Aurora Musicalis

By Anthony Korner

From Artforum, Summer 1996. Kindly donated by the Jeffrey Morgan Archive.

Brian Eno is best known for his music -- he has 13 solo albums and 7 singles to his credit, besides numerous collaborations (with Roxy Music, David Bowie, John Cale, and Daniel Lanois, among others) and over 20 productions of albums for other musicians (including the Talking Heads and U2). He has also written music for films and commercials. Yet Eno, who attended art schools for five years, beginning at age 16, is also a video artist, whose work has encompassed not only videotapes but also 45 audiovisual installations in galleries and public places in Europe, America, and Japan. Until recently my experience of his work was limited to a few of his records and one 47-minute videotape, Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan (1981), which combines views of clouds and roofs, changing in real time, with Eno’s compositions of drifting, chiming sounds -- almost melodic, but relying more on atmosphere. In Italy last summer, however, at the Galleria del Cavaillino, Venice, I saw one of Eno's audiovisual installations. In the darkened gallery, video screens stood behind five oblong, irregularly patterned scrims, which they continuously filled and drained with slowly gradating colors. This was accompanied by bell-like chimes in a prolonged rallentando, as if a deceptively simple classical composition was slowly coming to a finish without ever quite doing so.

I had intended to stay in the gallery only a few minutes, but once my ears had become accustomed to the sound, and my eyes to the dark and to the subtlety of the video colors, I was captivated. While I waited to see whether the music and the colors would keep changing without repeating themselves, an hour went by. As far as I could tell, there was no repetition – nor could there be, as I later learned, since Eno has developed a way of using the technology of the tape, whether aural or video, to generate constant variety. In December 1985, and again in April 1996, I met with Eno in London to discuss his creation of a record for Artforum to be included in this Summer issue. I took the opportunity to ask him the questions that follow, partly to satisfy my curiosity and partly because we thought his words would provide the best introduction to his art.

Anthony Korner: Your work has enriched our vocabulary for describing music with new terms that open up the definition of it. How do you think our concept of music is changing?

Brian Eno: Recorded music is a medium that we are only beginning to understand. Until the 1920s, composers worked with a finite palette: they knew, say, the range of possibilities that a clarinet had, they knew that a double bass sounded a certain way, or strings in general. You can read how excited people got when new instruments were invented, like the saxophone, or the special tuba that Wagner used, or the third pedal on the Steinway grand. These were seen as amazing additions to the musical possibilities of the time. They caused a big stir, and people would write special pieces for them, like Debussy, who composed a series of pieces using the third pedal of the Steinway.

What's happened in music in the last thirty years is that new instruments have been continuously invented, almost daily There are now electronic machines that make the sounds of new musical instruments. You can just say, for example, "I want an instrument that has sharp attack and a long decay of the sound, with the upper harmonics increasing as the decay goes on." With a little programming, you can have it. And then there are the recording studios, where you can take finite sounds and treat them as if their parameters were infinite. You can change the pitch to any extent you want, and you can change the timbre completely, change the duration, make it endlessly long or very short. Most of what pop music has been doing is experimenting with all this. Musicologists who say that everything pop musicians are doing was really known by about 1820 may be correct in terms of compositions written down on paper, but they ignore where the true innovation is taking place. The interest today isn't in developing serial music or polyphony or anything like that. It is in constantly dealing with new textures. One of the interesting things about pop music is that you can quite often identify a record from a fifth of a second of it. You hear the briefest snatch of sound and know, "Oh, that's 'Good Vibrations,' " or whatever. A fact of almost any successful pop record is that its sound is more of a characteristic than its melody or its chord structure or anything else. The sound is the thing that you recognize.

The Sony Walkman is a great example of how recording has changed our relationship to music. I don’t use one myself, but the idea of carrying this little snail-shell of sound around with you is quite fascinating. It's such a different understanding of how and where one hears music. We call it music because it comes in through the ears, but it is very different from, say, Beethoven. It's made differently, played differently, heard differently. As far as I'm concerned, the slate is clean, so it's silly to make comparisons.

