally - of
course it's easy to make music that doesn't connect emotionally, to
fulfil any brief you want - but I wanted to make music that still
had an emotional connection that didn't depend on a narrative or on
a person. And a lot of the stuff I was doing, I think, was to do
with the erosion of a single personality being at the centre of the
music. I did that in lots of different ways, by sinking the voice
in, or by singing nonsense, or, like on My Life In The Bush Of
Ghosts, not using my own voice, but assembling other voices. All
these were ways of giving the message: 'that isn't the important
bit, necessarily'. That's only one part of the landscape. It's
difficult to do that, because if there's a void there, you know
that that's the part of the landscape people want to focus on,
because we have such a history of it. It's particularly true of
critics, who will almost inevitably, if there are words, treat them
as the content of the song.
PS: That's presumably because it's difficult to write well about music.
BE: Yes, there's something to learn to do. I can write about music, why can't they? I can write about music, and I'm not a critic. It's not even my job to write about music, but I can. I can write about the meaning of certain drum sounds, the difference in meaning between Jimi Hendrix's way of playing a guitar and Jeff Beck's way. And I think I can write about those things to achieve exactly the same results as they hope and fail to achieve by writing about the words. This isn't always true: there are some kinds of music which do have their lyrics as the centre, like Laurie Anderson, for instance. She's very clear that she's a storyteller. For those cases that deserve that kind of scrutiny, write about it. But don't go and do the same thing on a Funkadelic record: it really isn't about that.
PS: On Another Green World there's one track which appears to have the very distant voices of children...
BE: Yeah. It's a playground. I'd forgotten all about that.
PS: It's very evocative, but also it performs the function of moving your perspective on the idea of a human presence. There's this horizon line, on which is placed distant and very poignant human sound. And that acts to focus the presence of the voice.
BE: Yeah, I agree. This is a case of TS Eliot, where he said that the poem the reader reads may be better than that which the writer wrote! That's part of the game, to try to make things that can become better than what you thought you were doing. The flipside of what I was saying earlier about recognising that art can lose its value, is recognising also that it can multiply its value enormously, far beyond anything you ever did. It becomes autonomous, and can start to take on meanings and interpretations that really were not your own. Now, I was quite consciously at that time working with different ways to treat voices. That project was conscious, but the particular moves were more like, 'That sounds pretty good, I'll just leave that there.'
PS: But in that sense it really becomes interactive.
BE: Yeah, and in fact oracles are a very good model. I used to have this big thing on this wall, about the relationship between the way we use oracles and the way we use culture in general. I think culture is an oracular system in a way, it's a way in which we can map things that are quite vague and muddled up in here, out on an external matrix of some kind. This is exactly what happens with the I Ching: you pull an I Ching thing, and it says something to you, and you say, 'What does that line mean?' What you're really saying is, 'Which part of me can I describe in that way?' And as soon as you do that, the bits of you start to separate out, and you can start to look at the dynamics of them. I have always though that this is what I wanted artworks to do. I don't want to make things that are transmitters; I don't have anything to say in that sense of, 'Here's my message, and I'll shout it down this long tube called the artwork, and you'll get it at the end if you're clever enough.' What I want to do is to make things that you can open and make use of, which become a place where you can create meaning.
PS: On Spinner, the combination of the transparency of your work and the almost geological opacity of Wobble's work [Eno laughs] is an interesting one.
BE: It is - it's very weird, I think. It's a very strange record for me, because I made a decision with this record. I've been thinking a lot about the kinds of artists who don't censor their own work. Now, I can think of three conspicuous ones: Picasso is one, Miles Davis is another, Prince is another. They're all people who just put it out, and I think they have almost no critical self-censorship. They say, 'Let the market decide; let the world decide.'
PS: It comes from an absolute faith in their own work..
BE: I think so, but it also comes from a recognition that you might not be the best person to judge it. That's a kind of humility, actually: it's a mixture of arrogance, which says, 'I know I'm fucking good.' But a humility, which says, 'I'm not the person to decide.' I thought, perhaps this time I would try to do that, and see what happens. And I thought, as I said in the liner notes, I put myself into the hands of Jah! Because I'd like to see what that feels like. Not to fuss about: just to see what happens.
PS: Did you co-produce it?
BE: No, I did the original music for Glitterbug. [Wobble] got the stereo tapes from me of that: he couldn't take them apart in any way, because a lot of them never were anything other than stereo stuff that I did here. So he got those pieces, 19 altogether, and just worked on top of them - or didn't. On some of them he had the admirable restraint to leave them alone. And other ones he made a big thing out of. So the thing was really completely in two stages: me, then him.
PS: So all the drumming and the bass he did separately?
BE: Yes, I didn't even hear it all till it was finished. I had no input at all on that stage of it. Everything that he put on, he produced. Anything you hear looming around in the back is probably what I produced...