From The Oregonian, Thursday, January 18, 1996
The Black Box of Culture: A film on musician Brian Eno tells how his view of art influences the way he works
Pop music is not usually the brainiest of pursuits. It often relies on energy, instinct and attitude more than on intellectual analysis. Yet there always are ideas at work, whether the artist realizes that or not.
Ferreting out the ideas implicit in pop music - or any other aspect of culture, pop or otherwise - is a specialyt of Brian Eno, the British musician, record producer and multifaceted conceptual artist. Take, for example, Eno's off-handed pronouncement on the communicative power of hair: "A haircut is a whole bundle of messages to yourself and to the rest of the world. ...It's a way of entering into a personal cultural fantasy." Or his sweeping definition of culture: "Culture is everything we don't have to do."
Eno's way with epigrammatic insights, and the way these illuminate his influential art, highlight "Brian Eno: The Black Box of Culture."
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Eno has been a major figure in rock for the past two decades, in part because of his work. With the early Roxy Music, he was one of the first pop musicians to use the synthesizer as something other than a souped-up organ. His mid-'70s solo albums explored new ideas of sound texture and the relationships of melody and background.
Then he pioneered a genre he called ambient music, essentially background music designed to be "as ignorable as it is interesting," which had a profound effect on the development on New Age and other styles. He produced the most experimental efforts by Devo, the Talking Heads and David Bowie, then gained his greatest notoriety for his work with U2.
But he's been every bit as important for the way he works - which in general is marked by his view of art as process and experience rather than as product.
He devises ways of making music that rely on surprise and value accidents. In Lohner's film he uses a tie-dye shirt he's designed as a metaphor, calling it "unsuccessful dyeing turned into an art." He suggests that dyeing a shirt, recording an album, making a film, etc., is difficult to do well, but a valid artistic stance is to say "Let's see in what interesting ways I can fail" at it.
Similarly, he encourages musicians to find new ways of approaching their work. Recording David Bowie's recent album, "Outside," Eno had the musicians spend their first few days on the project decorating the studio. Then he gave them elaborate fictional personas to adopt while playing, in order to spur improvisation that didn't fall back on the blues.
Lohner doesn't deal with Eno's life or career history but instead brings 15 cameras into Eno's home studio to watch his work and listen to him expound on theories and methods.
Central to his view (which was strongly influenced by John Cage) are the ideas that "being an artist is a philosophical position" more than a matter of technical skill, and that "art is the trigger" of experience rather than the transmitter of some divinely inspired truth.
And, ironically enough, those seemingly brainy notions actually bring us back into contact with energy, instinct and attitude.
Brian Eno describes his approach to music as being about "creating new sound worlds."
Throughout a quarter-century of recording, the noted British conceptualist has created verdant electronic jungles, calm tonal oceans and skewed rock'n'roll cityscapes.
And the ideas behind that approach - in short, an orientation toward process rather than product - have rippled through the culture of pop music pervading such sub-genres as new wave and ambient.
A spate of new Eno-related releases in recent months shows him still on the cusp between pure experimentation and commercial application.
The most widely noted of these albums is "Original Soundtracks 1" (Island) by Passengers, which teams Eno with the four members of U2 (whose most successful albums he's produced).
A distant relative of the ambient/dance/rock sounds explored on U2's "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa," the album ranges through numerous moods and textures, sometimes opting for pop-song form, sometimes making floating atmospheres in which interest is maintained by rhythmic twists or qualities of sound.
Overall, however, it's not a particularly engaging meld of such styles and ideas.
The Passengers come off much better in the context of the soundtrack to the Michael Mann film "Heat" (Warner Bros.), bracketed - in both sound and conceptual territory - by the classical Kronos Quartet, ambient guitarist Michael Brook, techno star Moby and industrial pioneers Einsturzende Neuabuten.
Better still is "Spinner" (Gyroscope), Eno's collaboration with Jah Wobble, the former member of Public Image Limited.
With Eno's soft, glittery synthesizer tones riding atop Wobble's slow, understated grooves, the music slithers from one darkly shaded sonic atmosphere to another.
It's a much more focused, cohesive work than the Passengers album, managing to sound both soothing and vibrant at once.
Those interested in the more danceable application of Eno's ideas about electronic treatments of sound should check out "The Way Out is the Way In" (Gyroscope) by the Japanese quartet Audio Active and the zither player (and former Eno collaborator) Laraaji.