AK: You've called your music "Ambient music" and at other times described it as "holographic" and "discreet". How did the concept of Ambient music come into being?

BE: My thinking about ambient music is traceable to one incident. I had an accident -- I was hit by a taxi and I couldn’t move. I was in bed for a while recovering, and at the end of a visitor's stay I said, "As you're leaving can you put a record on for me." My friend put on a record she’d just brought me of virtuoso harp music from the 18th century. My stereo was a bit rough at the time. Only one speaker was working, and the volume was down so low I could hardly hear the sound. It was raining outside and I thought, "How annoying, I can't hear it" But I couldn't switch it off. I just had to wait till it played through. As I was lying there listening to the rain I could just hear the loudest moments, just single notes every so often, or little flurries of notes. I started to think that it sounded all right -- it was really nice to listen to -- and I wondered why no music like this existed. Why couldn't we buy records that made this beautiful random mixture of things like the raindrops, with little flurries of things within it like icebergs? Listening, I had the sense of hearing the tip of something, and the knowledge that there was more beneath it. And I wanted my music to do this. It was immediately after this, in 1975, that I recorded Discreet Music, the first of my records conceived as Ambient music.

I had made a few pop records by that time. Pop makes a very specific demand on one’s listening attention, and I was beginning to notice that the way I was listening to music did not relate to the kind of music I was making then. Gradually, the other sound started to take over. I begin to hear sound as the texture of an environment, to want a sense of a distant horizon that couldn’t be heard, and elements that were out of earshot. Quite often people tell me, "You've made a big move from being a pop musician. You don't do anything like that any more." In a sense that's true, but in another way what I've done focuses on what I believe to be the key issue in pop music. I've left out the tunes, the chord patterns, the beats, and so on, in order to deal with texture -- the one innovation that really characterizes this period of music.

Now, this tends to create a music that I would call "holographic." One of the characteristics of a hologram is that when you shatter it every little piece still carries the information for the complete image, though the smaller the piece, the vaguer the definition. This is how my pieces seem to be -- any part of them yields an image of the whole.

AK: You use landscape imagery to describe your music. Is this something you are consciously after when you are making the pieces?

BE: My feelings about landscape do have a lot to do with it. There is a point in making a piece where I suddenly get a sense of where I am -- in landscape terms. I can begin to sense the geography, the light, and the climate. After that it usually news quite easily. I was once very friendly with a painter, now dead, called Peter Schmidt. He was born around 1930. His painting had gone from being abstract and demanding in a certain way, to smaller, quieter work that was much more – mysterious isn’t quite the word; it’s that you didn’t feel that you were seeing the whole picture immediately, as if some part of the painting was concealed by other parts. Not only was he becoming a landscape painter, but worse than that he was becoming a watercolorist, which made him extremely unpopular in the avant-garde English art world of the mid '70s. But I was interested in this direction because it was happening to me in music as well. I’d gone from making very loud, intricate, witty sorts of things, with anagrams and funny references to other pop records and little pop versions of Duchampian tricks and so on, into this music that had people in general saying, "Oh well, he’s gone soft." I was really moving into a kind of landscape sensibility of music, the idea being that one is listening to a body of sound presented as being in a particular type of space, a location of some sort. One of the characteristics of recorded music is that the composer is in a position to design not only new instruments, but new locations for them. One does this by using reverberation, echo, and other such treatments as a part of the composition and not as a cosmetic.

An aspect of this landscape concern is to do with the removal of personality from the picture. You know how different a landscape painting is when there is a figure in it. Even if the figure is small, it automatically becomes the focus -- all questions of scale and depth are related to it. When I stopped writing songs I took the figure out of the landscape. Lately I've felt it beginning to return, but not in a familiar form. This is all a funny reversal because in the early 20th century painters were saying that they wanted their work to be like music, to have the freedom to be as abstract as music. Now what's interesting to me is that music can actually be like painting -- figurative, landscape.

