Brian Eno: A Visual Music of Ambient Melody

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The principal innovator of Ambient and Generative Music, multi-media composer and producer/collaborator with David Bowie, Talking Heads, and U2, Brian Eno is most fascinated by chance music by performers who ‘don’t completely understand their territory’

Brian Eno, Roxy Music

Brian Eno, musician, composer, record producer, singer, and visual artist, circumvented the norms in song structure and melodic progression, changed the way we hear and process music. Here at Air Studios during his glam period, London in 1973. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Ambient Genius: The Working Life of Brian Eno

By Sasha Frere-Jones, Published in The New Yorker

In January, 1975, the musician Brian Eno and the painter Peter Schmidt released a set of flash cards they called “Oblique Strategies.” Friends since meeting at art school, in the late sixties, they had long shared guidelines that could pry apart an intellectual logjam, providing options when they couldn’t figure out how to move forward. The first edition consisted of a hundred and fifteen cards. They were black on one side with an aphorism or an instruction printed on the reverse. Eno’s first rule was “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” Others included “Use non-musicians” and “Tape your mouth.” In “Brian Eno: Visual Music,” a monograph of his musical projects and visual art, Eno, who still uses the rules, says, “ ‘Oblique Strategies’ evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation—particularly in studios—tended to make me quickly forget that there were other ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.”

Eno is widely known for coining the term “ambient music,” and he produced a clutch of critically revered albums in the nineteen-seventies and eighties—by the Talking Heads, David Bowie, and U2, among others—but if I had to choose his greatest contribution to popular music it would be the idea that musicians do their best work when they have no idea what they’re doing. As he told Keyboard, in 1981, “Any constraint is part of the skeleton that you build the composition on—including your own incompetence.” The genius of Eno is in removing the idea of genius. His work is rooted in the power of collaboration within systems: instructions, rules, and self-imposed limits. His methods are a rebuke to the assumption that a project can be powered by one person’s intent, or that intent is even worth worrying about. To this end, Eno has come up with words like “scenius,” which describes the power generated by a group of artists who gather in one place at one time. (“Genius is individual, scenius is communal,” Eno told The Guardian, in 2010.) It suggests that the quality of works produced in a certain time and place is more indebted to the friction between the people on hand than to the work of any single artist.

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David Bowie (With Brian Eno) – Warszawa, from the Album Low

The most aggressive and moving music is “Warszawa. “If there is music emerging from rock and its borders that approaches classical conceptions of structure and movement, then this piece belongs in that camp. It uses four sections, one a refrain, to convey a wide range of tone, melody, texture, mood and emotion. The first builds from one-note repetition into mournful chords, changing its emotive tone and tension through a mixture of Gregorian and Eastern European folk music. The second section, more melodically hopeful, uses more keyboard tracks and electronic tones, and surprisingly eases the tension and mood. The third section again changes the mood. Bowie sings/chants with Middle Eastern inflection as the organ, devices and chorus respond with the solemnity of a mass. The fourth and last section returns to the more harmonious and uplifting second section. It’s beautiful and unpretentious, easily the most significant track on the record.  — Paul Yamada, New York Rocker

The growing influence of this idea, ironically, makes it difficult to see clearly Eno’s distinct contributions to music—his catalogue of recordings doesn’t completely contain his contribution to the pop canon. When someone lies on the studio floor and sings at a microphone five feet away, Eno is in the air. When a band records three hours of improvisation and then loops a four-second excerpt of the audiotape and scraps the rest, Eno has a hand on the razor blade. When everybody except for the engineer is told to go home, Eno remains. Behind Eno stand John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Erik Satie, but those guys didn’t make pop records.

It feels odd to call Eno’s 2014 album, “High Life,” a collaboration. Credited to Eno and Karl Hyde, of the electronic duo Underworld, “High Life” is indeed the work of several people. But deciding that any one project of Eno’s is a collaboration seems off, because collaboration is Eno’s primary mode. Eno’s first recorded work was the sound of a pen hitting a lamp. Who deserves credit for that—Eno, the pen, or the lamp?


Documentary Excerpt: Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1971-77

An Education in ‘Process Not Product’

Born on May 15, 1948, in Woodbridge, Suffolk, he was christened Brian Peter George Eno. His father, William, was a postman, and his mother, Maria Buslot, who was Flemish, stayed home. When Eno was eleven, he entered St. Joseph’s College, a Catholic grammar school in Ipswich. According to “On Some Faraway Beach,” David Sheppard’s excellent biography, the school encouraged students to incorporate some part of the school’s religious heritage into their identities, so Eno called himself Brian Peter George Jean-Baptiste de La Salle Eno, after the patron saint of teachers. Eno has long had a vaguely aristocratic bearing, implacable and seemingly above the fray, which makes it seem plausible that he came from a long line of European clerics. People often refer to Eno now as a boffin, or describe him as looking like a professor or an architect. When I met him, in 2013, he was wearing a variety of comfortable fabrics that I couldn’t identify. He looked like someone who owns lots of expensive things, which he does, and is used to being listened to, which he is.

