From Artpress, September 2001, by Franck Mallet. Kindly typed and supplied by Radiocitizen.

Artist, producer, video maker and inspired creative partner of countless musicians, from the early days of Roxy Music (which he co-founded in 1972) to David Byrne, David Bowie, U2, Jon Hassell and Harold Budd, not to mention Laurie Anderson, John Cale, Gavin Bryars, Robert Fripp, Terry Riley and Russell Mills (and there are plenty more), Brian Eno is much more than a clever minimalist. Witness the chords in The Drop, one of his most recent solo offerings, which offers a subtle assemblage of delicate, enchanting and elliptical miniatures. Taken in isolation, these chords would simply not exist. The situation is a bit like that of the sound pictures set up by John Cage and Morton Feldman, which are determined by chance and brought to life only by the minds of the performers who interpret them.

Eno has always been fascinated by the idea of a rootless conceptual music with no aural landmarks, no defined meaning. Hence the fortuitously conceived Discreet Music from 1975, which establishes the principle of a smooth musical surface, a kind of black hole capturing the imagination the way a Calder mobile catches reflections in the light.

Three years later, with the support of the former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt, his Music For Airports initiated the concept of ambient music - a discreet form where notes make their entry almost imperceptibly. The aim here was not to reassure with the kind of catchy, familiar jingles that you hear in public places. "It's a particular color, ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular."

With Thursday Afternoon (1985) and above all Neroli (Thinking Music, Part IV) (1993), he extended his concept of a "functional music" that suggests rather than insists and is even more subtle in its shimmering, deep harmonies. Each sound, hanging by the trail of its resonance, spins like a sphere in its own organic space. Music for thinking.

The group Bang on a Can has just recorded an acoustic version of Music for Airports1, which it has performed in airports several times now. You and Robert Wyatt decided to go along and hear them at Stansted, near London. How did you react?

"I had already heard the record in airports five or six times. But this was very different. It was very moving and, after the concert, several people told me that it had them crying on the first few bars."

Do you understand the reasons for this emotion?

"I felt it myself, and I think it came in part from that absurd devotion, that hopeless undertaking to try and make an exact copy of something that is difficult to reproduce. In fact, I never imagined that Music For Airports might one day be played live, like a facsimile of the original2. This humility is moving, flattering. It's strange to think a piece I recorded in two and a half days has aquired a kind of immortality. I thought it would be ephemeral. But it has a new life beyond the record. A part of me has become immortal, out of my control."

You explained that in Music For Airports you were trying to create music that was both morbid and "comfortable." Is this something you sense in the Bang on a Can version?

Even more so. Their version is even more theatrical. This is because the musicians are there in front of you and the spectators sense their tension, which is not the case when you're listening to a record. Your attention is more relaxed. The emotional aspect is more important in live music. Moreover, when you try to copy something, you add to it. For example, the dynamics of the piece are very flat, whereas at certain moments they accelerate: the contours of the piece change, take on a more theatrical quality, are more alive and human. It's odd, because I was aiming for impersonal music, without contrast. This was because the airport music I had heard always had a human voice singing, which I found very irritating. You don't need that kind of thing in an airport - there are already enough voices, all kinds of announcements. Even when there's no voice, you recognize the tune: "Michelle, ma belle..." Nobody had really thought about this question, and yet we are increasingly likely to find ourselves in places with background music, an ambience. Still, no composers have thought to write for these modern spaces which represent 30% of our current musical experience.


How did you go from the concept of Discreet Music3 to that of ambient music?

First of all, I noticed that my friends' listening habits had changed. In the 1970s people started having fairly decent hi-fis, instead of the old record players, and this changed the way we listen. People started noticing the aural surface, the richness of the textures. I realized that this was what the recording studio was for: to change the texture of sound, to make it more malleable. That, more than the melody, rhythm or lyrics, was what I wanted to concentrate on. When I started making my own records, I had this idea of drowning out the singer and putting the rest in the foreground. It was the background that interested me. As in a painting, I wanted to get rid of the element that up to then had been considered as essential in pop music: the voice.

