New sounds mixed up with vision

From The Times, Saturday August 29th 1992, conducted by David Toop.

For easy access to particular areas of interest, click on the appropriate subject heading in this list.

Nerve Net
Ambient's new life at dance clubs
My Squelchy Life and Nerve Net
Being post-modernist

David Toop finds that rock pioneer Brian Eno has lost none of his enthusiasm for new ideas and technical innovations.

If the prophets of doom are to be believed, contemporary culture is a sad shadow of past glories, depleted by declining standards, shallow pastiche and a lack of revolutionary spirit.

One of the few rock musicians, artists and cultural commentators who can offer a convincing rebuttal of this pessimism is Brian Eno. Despite his 44 years, an age when most people are beginning to hanker for the old days, his enthusiasm for the present remains unabashed.

"lt's a great time," he says, sitting in the bay window of his sparsely-furnished northwest London work-room. "I don't think music has been so unsure of itself or so fluid in its identity for 25 years." The embrace of uncertainty as a positive value is typical of Eno and his serpentine career. His new album, Nerve Net, proclaims its weaknesses as strengths. This record is off balance, the potential listener is warned in a list that comes with the packaging. It is overheated, un-American, far too vague, uncentered.

This reaction against the glossy perfectionism of mainstream pop or the self-righteous tunnel vision of rock's specialised genres maintains attitudes that Eno brought to pop music during the early Seventies.

Originally the non-musician art student who provided primitive synthesizer noises for Roxy Music in its earliest incarnation, Eno now finds himself respected as an unlikely prophet of musical and video developments. His solo albums still have the power to surprise after more than a decade of hearing excerpts from them in television documentaries and films. He is also acclaimed for his collaborations with U2, David Bowie, John Cale and Talking Heads and continues to be influential as a pioneer of so-called "ambient music".

Aside from its dubious appropriation by New Agers for therapeutic mood music, ambient has been recognised recently in two very different spheres of activity. In NewYork at the beginning of August, a large orchestra under the direction of Philip Glass performed three of the ambient songs from Low. One of the three Berlin-period albums recorded during the late Seventies by David Bowie with Brian Eno, Low was a springboard for the electronic music which followed punk.

Bemused as he is by the prospect of such fugitive atmospherics being thrust into the concert hall by Philip Glass, Eno has been equally surprised to find his ideas resurfacing in dance clubs and House music raves. As they became increasingly frenetic, the machine rhythms of House music seemed to demand a counter-balance of quiet introspection, if only to calm the pulse rates of dancers who wanted to sleep at the end of a long night. Mixed with sound effects and drum rhythms, the evanescent drones of Eno albums such as Music For Airports or his soundtrack to the film of the Apollo moon missions, For All Mankind, were perfect for the task.

Eno originally described the purpose of ambient music as a way of tinting the environment. Now our environment is so saturated with sound, the problem lies in selecting from the swamp. As a pioneer of recording studio and synthesizer experiments, he has often criticised technology for its emphasis on increasing options at the expense of usability. Musically, however, Eno is inspired by trends which have resulted from technological advances.

Last year he was poised to release an album called My Squelchy Life. At the last moment, the release plans were scrapped. Taking the two oddest but most promising tracks from My Squelchy Life, Eno began again.

Records are scrapped and re-started frequently, usually because artists fail to connect with their muse, yet few are abandoned with Eno's honest appreciation that what he had produced could be pushed into far more challenging areas.

Nerve Net sounds like the work of a revitalised man, a diagnosis which Eno cheerfully admits. "One reason was purely technical," he explains. The CD format is a way of fitting varying lengths of music onto discs. It allows listeners the choice of programming their preferences, deleting the tracks they dislike and re-ordering the sequence of the ones they choose to hear.

"When it was vinyl," he says, "you assumed that people were going to listen all the way through. You tend to think you've got to make a coherent listening experience. It made record-making less and less fun for me, because it meant that one tended to censor the things that were nuttier and less well-formed in favour of the things that were more acceptable."

He relates the second reason for his revitalisation with some amusement. "I suddenly discovered myself to be a post-modernist," he jokes, "in the sense that I was noticing myself more and more interested by the whole re-mixing scene." One example of this new interest was Eno's re-mix of EMF's "Unbelievable" for an Aids benefit project, while his first single from the new album, "Fractal Zoom", is available in at least seven versions.

Remixing, by which original tapes are reworked and reissued in forms that can sometimes be totally unconnected to their source, has the effect of distancing musicians from their creations and eroding the concept of a finished, perfect art work. Such controversial notions lie at the heart of so much of the anxiety which surrounds current cultural debate.

But far from being worried by the possible consequences of artists becoming catalysts rather than authors, possibly losing ownership of their work in the process, Eno is as enthusiastic as ever. "I think," he says, smiling with the wicked glee of a man who is already anticipating ways of avoiding this fate, "that's a terribly exciting and modern idea."

Nerve Net is released by Warner Brothers on Monday.