After St. Joseph’s, Eno attended the Ipswich Art School, beginning in 1964, and then moved on to the Winchester School of Art, in 1966. At Ipswich, he studied under the unorthodox artist and theorist Roy Ascott, who taught him the power of what Ascott called “process not product.” Having never mastered an instrument, Eno began experimenting with tape recorders, at the urging of an instructor and friend named Tom Phillips, who introduced him to the work of John Cage and the Fluxus group. At Winchester, Eno performed “Drip Event,” by the Fluxus member George Brecht. The entire “score” of “Drip Event” reads: “Erect containers such that water from other containers drips into them.” Eno then wrote a piece whose instructions read:

The instruments are in turn

ground down and individually

cast into blocks of acrylic

resin. The blocks are given to

young children.

Now the music begins . . .

Though Eno drew and painted at both Ipswich and Winchester, he left school with no plans to become a fine artist. “I thought that art schools should just be places where you thought about creative behavior, whereas they thought an art school was a place where you made painters,” he said later.

“I think negative ambition is a big part of what motivates artists,” Eno told me. “It’s the thing you’re pushing against. When I was a kid, my negative ambition was that I didn’t want to get a job.” After leaving Winchester, in 1969, Eno moved to London and became involved with a sprawling group called the Scratch Orchestra, led by the composer Cornelius Cardew. The orchestra conducted various “happenings,” some of which involved promenading through public spaces while playing; almost all of its work emphasized improvisation over technical skill.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 1 – Music for Airports

‘Sound Manipulator’ in Roxy Music

In 1970, Eno ran into the saxophonist Andy Mackay, a friend he’d met while at Winchester. “Have you still got some tape recorders?” Eno recalls Mackay asking him. “I’m in this band, and we need to get some proper demos made.” Mackay owned a small synthesizer, operated with a joystick and small pinboard, which he encouraged Eno to take home and experiment with—a moment in pop history that is roughly equivalent to Jimi Hendrix’s discovering feedback. Eno mastered the instrument by using it as something other than an instrument. He fed the band’s music into the synthesizer, then sent the processed result through various tape decks and out through a P.A. system whose elements he’d collected over the years. The band began rehearsing in Eno’s house, with Eno acting as “sound manipulator,” a cross between a live-sound engineer and a band member. The outfit’s leader, Bryan Ferry, eventually chose the name Roxy Music. By the end of 1972, the band was famous in the United Kingdom, no member more so than the partly bald man with his long hair painted silver. Eno started his live career with Roxy Music by setting up at the back of the venue and ended up onstage, sometimes playing his synthesizer with an oversized plastic knife and fork.

Brian Eno, 77 Million Paintings

‘Paintings of Light’ – From “77 Million Paintings” by Brian Eno, compiled through a computer algorithm with an added soundtrack.

Tired of butting heads with Ferry, Eno left the band in 1973, after two albums. It was his last stint as a permanent member of a touring act. But he was still under contract with Island Records, which had faith that Eno could become his own kind of pop star. In 1974, with various musician friends he’d collected over the years, he released two albums, “Here Come the Warm Jets” and “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).” The first album yielded a minor hit, “Baby’s on Fire,” written on the day Eno walked out of a meeting with Roxy Music, burdened with debt but so happy to be out of the band that he felt like jumping in the air. Both albums are perverse, slightly agitated, and playful, with many of the lyrics generated randomly and cut together from various sources (mostly Eno’s own notebooks).

“I never wanted to write the sort of song that said, ‘Look at how abnormal and crazy and out there I am, man!'” Eno laughs. “Someone like Bowie never wrote those sorts of songs. People like Frank Zappa and Bryan Ferry knew we could pick and choose from the history of music, stick things together looking for friction and energy. They were more like playwrights; they invented characters and wrote a life around them. Bowie played a double game as well as he appeared to live it, too. He played with the form and the expectations brilliantly.”

Eno began “Another Green World” (1975), his third solo release and a gentle masterpiece, without having written any material. By prodding a group of musicians to improvise and then editing that material, he created something consistent and coherent. The album is stubbornly placid: distorted guitars heat without burning, bass lines circle without begging for change, and drums are placed so as to suggest upward growth more than forward motion. It is a very hard album to wear out. There is also a fair amount of singing, which somehow you forget every time you look at the album cover. The record fulfills the implied promise of the title, making the trace of a human voice surprising every time. Reflecting on the work, Eno said, “Someone told me that he read an interview with Prince, where Prince said that the record which most influenced him was my ‘Another Green World,’ which was incredibly flattering. It’s my understanding that Prince had picked up on the idea that you could have records that were kind of sonic landscapes with vocals on them, and that’s sort of what ‘Another Green World’ was.”