Classical music works around a body of "refined" sounds -- sounds that are separate from the sounds of the world, pure and musical. There is a sharp distinction between "music" and "noise," just as there is a distinction between the musician and the audience. I like blurring those distinctions -- I like to work with all the complex sounds on the way out to the horizon, to pure noise, like the hum of London. If you sit in Hyde Park just far enough away from the traffic so that you don't perceive any of its specific details, you just hear the average of the whole thing. And it's such a beautiful sound. For me that's as good as going to a concert hall at night. What I have found myself doing, and continue to do, is making music that is not that separate. There are foreground events, like the bells in the Venice piece [Venice, 1985]; there are events that are not so close to the ear, there are ones that become misty and indistinct, and then occasionally comes a hint of something that is practically out of earshot. I like this idea of a field of sound that extends beyond our senses.

That's one aspect of Ambient music, a point most writers don't pick up on. Instead they focus on the paradigm of Muzak, or background music -- which is relevant, but in a way that they don't suspect. I've become progressively more interested in the elements one pouts in the back of a pop record. When you produce a record, the conventional style is to have the drums and the bass really up close. Then you have one guitar and maybe the other one as a separate sound, or maybe there’s an echo of the first guitar. The sound is compiled as if it's a screen, a cinema screen. Depth is suggested by putting on a bit of reverberation and a bit of this, that, and the other thing. It's a cinematic kind of depth, a bit like a bas-relief. I used to listen to these formulaic records, and between the objects of sound in the foreground I would hear the background, and I'd wish those instruments would stop playing so that I could hear it better. So, in my later pop records and in my productions for other people, I started to put more and more focus on that background and I started sinking the instruments into it until they even began to be lost in what used to be called the background. Gradually the foreground was not really so important any more. It was just one of the places you could be hearing. There wasn't the hierarchy of attention that is usually associated with music.

AK: Where and how did you imagine your Ambient music would be listened to?

BE: Initially public places, but when you make a record you are making it for a living room. When I made Music for Airports, in 1978, my original idea was to make some music for the Cologne airport. I was sitting there very early one morning waiting for a plane, thinking what a fantastic waste of space the place was. Remembering my experience when I was recovering from the accident, I imagined that kind of music there. So I stirred to think about what would work. It was clear the music would need to be able to withstand interruption, because they're always making PA announcements in airports. And it would have to be something that didn't need to be loud, because you wouldn't want to raise the noise level of the airport any further. If music is loud, people talk louder, and in turn, you have to make the music louder. I realized I'd have to work in frequency ranges that didn't conflict with conversation, so in one piece I put a lot of emphasis on a very low bass and in others on a very high treble that would not conflict with speech. The idea was to try to make music that fitted into the container of the functioning airport. The underlying idea was to try to suggest that there were new places to put music, new kinds of niches where music could belong.

AK: You've been described as a "music interior designer." Initially, I thought of this as a clue pointing to the fact that contemporary music is usually thought of in "low" art terms, rather than in the old "high" art analogy of architecture as "frozen music".

BE: Interior design does have some sort of a stigma attached to it. But it should be thought of as a good, important job, shouldn’t it? Basically, when we think of Western architects we picture people who make plans on paper, creating a dream place from scratch, some of which is then carried out. Whereas when I think of an interior designer I think of someone dealing empirically with a given space, trying this out, moving that bit to the left, changing another part, et cetera. I too don't construct very big plans, but I do a lot of shifting around and putting things in different positions. So the description might not be inaccurate.

AK: Does it worry you that your music is seductive? I think people today mistrust beauty.

BE: But don't you think that a great deal of art has been interested in creating experiences that are overwhelming in some way or another? Think of the impact a big cathedral must have made in the 14th century. I try to imagine what that must have felt like. Most of us are quite happy to be seduced when hearing music and to drift with it instead of stepping back from it and saying "Hold on, this is carrying me, I'm not pushing it, it's pulling me." The cathedral experience must have been heavenly -- to see the light in that way, through the stained glass, so unlike any other experience at the time.

