Eno seems to have been interested in cybernetics from a very early age. How did this interest impact his work?
Many artists, particularly in Britain, were interested in cybernetics. A lot of this can be traced to Roy Ascott’s infamous “Groundcourse” at various art schools in Britain in the 1960s. Pete Townshend of The Who underwent the “Groundcourse,” and so did Eno, and so did many others who would go on to be major names in their fields. Ascott’s curriculum was a systems-based approach to learning, inspired by cybernetics.
Most people associate cybernetics with Norbert Wiener, but what I found even more interesting was the British wave of cybernetics theorists that came a bit later on — people like W. Ross Ashby, Gordon Pask, and Stafford Beer. Beer’s book The Brain of the Firm, especially, was a major touchstone for Eno. Beer applied cybernetics to management, and Eno applied Beer’s management theories to the studio environment
Eno is most often associated with Ambient music. Can you share with us something of his understanding of this concept and where it came from?
Ambient music often has no discernible beats or melodies. It is music, as Eno once said, that is “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Eno is the prime exponent of ambient music, but the concept has been around for a long time. The concept was established in the modern era by the composer Erik Satie, via his idea of “furniture music” — music that would mingle with the sounds of forks and knives at dinner, as he described it.
You have a great deal to tell us about Eno’s process, including how he thought of his collaborators, their tools and technologies, and even the space of the studio as “instruments” through which he created his music. What does this expansive concept of “instrument” tell us about Eno’s approach as a composer?
“Expansive” is a good word to use to describe Eno in general. Eno is not a traditional composer by any standard. Nor is he a trained musician. As I write in my book, he uses the “non-musician” label to his advantage. He doesn’t play by the rules and conventions of music theory, because he doesn’t really know the rules. But he has incredible intuition, and a lot of natural talent for music. And, as Eno’s frequent collaborator Robert Fripp told me, Eno’s playfulness in the studio is key. If an air compressor makes an interesting sound, why shouldn’t it be an instrument?
Think of how creative children are. When you were a small child, you didn’t know that pots and pans weren’t real instruments; you just played with them anyway because they make interesting noises when you hit them. Then you get older, and you learn that a piano is a real instrument and pots and pans aren’t, and you stop banging on pots and pans.
Part of the idea of the Oblique Strategies cards is to put you back into a playful environment. To drop the inhibitions of rigid classifications, strict hierarchies, and what’s “wrong” and what’s “right.”
You compare Eno’s music at one point to the work of Stanley Kubrick –especially in Barry Lyndon. What makes this analogy appropriate andinformative?
I read somewhere that Barry Lyndon was one of Eno’s favorite films. I wondered why. Then I watched the film closely a few times, and I started to understand. There were a few interesting coincidences between Barry Lyndon and Another Green World. One was that Barry Lyndon and Another Green World came out the same year — they both came out in 1975. Barry Lyndon doesn’t look like many other films out there. It looks very organic and natural, as if it’s shot with natural light alone, but Kubrick actually used the most advanced technology available at the time. In a similar way, Another Green World is full of imagery from the natural world — the album title alone seems to suggest lush, pastoral landscapes — but it was made using some of the most cutting-edge studio techniques, and lots of synthesizers and other electronic gear.
For Barry Lyndon, Kubrick searched the world for the the most high-tech lenses possible — lenses that would be capable of, say, photographing a scene in a dark castle lit with candles. No one else in the industry was using these super-fast lenses; Kubrick had to have them custom-built according to his crazy specifications. Kubrick also used custom lenses for A Clockwork Orange, but Barry Lyndon took the technology a step further. Instead of the stark visual effects you see in A Clockwork Orange — that dystopian, futuristic feel, which seems to suggest cutting-edge technology — Barry Lyndon is the exact opposite. It’s full of sweeping views of the Irish countryside, this gorgeous natural imagery. You almost feel as if
you could step right into the film; it feels so real.
I was struck by the phrase, “music as immersion,” in the book. What kinds of immersive experience did Eno try to create through his work?
There are a few ways. One of the tricks Eno uses, which I write about in my book, is long fade-ins and fade-outs, to make you feel as if the music is part of a larger continuum — as if you’re stepping into a scene that’s still happening when you leave it. In the classic U2 album The Joshua Tree, which Eno produced, the first song, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” fades in very slowly. The song takes a long time to start. That’s
on purpose. You’re stepping into a world; you become immersed in the album. It doesn’t start abruptly, like most rock albums do; it lures you in. You can hear the same thing in the classic David Bowie album Low, which Eno also produced; the first song, “Speed of Life,” takes a long time to fade in.
Another immersive technique Eno uses is that his ambient music often sounds like a slice taken from a larger whole — there’s no beginning/middle/end or traditional verse-chorus-verse song structure. It’s an ocean of sound, omnidirectional. This is interesting to me for
several reasons. There’s the feminine aspect — it’s quite the opposite of, say, the Rolling Stones, with a macho frontman shouting loud lyrics and a band bashing out the tunes.
And then there’s the textural aspect — Eno’s music is about textures, layers, timbres. Eno has a flair for a good melody, but his music isn’t about melody per se, nor is it necessarily about rhythm either. Some great German bands in the 1970s, like Can and Neu!, did a similar thing with their music, concentrating on texture.
Throughout, you describe Eno as an artist drawn towards both experimental and popular music. How was he able to find a balance between the two impulses and how have this merging of distinctive kinds of cultural production shape how critics and fans have responded to his work?
Eno’s great talent is in being able to travel both worlds. U2 once famously said that they didn’t go to art school; they went to Brian Eno. There’s some truth to that. Eno’s interest in experimental music started very early on, when he was a teenager. He started booking experimental musicians as a student in art school; he performed with avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. This was all before Roxy Music, and before his solo career.
But the pop mentality started early on, too. Eno grew up listening to American doo-wop records, and his first favorite band was The Who. Eno was more successful than a lot of others at merging experimental ideas with a pop aesthetic. That’s why so many bands go to him when they want to do something unexpected. You don’t go to Eno to get the best-sounding, best-engineered record on planet Earth. You go to get something interesting. To go somewhere you haven’t gone before. And at its heart, that’s what experimental music is all about — experimenting.
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.