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Brian Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets

Changing the Language of Rock

For most of his career, Eno has stuck to manipulating synthesizers or tape, give or take a digital innovation, and is credited on many albums as providing “treatments.” But he has taught himself most of the standard rock instruments, and sings on most of his own recordings. (For many years, he has been holding a weekly chorus of nonprofessional singers in London.) The credits for “Another Green World” make it clear that Eno was almost as interested in changing the language of rock as he was in saying anything specific. He is listed as playing several previously unknown varieties of guitar: “castanet,” “club,” “desert,” “digital,” and “snake,” in alphabetical order. His careful but violent processing makes these names more accurate than you’d expect. In fact, Eno had already described the “snake guitar” to NME’s Ian MacDonald two years earlier: “ ‘Snake guitar’ requires no particular skill . . . and essentially involves destroying the pitch element of the instrument in order to produce wedges of sound that can be used percussively or as a kind of punctuation.” Use non-instruments.

The pairing of “In Dark Trees” and “The Big Ship” on side one of the LP presents Eno’s developing blend of odd and peaceful. The music is unobtrusive and instrumental: the first track is two and a half minutes, the next one barely three. “In Dark Trees” feeds a primitive rhythm generator (it was not yet called a drum machine) through the synthesizer, producing a tannic stutter. One guitar voices small unresolved chords that chatter through yet more echo. A second guitar enters after a minute and plays a slow minor-key figure that slides down the neck. It repeats three times, fading out on the fourth round. “The Big Ship” is anchored by a synthesizer playing unceasing sustained chords that suggest a hymn. (Hymns have been an obsession of Eno’s since childhood.) A guitar rises up in a distorted swell, following the chords closely, playing the root note of each one. The chords cycle without changing, though a contrapuntal arpeggio sneaks in and plays against the chords as they fade. The two songs quickly sketch two different spaces, one moist and shrouded, the other warm and open. By ignoring the virtuosic, personality-led rumble that his former bandmates in Roxy Music were making, Eno was moving toward a music that changed your perception of the space around you. Geography could be as memorable as melody.

Eno’s strategies don’t always appeal to the musicians he works with. In Geeta Dayal’s book about the album, also titled “Another Green World,” the bassist Percy Jones recalls, “There was this one time when he gave everybody a piece of paper, and he said write down 1 to 100 or something like that, and then he gave us notes to play against specific numbers.” Phil Collins, who played drums on the album, reacted to these instructions by throwing beer cans across the room. “I think we got up to about 24 and then we gave up and did something else,” Jones said.

“Brian Eno: Another Green World,” on Arena, BBC Documentary

No Wave in New York

In 1972, not yet a producer, Eno made his first visit to New York. He told Disc magazine that he already felt “emotionally based” in the city. In 1978, Eno returned to New York, ostensibly for a short stay, but remained until 1984. He said that “one of the most exciting months of the decade . . . in terms of music” occurred in the summer of 1978.

Through friends, Eno heard about No Wave, then the dominant style for downtown bands who were taking punk to its logical extremes—abandoning song form, playing entirely outside of formal tunings, and foregrounding noise over signal. For the compilation “No New York,” which Eno produced for Antilles Records, he picked a number of bands to represent the scene. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, DNA, and the Contortions were included on the album, a fair slice of the smartest and most aggressive bands of the time. The album became famous, years later, as a reflection of a moment, but it is also valuable because many No Wave bands recorded so little during their brief careers. These four bands, however, did make recordings, which are all truer to their spirit than Eno’s vision of them. They all exhibited a faith in dissonance, distortion, or confrontation—sometimes all at once. The “no” in No Wave was important, and Eno, as sharp as he was to recognize the scene, still operated with a spirit based on the continuous Yes. “No New York” disoriented and teased where it needed to punch and bite.

David bowie, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Low

Bowie and Eno’s collaboration on “Low” had them adding tracks, sounds, repeated noises to the recordings which come out in a horizontal way, and combined with electronic instrumentation sound unlike most rock records, then and now. Photo: Brian Eno, David Bowie and Robert Fripp making “Low.”

Right around the release of “No New York,” Eno produced “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!,” the début by Devo, the visionary band from Ohio. Producing DNA, Devo, and Talking Heads in the same year shows impeccable taste. But taste is not an act—it’s an opinion. On the astonishing, criminally out-of-print “Devo Live: The Mongoloid Years,” you can hear Devo performing at Max’s Kansas City in 1977. Even in low fidelity, their rendition of “Uncontrollable Urge” is merciless, an inhuman sound that summons a human reaction. Few bands have had a similar combination of hostility and control. Under Eno’s watch, “Uncontrollable Urge” became slower and tranquillized—it moved with an unnecessarily light swing. Devo’s Jerry Casale told the Guardian, in 2009, that the band found Eno’s approach “wanky.” “We were into brute, nasty realism and industrial-strength sounds and beats,” Casale said. “We didn’t want pretty. Brian was trying to add beauty to our music.”