There are two major drifts in art: one is to make things that are a lot like normal life, and the other is to make things that are completely special, like the cathedral -- marvelous things. But focusing on the normal always makes it marvelous at a certain point. My early video pieces, and the Ambient music, take commonplace situations and make them strange, make them charmed. In my newer video pieces I deliberately make a special place. What I once attempted only in sound I now do by creating a whole environment.

AK: Do you think people react in some special way to recorded music?

BE: One thing it can do is give us an instant sense of location. When I was traveling a lot, I used to carry four or five cassettes that I knew could reliably produce a certain condition for me. If I wanted to write letters, I'd put one particular cassette on, and that piece of music would make the letter-writing space for me. That would be for serious letters – you know, letters to friends and others in which I wanted to really think about things. if I wanted to do a business letter there'd be another tape for that – Aretha Franklin, or something "up" that would keep me busy writing. I realized while I was living this nomadic life, the one thing that was really keeping me in place, or giving me a sense of place, was music.

It was then that I started to think about what makes recorded music different from traditional concert music: you can take recorded music with you. It's the other way round with live music, of course, where everyone has to collect in one place to hear it. We can use recordings to insert a sense of place in the various locations that we end up in. They repeat identically each time -- they're reliable portable experiences.

AK: It's striking how music has this instant access to our memory. But can't it convey new experiences, ones we’re not expecting, which surprise and change us?

BE: This happened to me when I heard gospel music. It changed my life. Although I'd been interested in it earlier via the Staple Singers and the Edwin Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day," the first gospel record I really responded to I heard in 1978. I was in the Bahamas doing a Talking Heads record. We were able to get a radio station from somewhere in the southern states, I think Mississippi. It was a Sunday morning and I tuned into this song called "Surrender to His Will." I couldn’t really hear the words, and I heard it as "Surrender to the Wheel," which I thought was very peculiar -- it gave the song a kind of Inquisition feeling. It was a fantastic song. I recorded it on a little microrecorder and I kept listening to it. Then I tried to find a record of it. I'd go into gospel shops and I found about 200 other great gospel albums, and finally the one I was looking for, but in my search I had discovered what an incredible musical force gospel is. You brace this very simple format that's been ornamented in such original and moving ways. It's so alive, and keeps changing -- new styles come up, while the traditional style still goes on. I’m quite religious about listening to it, actually in the sense that on Sunday I put on gospel records. It's strange -- sometimes I don’t even know that it's Sunday and I'll be working and I'll put on Mahalia Jackson, start singing to it, and then I realize, "Oh yes, it's Sunday."

AK: Earlier on, when you were talking about the effect of awe produced by music in the cathedral, you mentioned stained-glass windows and light. You also include light in the listener's experience of your music with your installations. But instead of seeing through windows your source of light and color is video.

BE: The thing with these installations, the purely physical effect, is that one's sense of color becomes heightened. The conventional theory used to be that the eye analyzes the red, green, and blue content of light and then decides what the color of something is. But it turns out that the eye doesn't work like that. Edwin Land did some experiments several years ago in which he found that the eye deduces color with very little actual color information. It seems that we see things by evaluating the light that is reflected off a scene in view of what we think we should be seeing. It's not a question of just saying, "This is a particular mixture of red, blue, and green, and therefore I know that's blue." It's a question of saying, "What is this color likely to be?" Our eyes are making all sorts of judgments all the time about what we expect to find. This has enormous consequences for art and for all perception, and can be worked with in interesting ways.

AK: People occasionally say that nothing much happens in your video installations.

BE: I'd like people to have the expectations of music that they presently have of painting. If a painting is hanging on a wall where we live, we don't feel that we’re missing something by not paying attention to it. It's just there -- probably we'll look at it a little today, and probably tomorrow again. It's a sort of continuous part of the environment. These are the kind of expectations we have of paintings. Yet with music and video, we still have the expectation of some kind of drama. My music and videos do change, but they change slowly. And they change in such a way that it doesn't matter if you miss a bit. I try to make my installations a place to sit in for a while. I've found that if the thing is interesting, people will stay, which makes me think that the conventional commercial notion that people want a lot of stimulus and constant change simply isn’t true. In the world I come from, the pop world, there’s always this notion that the public is basically very lazy and has to be prodded all the time. So everything is loaded with so-called surprises and changes.