Does this relate to your obsession with depersonalizing art?

Yes. If you leave your own personality out of the frame, you are inviting the listener to enetr it instead. Take a landscape. As soon as there is a human subject, however tiny, it captures all the attention. It's inevitable. So I started playing around with the voice, deforming it, merging it and ended up abandoning it altogether. My record On Land4 is an attempt to transpose into music something that you can do in painting: creating a figurative environment. At the beginning of the 20th century, the ambition of the great painters was to make paintings that were like music, which was then considered as the noblest art because it was abstract, not figurative. In contrast, my intention in On Land was to make music that was like figurative painting, but without referring to the history of music - more to a "history of listening."

Does this approach mean you have to forget your models?

It is not a matter of cutting yourself off from your references, more of getting rid of artificial distinctions. Classical music is founded on a very clear distinction between music and noise. In rock, as in electronic music, these barriers are coming down. I dreamed of a music without barriers, taking in classical instruments, new electronic instruments and "non-instruments" such as frogs, birdsong and simple noises. This, I thought, was my palette. I have all these elements available to me; I am free to work with them as I please.

Still, you have maintained the melodic aspect, unlike Lou Reed in his Metal Machine Music5...

Metal Machine Music and Discreet Music came out in the same week. What a contrast! Metal Machine music is designed to be inaudible, agressive, a challenge thrown down to the listener. I had the opposite intention: "See if you can resist!" [laughs] I wanted to immerse people in a dreamlike state: "Use whatever necessary."

Is seduction an important aspect for you?

Yes, because I think that if you want to make someone feel emotion you have to make them let go. Listening to something is an act of surrender. "Okay, I accept the world that you are offering me. I am happy to live there for a moment." This is the nature of any cultural undertaking. You agree to momentarily break off your activities, to enetr another world. I like to obtain this attitude by means of seduction. Aggressivity is another way of achieving that. Zen methods, breaking habits, that makes people mad. My way is the opposite of that. I have always learnt things out of fascination.

Discreet Music has inspired others, Metal Machine Music hasn't...

That's because agressive music can only shock you once. Afterwards its impact declines. It's inevitable.

Didn't your CD Nerve Net, from 19926, herald the principles of techno? On the cover you even wrote: "This recording is like paella."

Yes, it's like paella, all kinds of things mixed up. At this time I was looking for a new way of writing music. The song called "My Squelchy Life" - I wrote it, then I interviewed about thirty people and got them to read the text. After that I took snatches of phrases from here and there, constantly changing the voices. It was rap! Once again I will come back here to my central concern: how to get away from personalization, from the idea of the singer with the microphone. It's close to the video technique of morphing, Surrealist collage. Here, the same story was told by several different people. I like this record. I always knew that its time would come! [laughs] For ten years Music For Airports was dismissed as crap! For many years the word "ambience" was an insult. It meant "weak, lacking in identity, disposable, without personality." Exactly what I was aiming at, in fact!

How do you react to the fact that your work has had only tardy recognition? For example, in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts7, before everyone else, you sampled voices from all over the world.

That was before World Music. First of all, I never had the impression that in my work I was always having to fight against everyone else. I have always had friends who supported me, or pretended to! What's more, I wasn't the only precursor. When I was working on My Life Holger Czukay was doing the same kind of thing. So was Jon Hassell. I didn't have the impression I was inventing anything. It was in the air at the time, this process of universal absorption. Up till then people had used sounds from elsewhere to give their music an exotic appeal, like in the 1960s with The Beatles. As for what it's like to be acclaimed years later, well: it feels good!


And yet when you heard Graceland by Paul Simon8 you felt as if thousands of tourists had just turned up on the little beach you had discovered and spread their trash everywhere.