What became increasingly clear in the seventies was that Eno’s embrace of possibility and chance wasn’t as free-form as it seemed—it was a specific aesthetic. His name shows up on very few records you would describe as hard or aggressive, and his love of the perverse has never been rooted in hostility. Eno fights against received wisdom and habit, but rarely against the listener.

In fact, as Eno found more ways for technology to carry out his beloved generative rules, his music became less and less like rock music and closer to a soundtrack for meditation. The same year that he released “Another Green World,” he also put out “Discreet Music.” The A side was a thirty-minute piece that was written as much by machines as by Eno. In the liner notes, Eno wrote, “If there is any score for the piece, it must be the operational diagram of the particular apparatus I used for its production. . . . Having set up this apparatus, my degree of participation in what it subsequently did was limited to (a) providing an input (in this case, two simple and mutually compatible melodic lines of different duration stored on a digital recall system) and (b) occasionally altering the timbre of the synthesizer’s output by means of a graphic equalizer.”

Brian Eno – Another Green World

From Furniture to Discreet, Comes Ambient

The result is an area of sound without borders or time signature. There is no rhythm track, just layers of monody, lines programmed into a synthesizer and playing over each other. It is hypnotic, and fights your attempts to focus on it. In 1978, he started to use the term “ambient music”: the concept stretched back to describe “Discreet Music” and the work of earlier composers, like Satie, who coined the term “furniture music,” for compositions that would be more functional than expressive. In the liner notes of “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978), Eno wrote, “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.”

But “Music for Airports” was not nearly as docile as Eno wanted it to be. Though the music is gentle enough to be background music, it is too vocal in character and too melodic to be forgotten that easily. I can recall entire sequences without much difficulty. As much as Eno wanted his music to recede, and as potent as the idea was, he failed by succeeding: the album is too beautiful to ignore. But, in some ways, history and technology have accomplished what Eno did not. With the disappearance of the central home stereo, and the rise of earbuds, MP3s, and the mobile, around-the-clock work cycle, music is now used, more often than not, as background music. Aggressive music can now be as forgettable as ambient music.

In May, 2013, Eno gave a talk at the Red Bull Music Academy, in New York. Interviewed by the journalist Emma Warren, Eno said that he had created music for a hospital in Brighton, most of it not commercially available. We heard a snippet—it was Eno music, for sure, with muffled bell tones and sustained notes that avoided either high or low extremes in pitch. As much as this may be a default sound for Eno, he sees his music as addressing the parasympathetic part of the nervous system, which, he said, “deals with digest and rest, and calm down and connect things together, and so on.” It was as if Eno had been drawn to a set of sounds that he has spent his life working with, only to find out later why he chose them.

Eno told me that he heard from a fan who manages a supermarket in London and decided to play “Discreet Music” there. A week later, Eno went to visit him. “He said, ‘It was lovely—people stayed much longer in the shop and bought far less.’ I thought that was a very nice thing to say about the music.”

A Generative Simulation of Forms

The most successfully ambient of Eno’s ambient albums is the 2012 release “Lux.” The core of the piece is twelve patterns, which use only the notes corresponding to the white keys on a keyboard. Eno brought an early version of the piece to a gallery in the Palace of Venaria, near Turin. He said that the gallery, a long space connecting two wings, is “all stone and glass, so it’s very echoey.”

The first version of the piece didn’t work in the space, so Eno began reworking it. He used the “convolution reverb” feature of the popular music-programming software Logic Pro. It allows you to record a sound—like a handclap—in a space, and then produce a simulation of that space’s natural resonance. In the privacy of his London studio, Eno could play sounds “in” the Venaria gallery.

He found a certain register, between three and five kilohertz, that “really seemed to sing in that space,” and directed the piece toward that range. The musician Leo Abrahams played a guitar-synthesizer hybrid, and the violinist Nell Catchpole played along to the original patterns.

“The process of making the skeleton of it was generative, in the sense that I set in motion various processes and let them do their thing,” Eno told me. “But what was different this time was I thought, O.K., I’m going to listen to that, and I’m going to find out where the sort of moments are that something unusual happens, something you didn’t expect happens, and I’m going to work on them—so from a generative beginning I then went into composer mode, basically, which I haven’t ever done before. In the past, I’ve really let the thing just carry on, do its thing.”

The result is both remarkable and almost impossible to remember. I’ve listened to “Lux” as often as any of Eno’s work, but I don’t think I could reproduce five sequential seconds, even by humming. I just know it.

To read the entire article, see The New Yorker.

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