AK: Much of what we have seen of video art seems more interesting in principle than in actuality. But the genre is still being invented, and no doubt our proximity to the early imagery gets in the way of seeing it with any perspective. I'm sure this will change – today, for example, experiments in early television are fascinating to us. What do you think of the state of video art?

BE: Most video art is still television, just decorated differently. In the end you are still just watching a TV in an exotic context. Perhaps this is just a feeling that we have, that televisions are such compelling objects. Some people are simply able to ignore them, they'll invite you over and they'll chat and the TV will be on. But I can't deal with it at all, I just can't concentrate -- I always watch the television first. Also, most video art is like someone describing, not very well, a film they saw. "You should have seen the bit.... it was great. You should've seen his face....”

AK: Some video artists consciously try to make their world like television -- to disguise it as television, so that it call reach its existing audience with something other than commercial television. Your work, however, seems to have gone in the opposite direction. It is not working with modes of the entertainment business.

BE: That is because it is rooted in Minimalism. Minimalism is an approach to working that became a rigid esthetic; it came to mean something geometrical, hard, and colorless. There’s no reason that “minimalism" should mean that. It's a way of doing things, a decision to see what can be achieved by reducing rather than by adding. Both the music and the video in my pieces are made by allowing a small number of elements to recombine in a large number of ways. I’m happy to admit that Steve Reich's music showed me something. That's the trouble with crossing over from pop into whatever I'm in now, because in pop nobody has any embarrassment about copying. In fact, that's how it works: "That's a good sound. How do we do that?" They don’t chuck one sound out to take another. They let it in. When I'm producing someone's record, sometimes they'll come into a studio with a record and say, "Hear that bass drum sound, that's what I want" ... that kind of thing. I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Reich’s idea was to use a technology designed for faithful and consistent reproduction as a means of constantly generating variety. That's what he did in It's Gonna Rain [1969] and Come Out [1966], It's Gonna Rain was a loop with a person saying "it's gonna rain" over and over. That was played on one machine, while another machine played exactly the same loop. Because no two tape recorders run perfectly at identical speeds, these loops, which began by mapping completely on top of one another, gradually fell out of sync. So what you got first of all was what sounded like an echo, then gradually it crossed over completely so that eventually the two loops were 180 degrees apart from one another. This did something interestinng to your ears.

I need to digress a little bit here. One of the interesting things about ears is that they work in the same way as a frog's eye works. There's an essay called “What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain” by Warren McCulloch, who discovered that a frog’s eyes don't work like ours. Ours are always moving: we blink. We scan. We move our heads. But a frog fixes its eyes on a scene and leaves them there. It stops seeing all the static parts of the environment, which become invisible, but as soon as one element moves, which could be what it wants to eat -- the fly -- it is seen in very high contrast to the rest of the environment. It's the only thing the frog sees and the tongue comes out and takes it. Well, I realized that what happens with the Reich piece is that our ears behave like a frog's eyes. Since the material is common to both tapes, what you begin to notice are not the repeating parts but the sort of ephemeral interference pattern between them. Your ear telescopes into more and more fine detail until you're hearing what to me seems like atoms of sound. That piece absolutely thrilled me, because I realized then that I understood what minimalism was about. The creative operation is listening. It isn't just a question of a presentation feeding into a passive audience. People will sometimes say about Reich's piece, "Oh yes, that one with that voice which keeps hammering into your head," and indeed, if you're not especially listening to it that's exactly what it is.