I have a strange relation to that album. I love it, but it's one of the few things where I have an ideological blockage. When I hear it I think it's very good. And my resistance is just jealousy: I could have done that! I too went to Africa, to Ghana. I worked with lots of musicians over there. I dreamed of collaborating with them. This was after My Life. For My Life, I began by composing the music and then I added the foreign voices. There I wanted to do the opposite, which is more conventional, but I was fascinated by these rhythms, these ways of playing. I made a lot of recordings in Africa. Back in New York I had the idea of writing songs, but everything I put over the music degraded it! I had to leave things as they were. This music existed without me.

What do you feel about the current abundance of discographic information about all the different countries in the world? And all the crossovers?

I have mixed feelings. When it's done arrogantly, it's awful. The philosophical idea that there are no more distances, that we are all just one world, that we are all brothers, is such a drag! I like differences. The idea of a unified world is so naive, so boring. I don't want a planet where everyone agrees. I am favor of the proliferation of differences, individualities. At the moment we have a very good group in England, Cornershop, which makes very original pop music, a mixture quite without arrogance. One of the members is of Pakistani origin. He grew up listening to English pop and Pakistani music. That's more enriching than the eclectic attitude that consists in condescendingly helping yourself to folk musics from all over the world. I take a bit of Africa, a bit of Peruvian pan pipes, this Javanese gong... I hate that.

In 1977 your album Before And After Science9 and the one that came out of your first collaboration with David Bowie, Low10 both had a "fast" side with short songs, and a second "slower" side with long instrumentals.

That was the mood at the time. It comes from the 1960s, when people were trying to get away from the pop song format. Tracks were getting longer, or much, much shorter. I remember a song by Spirit, "Free," which lasted just a minute. A real gem. It made a big impression on me. People started to understand that there was a lot you could do on a record, that it didn't have to be an hour of instrumental music like The Shadows at the beginning of the '60s. But this style fell out of favor at the end of the '60s and there were only songs. Then it came back. People wanted to create a sound world using the studio, and not just to tell a story. Low is a good example of that. It presented some very strange landscapes amd told the stories that took place inside them.

What was your method for composing with Bowie on Low?

Every collaboration helps you grow. With Bowie, it's different every time. The secret of our success is... My strength is that I know how to create settings, unusual aural environments. That inspires him. I also have a definite talent for convincing people to try something new. I am a good salesman. When I'm on form I can sell anything. For half an hour! If it doesn't work, we try something else. Bowie is very receptive, incredibly quick on the uptake. He catches something, uses it in a surprising way and changes my own perception of it. I try to prepare things before he hears them, because he's very quick.

Did you use your set of oracles with him, your "Oblique Strategies" cards?

For the first records, yes. We had a lot of fun. We both drew cards, secretly, without saying what we were trying to do. Sometimes we went in opposite directions. David's card said: "Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action," and mine: "Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency."

Was there any conflict?

In those cases, yes! The music was like a place of Hegelian dialectics in which everything was in conflict.

You travel a lot. Does that help you write?

It's not the destination that matters. It's the change of scene. When you're far from home, you start living in your music. Music is my true home! I find it difficult to compose here, I'm so relaxed. You have to be ready to recognize the world you want to create. If I work here, everything is so familiar that I can't do it. All I do is record my work on a CD and go and listen to it somewhere else. Then I can hear it better.

What made you go and live in Saint Petersburg?

I wanted to go and see a place that not many people were interested in. It was my wife's idea. She thinks that's where the future is. And I believe she's right. This year I have spent only one month in England. I have lived in countries that were coming out of conflict: Ireland, South Africa, the Czech republic, and it was fascinating, because people there are overflowing with energy. When I went back to England after a year away, the country seemed stuck, dozing in a fairy tale, stifled by the weight of tradition.

If you had to choose a selection of your collaborations?

