The Brain of Brian

From The Guardian, Friday May 10th 1996, by Richard Williams

When Brian Eno has a new theory, it's sensible to pay attention. Twenty years ago, it turned out to be ambient music. Now he's hatched another big idea, so Richard Williams listens in.

Brian Eno was always writing things down, even in his rock-star days. When new ideas came into his head, as they often did, he committed them to a series of small black notebooks, expressed in precise calligraphy or neat diagrams. And then he would find a way of turning those ideas into music.

From the notebooks came all sorts of interesting propositions. There was a deck of cards sold under the title Oblique Strategies: if you were stuck at some task or other, you pulled out a card at random and it would help you along with gnomic advice - "Honour your error as a hidden intention" was one that still comes in handy.

The notebooks have never been published, but some of their polymathic wisdom finds its way into Eno's new publication, a tubby paperback called A Year With Swollen Appendices, which mainly consists of a diary of 1995 - when he worked with Pavarotti, David Bowie and U2, and supervised a set of art installations at Wembley - plus short essays, stories and meditations, introducing such useful notions as cosmetic psychiatry, axis thinking (with its associated "zones of pragmatic deceit"), and the rehabilitation of the term "pretentious".

Eno still divides people. On one side are those who believe his egghead tendency leads only to emotional sterility; on the other stand people who welcome the conceptual freshness he brings to a conservative world. His admirers believe his schemes are no more emotionally constricting than the invention of the saxophone or the general agreement on the tempered scale.

The last time Brian Eno told me about a new theory, almost 20 years ago, it turned out to be ambient music. Nowadays it seems hard to imagine a time when this was not, so to speak, part of the furniture. When he has a big idea, it seems sensible to pay attention.

Eno's latest arises, like most of its predecessors, from an interest in methodology, and specifically from a dissatisfaction with the way computers are being used. His own displeasure with a CD-Rom issued under his name provided the impetus. "Everyone and his auntie wants to make a CD-Rom," he says, "not necessarily because they have some compelling artistic reason, but because they think everyone else is making one." For Eno, the problem is their inflexibility: "Quite soon you've seen everything you're going to see, and your only choice is to see it in another order."

Instead, he has found a way of using computers to plot a route out of the dead end of systems music by inventing something he calls "generative music", in which the process of creation is given over to the computer itself.

The inspiration came from things called "screensavers": the software programs which produce everchanging patterns on the screens of computers at rest. He found pieces of visual information being allowed to interact without the creator's foreknowledge of the outcome, and without a time-frame.

In this he saw a logical continuation of the aspect of his music that had begun with his discovery of Steve Reich's piece It's Gonna Rain in the early seventies. Based on two tape-loops of a preacher, superimposed and drifting in and out of synch, Reich's piece had "an absolutely devastating effect" on Eno, leading him to a similar treatment of Judi Dench's voice in a piece called You Don't Ask Why and later to a more ambitious work titled Discreet Music, which he defined as "two melodies of different lengths allowed to cycle over each other". This turned out to be the ancestor of the ambient and, now, the generative modes.

The basic idea, adapted from minimalist and systems music, is "setting in motion a number of procedures and then letting them work themselves out". The appeal to a man not overconcerned with the proprietary pride of authorship is that "it presents me with more than I put in.'' But the finite nature of the result was frustrating. "I was always rather unhappy with the idea that I took a bit of this process, made it into a record, and sold that to people. What they got was an experience that repeated itself, like recordings always do."

In the method behind the screensavers, and then in the discovery of a musical program called Koan, he found the solution. To achieve it he avails himself of the "sound card" a device storing about 150 sounds which can turn a laptop computer into a small synthesiser. And then he feeds it his musical "seeds".

"First I choose a note," he says. "Then I can change the attack, the decay, the timbre. I choose notes from a scale, and assign probabilities. For example, I might tell it not to choose the flattened fifth a lot, but to use a lot of the major third. I might tell it to leave a lot of gaps in the music, or to use a lot of dotted notes. But the interest to me comes when you deal with more than one voice, because although you can tell them how to respond to each other, you don't know how they're going to inter-react.

"You put the seeds into the system and then it starts growing music for you. And it might make something quite beyond what you had imagined, something you didn't expect and couldn't predict, in fact something that you could never be around long enough to listen to in its entirety. This thrilled me, that you could make music that would have a life of its own."

The product is conceived by the composer, but not designed by him. Yet the interaction of the musical components is not random: "For me, that word that gives the wrong feeling. I prefer 'probabilistic'."

For Eno, this is part of a complete change in the way of making and thinking about art, which he discusses in the book. "We had 30,000 years of music that was not precisely repeatable," he writes. Even the performance of scored music was subject to individual interpretation and the imprecision of memory. But then came the wax cylinder, shellac and vinyl discs, magnetic tape and the digital compact disc, each conferring advantages of portability and control. Generative music, he says, "is a way of working that combines many aspects of both ancestors, live and recorded music. Like live music, it is always different. Like recorded music, it is free of time-and-place limitations. From now on, there are three alternatives: live music, recorded music and generative music."

What does generative music sound like? "Some of the works I've made with Koan sound to me as good as anything I've done," Eno claims. On the evidence of a sample cassette, it has to be admitted that they sound much like some of his earlier output: the drifting lines of consonant electronic melody, a soft clanging like church bells under water, gentle patterns shifting and recombining with a moire effect.

Its aesthetic value raises the question of copyright; who owns the finished product? "This is becoming a major minefield," Eno says. "In fact, I think that the whole system will have to be abandoned because there are things that can't be protected any more. Suppose I sell my process to a film-maker who takes it home and puts it on and records it on his DAT machine and uses bits from that in his soundtrack. Is that his music, or is it mine? Or do we each get 50 per cent?" For the moment Eno is simply selling his own piece of software - the "packet of seeds" which will produce a display that neither he nor the purchaser can predict.

But the deeper significance of generative music lies in the fact that it is supposed to exist only in real time, disappearing as it passes. These blooms are not meant to be cut, arranged and displayed.

"I think it's possible," Eno says, with bracing clarity, "that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say, 'You mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?'" Perhaps they will. It sounds an exciting idea. But hold on. There's a bit on this sample cassette of his, a really pretty bit where the bell goes "bong" and one melody rises while the other falls - and the trouble is, I want to hear it again.

A Year With Swollen Appendices is published on Monday (Faber & Faber, 424pp, £9.99). Generative Music 1 plays on any IBM-compatible PC equipped with the Creative Labs Sound Blaster 32 soundcard and is available from software stockists (Sseyo/Opal, £37.95)