I don’t write much on this blog about popular music. I have always said music and sports were my real blind spots when it comes to researching contemporary popular culture. So, I have the utmost respect when I find a writer who can take me inside the music and help me understand why a particular album matters for the culture. I am all the more delighted to find such a person in my own backyard. In this case, I do mean this more less literally — in my own backyard.
More acurately, I discovered that Geeta Dayal, one of the students who used to live in Senior House, the dorm where Cynthia and I were housemasters for fourteen years, has become a top notch music critic. Geeta was an undergraduate student in the Comparative Media Studies Program, she was one of the leaders in Senior House culture, and for a short while, she worked for me as we were launching the Center for Future Civic Media. But when she wasn’t hanging out in our dorm, she was studying journalism at Columbia, writing for the Village Voice and a host of other publications, and working on a book about Brian Eno or more exactly a book about one of Eno’s best albums, Another Green World, which shows us the many different layers on which his music works and situating it within the context of his life and his times.
I read the book with both pride in what my former student has accomplished and fascination with what she had to teach me about an artist who ranks very highly on my personal list of music preferences. I often use Eno’s music as a backdrop when I am writing and I like to listen to this strangely familiar (and I do mean strange) music when I have trouble relaxing in strangely familiar hotel rooms while traveling. I knew I liked Eno, but I didn’t have a language to explain why. I had to share my excitement about this book with my readers.
In this interview Dayal helps us to see the links between Eno’s sounds, his early experience as a painter, his fascination with cybernetics, his collaborations with other artists, his fannish engagement with Stanley Kubrick’s films, especially Barry Lyndon, and his ability to move fluidly between high and pop culture.
First, let’s go through some of the choices which shaped this book. Why Brian Eno? Can you tell us something about his importance to contemporary music and about your own interest in the subject?
I find Eno to be an endlessly fascinating figure. He has so many varied interests — creating ambient music, producing rock music, making video art, mixing up his own perfumes, gardening, cogitating about evolutionary biology and cybernetics, inventing iPhone apps — the list goes on.
I identified personally with Eno’s sprawling scope. When I was a student at MIT in the 1990s, I ran a magazine, had a radio show, organized protests, made dozens of short films, did neuroscience research, established a 24-hour video art telethon on the MIT cable channel, booked bands, taught high school students, and did about a million other things besides. It’s a miracle I graduated on time, and with two degrees at that.
Over the past decade, I focused myself on being a writer, because writing was a safe space to explore my wide range of interests, from visual art to science. Writing gave me focus and discipline, and a set of practical constraints to work within, which I found useful. But writing never restrained me creatively; if anything, writing a book helped my imagination to grow. Eno is very focused, too, with an almost laser-like intensity. But he is, as he likes to call himself, a “non-musician.” He uses music as a way to test out new ideas, with a sense of playfulness and an all-embracing perspective. Sometimes I joke and say I’m a “non-journalist.”
And why Another Green World? What made this particular album a key focal point for structuring your examination of his work?
I thought pretty seriously about My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album Eno made with David Byrne in 1981. But Another Green World told a better story. It signified a major transition in Eno’s aesthetic direction. The album was a bridge to Eno’s ambient works. It was composed almost entirely within the studio environment, which I thought was a very intriguing story to tell. It was made at around the same time as Discreet Music, an album that also had a great story behind it. And Another Green World was the first album to be composed with the help of the Oblique Strategies, and I found the Oblique Strategies cards to be a very interesting thing to talk about, as well.
The Oblique Strategies cards become a central motif running through this book and also played an interesting role in your writing process. What can you tell us about them? What do they show about Eno’s particular flavor of creativity? And how did they guide your own journey as a writer?
I find the Oblique Strategies cards to be extraordinarily useful; I’ve been using them for years. I keep a deck on my desk at all times. When I get stuck while writing — which is often — I pick a card. “Are there sections? Consider transitions,” a card might advise. “Use a different color.” Sometimes this advice is not useful at all, but it always makes me laugh, rearranges my perspective, and helps to shakes me out of my rut. Each
chapter in my book is named after an Oblique Strategy — “Honor thy error as a hidden intention,” for example. “The tape is now the music.” It seemed natural to use the Oblique Strategies cards to write the book; I was often stuck while writing this book. My book is a short one, but it was an extremely ambitious project. I was trying to distill a lot of research, and a lot of ideas from the last forty years, into a very short
space. Some of these ideas were very challenging ones, and I really tried hard to explain them in as clear terms as possible.