That would be a good idea for a record. It's hard to answer, I've done so many! I would exclude my work with composers, which I collected on my first label, Obscure11, because those weren't a real collaboration on my part. Rather, I was trying to pay special attention to other musics which, for me, at the time, represented new concepts, a new way of thinking. But in this ideal selection I would include Harold Budd, Jon Hassell and others for whom I have not only been a producer but also a very close collaborator: Talking Heads, notably, with the album Remain In Light12, David Bowie, most of the things we have done together, and U2, of course, even if my input is not as important on every title.

What for you is the difference between a producer and a collaborator?

With Harold Budd, for example... he didn't just come along and say "Hey, Brian, produce this record for me, will you." Likewise, for my own part, I didn't say: "Go on, Harold, you must play that." Each individual stays on their own territory. It's more like: "Ah, you're doing that, well, I'll do this, and we'll see what happens." He sits at the piano and I create this aural environment around him, just as he might himself. That's what it was like on most of my collaborations.

Is there an element of seduction in this process?

What I like to do in this kind of situation is to turn up with lots of things that are ready, that I've thought about. I don't try to make something happen, with the risk of finding myself at a loss, saying, "Ah, what are we going to try now?" I want to be able to work without any hitches. So I prepare a lot of very different things. Every time, I visualize what I need. Put it like this: I imagine in advance the music we could make. What path are we going to take? This one or that one? And so on. I need to think about the multiple directions we are going to take.

Does this method have to do with the fact that you are not a musician in the classical sense of the term?

I think so, yes. Because before I go into studio and find out how to use a certain number of machines I have a certain number of "conceptual" visions of what I'm going to do. I am full of ideas, and I want to have the language to translate that idea and go faster. if you don't really nourish your work, you start out all confident, everything is going well, and then you run into a problem and no one can help you, you're at a dead end. I hate to be blocked. It doesn't help you in any way. in fact, I like to think about the path I'm going to take - and there are so many of them. But I know i won't try to zigzag between difficulties. The lines must be clear and laid out in advance.

Are you really a non-musician, as you have repeatedly claimed? I mean, you have put your name to so many compositions.

I started using that expression when I understood what kind of musician you can become when you study music. It struck me as much less interesting than what an art student could be. There is so much English music that is influenced by art schools - to the good, of course. The students in those schools are so used to music teaching, so aware of it, of the styles and of the way music is a part of our culture. I don't mean to generalize, because there are some excellent musicians, but when you study music in the classical system, you are always on the inside. When someone is composing a song, they ask do I write in C minor, or perhaps with a diminished seventh here... I think that to offset that you need a lateral approach, even if they call you a non-musician. And so much the better if I don't understand what I'm doing, or I don't analyze it with the specialized terms that they teach us. I use instruments the way a painter makes a canvas, with a great variety of objects and tools, without really thinking about it. I use the term "non-musician" in this sense, about this specific way of approaching music, without the constraints of the technical details surrounding composition. The problem of technique shouldn't arise. Phil Spector was the epitome of the non-musician. I don't know if he plays an instrument, but his contribution to style is essential, and on a very different level from that of a classical songwriter.

(1) Music for Airports (Point-Philips, 1998).
(2) Ambient 1/Music for Airports (EG, 1978).
(3) Discreet Music (Obscure-EG, 1975).
(4) Ambient 4/On Land (EG, 1982).
(5) Metal Machine Music (RCA Red Seal, 1975).
(6) Nerve Net (Opal-Warner, 1992).
(7) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (EG, 1981).
(8) Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986).
(9) Before And After Science (EG, 1977).
(10) Low (RCA, 1977).
(11) Obscure Records (10 records). Between 1975 and 1978 this label created by Eno published not only his own Discreet Music but also the first offerings from Gavin Bryars, John Adams, Michael Nyman, Harold Budd, John White, Christopher Hobbs, Max Eastley, David Toop, Jan Steele and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, plus new interpretations of works by John Cage (by Richard Bernas, Robert Wyatt and Carla Bley!).
(12) Remain in Light (Sire, 1980).

© Franck Mallet 2001