What I liked so much about It's Gonna Rain was partly the idea of allowing things to be out of sync and partly the idea of choosing a group of elements, on the basis of whatever your musical knowledge and taste is, to set in motion a series of processes and combinations that you can't strictly control. This approach concurred with and echoed my interests. In my work I've found what's interesting is that there’s a sort of vindication of the process in that the pieces never change very much, yet they create a curious musical experience. When we're building an installation sometimes we’ll put one of my pieces on and we’ll have it playing eight or ten hours a day. Every three quarters of an hour or so, something will happen that is really unusual. Once, my colleague Michael Brook and I suddenly said, both at the same time, "Did you hear that?" What had happened was that this little country-and-western melody had appeared. Just an unusual combination of notes that we knew we’d never heard before. We must have listened to that piece for hundreds of hours by then. But this strange little creature appeared for that one time only. It was like a Hawaiian guitar and a little tune that followed. The pieces always surprise in a rather low-key way. A gentle kind of surprise.

I'm trying to make a sound that doesn't sound exactly like anything you've ever heard, but at the same time doesn't sound self-consciously weird -- it's just on the borderline of familiarity. An example would be the sound I've been using that has the faint resonance of a bell. It's within a range of familiar sounds, and it's actually nearly always the result of treating a piano in various ways or mixing it with other instruments.

My music is the opposite of purism. It's funny, I was the first person ever to be called a synthesist in the Musician's Union Directory and I think that's what it says now: Brian Eno, Synthesizer.

AK: That description is apt for your work in general, for your ability to combine media, to gather many elements together and to create new conditions with it all. And now for the impossible question -- what is the point of doing it?

BE: To me, art is a transaction between somebody and something rather than the quality of an object. When we engage in this transaction we let down certain psychic defenses, allow ourselves to become party to something that we don't completely understand -- an emotional power or an intellectual power that we lose ourselves in. It's useful to refer to Morse Peckham’s writing on the subject. He called art a false reality that prepares us by way of a rehearsal. Peckham writes about the powerful tendency of the human brain to classify, define, categorize, and predict. As opposed to brawn or speed, which we don't have compared to other animals, this is the ability that makes human beings succeed -- the brain constantly making guesses about the environment, constantly creating categories which can then be applied to the world. Peckham also points out the fallibility of the process. Whenever we’re faced with a novel situation, we repeat the process of guessing, based on what we knew before, and we aren't always correct in our conclusions. We make the wrong classifications, and we act on them wrongly. But we have another choice: we can suspend judgment and be uncertain for a while. Peckham says that to endure uncertainty is an acquired skill, and that what art does is rehearse people in enduring uncertainty. He also thinks that one of the functions of an art-viewing situation is to provide us with psychic insulation. An art gallery is an enclosed world, where nothing dangerous is going to happen (in the sense that we're not suddenly going to get shot), and therefore we can afford to surrender in it and take psychic risks without truly dramatic, life-threatening consequences. There we can endure uncertainty -- not only endure it but be thrilled by it, and become able to use it as a creative basis for perception and action.

I remember first seeing a Mondrian painting when I was nine. It was the very first picture that really affected me. There’s something extremely mysterious about why it should have made such an impact on me; a Mondrian doesn't have the ingredients that one would think would make such a dramatic impression. Had I been older I suppose I would have tried to form some theory, about the relationship between me and the painting, but whatever it was then, whatever vein connected me to the Mondrian, is the feeling I want from art. I don't just want to see a good idea or a clever use of materials. One of the motives for being an artist is to recreate a condition where you're actually out of your depth, where you're uncertain, no longer controlling yourself, yet you're generating something, like surfing as opposed to digging a tunnel. Tunnel-digging activity is necessary activity, but what artists like, if they still like what they're doing, is the surfing.

Images on pp. 76-78 are details of Brian Eno’s Living Room, continuous light projections installed at Riverside Studios, London, and at the Musee do Peinture et de Sculpture, Grenoble, in spring 1986. Fifteen independently programmed cycles of colored light create the gradations of color in the piece. The installation includes lights, electronics, Plexiglas, celluloid gels, recorded music, furniture, and wood. Photos: David Buckland.

Anthony Korner is the publisher of Artforum

© Anthony Korner