On Brian Eno and Barry Lyndon: An Interview With Geeta Dayal (Part Two)

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.

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Comments

  1. Jimmy Maher says:

    I hate to be that guy, but it’s worth noting that Low was not actually produced by Brian Eno but rather by Tony Visconti and Bowie himself. Eno worked with Bowie on the album as a (non-)musician, idea sounding board, and co-writer, but not as producer. I’m a bit sensitive on this point because it is an error that is so often made, and one that deprives Visconti of deserved credit for his own contributions to that seminal album.

    I must confess I’m a bit dismayed to see Ms. Dayal make this common error after emphasizing so repeatedly the thoroughness of her research.

    Oh, and while I’m kvetching: Speed of Life’s fade-in takes less than two seconds, hardly a “long time” by my standards. I’d say Low starts with rather a bang, myself.

  2. JLG23 says:

    RE Eno & Film: In the liner notes for On Land (Ambient 4), Eno says the album was influenced by Fellini’s Amarcord.

  3. Susan says:

    Yes, it’s a bit surprising that someone could write an entire book on Eno and still think he produced an album as seminal as Low.

  4. Geeta Dayal says:

    In response to Jimmy’s comment: I know Tony Visconti’s work well, and I’m not out to minimize his role as a producer. I’m particularly fond of Visconti’s work on Bowie’s Scary Monsters (1980). But Eno played a major role in Low, both in its overall sound (keeping in mind that I’m using the idea of a “producer” in a wider, all-encompassing way) and as a co-writer on some of the tracks. You could make the same argument with U2, and Daniel Lanois; Lanois is an extraordinarily talented producer who is also underrated, in his own way. Eno wouldn’t work without Lanois when working with U2. (He once said that Lanois was “insurance,” to ensure that the records sounded good!) But Eno was essential to the sound of U2, especially in the early days, as a “non-musician” and “idea sounding board,” as you say.

    Regarding “Speed of Life”: It may be a few seconds of “fade in,” but it is incredibly memorable. It fits in with the style of Side One of Low — the jagged, fragmentary snapshots. You can try this experiment yourself (I just did with my vinyl copy; I just noticed, hilariously, that I own three copies) by listening to it starting at the beginning, and listening to it starting at 3 seconds in, and noting how different the track feels. Also keep in mind that there are no lyrics whatsoever in that song — it’s a pure instrumental — functioning as a long “fade-in,” of sorts, for Side One of the album.

  5. Susan says:

    He was the producer of Low in a “wider, all-encompassing way”? I guess he was also a “co-writer of some of the tracks” in this same wider way, since he is only co-credited with one track.

  6. Geeta Dayal says:

    Susan, even though Eno got explicit songwriting credit on one track on Low (“Warszawa”), he helped write several.

    If you want to split hairs about it: In Seabrook’s exhaustive book on the Berlin trilogy, “Bowie in Berlin,” Seabrook writes that Eno began working on “Art Decade” in Bowie’s absence. “Bowie ‘didn’t like it very much, and sort of forgot about it,’ according to Eno, but Eno persevered with the idea, building up layers of ambient sound and discord around the slow, central riff.” Eno’s fingerprints surfaced again on “Subterraneans,” the closing track.

    Bowie actually brought Eno in first, and then Visconti: Visconti did an amazing job as producer, to be sure, but Eno was a guiding force behind Bowie’s new aesthetic direction. Bowie himself has said that Another Green World and Discreet Music were a major inspiration; Bowie even credited Discreet Music with helping him recover from his major drug problem at the time!

    And here are a few of Eno’s musical contributions to Low: the Minimoog on “Breaking Glass”; ARP and EMS Synthi on “What in the World”; backing vocals on “Sound and Vision”; EMS Synthi on “Always Crashing in the Same Car”; “synthetics and sequencer” on “A New Career in a New Town”; piano, Minimoog, EMS Synthi, and Chamberlin on “Warszawa” and “Art Decade,” and piano and ARP on “Subterraneans.”

    I also recommend that you read my book, which has almost nothing to do with Bowie, and ends in the year 1975.

  7. Susan says:

    I will check out your book. If it’s as good as the one on Low in the same series, it will be worth the read.

    Sorry to have sounded snotty, but you do seem to have a semantic problem as a writer. If you baldly state that Eno produced Low, without further explanation, you should assume that people will read that in the accepted sense, rather than a special sense that you add later when questioned. Similarly when you simply say he co-wrote some of the tracks. Of course making music is a collaborative affair, but most people are not going to assume that making suggestions, playing synth on a track or singing backing vocals equates co-writing. Bowie didn’t, and he was someone who was generous with co-writing credits.

  8. Geeta Dayal says:

    Hi Susan, again, I recommend that you read my book. I think you’ll find that it illuminates a lot of the points made here, as well as the semantic issues you have. And again, my book has nothing to do with Bowie or with Low. It’s very difficult to have this conversation over a comments box.

  9. Brandy7727 says:

    I found this an interesting read along with the video. I don’t know much about Eno and Lyndon but this was an informative article.

    Quote from Geeta

    “Bowie actually brought Eno in first, and then Visconti: Visconti did an amazing job as producer, to be sure, but Eno was a guiding force behind Bowie’s new aesthetic direction.”

    Couldn’t have said it better.

    Cheers

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  10. IP PBX says:

    For me Eno is really a talented person. I am impressed by the fact that he was not a traditional composer. He had its own creativity and had a good faith on his own. He was much confident about his work and its presentation. His comparison with a creative child in the article is really interesting to read about. The tactics in the music used by Eno are really explained well and I was surprised to read them. Eno’s music created a great melody and I love his music verymuch.

  11. sbobet says:

    I think you’ll find that it illuminates a lot of the points made here, as well as the semantic issues you have. And again, my book has nothing to do with Bowie or with Low.

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