I think the Oblique Strategies cards tell you a lot about Eno’s quirky sense of humor, and also about his approach to making music — both in his sense of play, and his faith in the artistic process. But the Oblique Strategies didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. In my book, I write about many other creative techniques that were similar to the Oblique Strategies — from John Cage’s use of the I Ching, to the Fluxus movement’s inventive use of cards, to Marshall McLuhan’s “Distant Early Warning” cards. The late artist Peter Schmidt developed the Oblique Strategies cards with Eno; Schmidt was making paintings based on hexagrams from the I Ching in the late
1960s. There was a lot of interest in chance at around that time, and in systems. The Oblique Strategies cards, in their own way, were a systems-based approach to creativity.
How much access did you have to Eno and his collaborators in developing this book?
One way to write this book would have been to do an extended interview with Eno, and base the book solely around his observations. But Another Green World was made quite a long time ago, now — 35 years ago! — and Eno is a bit exhausted with talking about his work in the 1970s, and doesn’t remember much about the ins and outs of the making of Another Green World, anyway. I don’t blame him. And Eno always surrounds himself with interesting people, and works with so many people. So it made sense to talk to them.
Part of what made the book interesting, I think, was that I didn’t base the book around a big interview with Eno. Instead, I did a lot of archival research; I read thousands of pages of interviews and reviews. I read dozens of books, from topics ranging from the history of cybernetics to gardening to visual art to British experimental music. I spoke to a lot of Eno’s friends and collaborators, past and present, who were very open in talking with me. I wanted to meet everyone, not just his collaborators onAnother Green World. I wanted to talk to people along the entire spectrum of Eno’s life. I was interested in collaborators, assistant engineers, ex-girlfriends, friends. In that way, you create an outline of the person that might be more nuanced and surprising than just going straight to the source.
I had experience with doing a lot of digging. When I was starting out as an arts journalist, almost ten years ago, I spent a year working as the research assistant to Simon Reynolds for his book Rip it Up and Start Again, a major history of post-punk music. An incredible amount of research went into that book: around 125 new interviews, plus hundreds of archival interviews, cut out from old press clippings, and rare zines and so on. Simon taught me how to research and write a non-fiction book, based on original research. It’s a painstaking and sometimes painful process,
but I think the results are worth it.
I was interested to learn that Eno started out hoping to be a painter and only later turned his attention to music. What led to the change? Is there a way in which we can describe Eno’s music as “painterly”?
I think that painting and music are interrelated. Kandinsky, for instance, had huge ties to the music of his time; he was very inspired by composers like Schoenberg, and expressed this in his work. And many musicians were into painting; composers like Scriabin were deeply synaesthetic, and described their music in terms of colors and so on. Messiaen, the famed composer, once walked out on a performance of Beethoven because he felt that the purple colors on the stage clashed horribly with G major!
Eno’s first favorite painter was Mondrian; he had a small book of Mondrian prints as a child, and became fascinated with it. For Eno, the shift to music happened in art school — and as I write in my book, art school in Britain in the 1960s was an incubator, of sorts, for many of the leading rock musicians of the time, from The Who to Roxy Music. It was a safe environment to test out new ideas. Painting seemed to be stagnating a bit, compared to the huge explosion of ideas in painting in the first half of the 20th century. But here was rock music, in the late 1960s in Britain; of course a young, creative person would want a piece of that. Even Andy Warhol, the coolest painter in New York, was aligning himself with rock and roll, and hanging out with the Velvet Underground.
Geeta Dayal is an arts journalist and critic who writes frequently on the intersections between sound, visual art, and technology. Her book Another Green World, on the musician Brian Eno, was published by Continuum in 2009. She is the recent recipient of major funding from Creative Capital / The Andy Warhol Foundation, in the Arts Writers Grant Program. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, The Village Voice, The New York Times, Print, and Wired. She maintains a blog at www.theoriginalsoundtrack.com.