Brian Eno Against Interpretation

From Trouser Press, August 1982, by Steven Grant, kindly provided by Jeffrey Morgan.

This article is/is not about Brian Eno's music.

He himself has written the following, from a press release for his recent On Land LP:

"Lantern Marsh ... is a place only a few miles from where I grew up in East Anglia, but my experience of it derives not from having visited it ... but from having subsequently seen it on a map and imagining where and what it might have been."

So we have imagined Brian Eno, as experienced through music and press over the last 10 years. His music, of course, is the primary source; Eno has largely suffered through interpretation. His searching intelligence - not a quality highly prized among rockers - works against him; almost alone among pop musicians, he claims interest in a variety of fields, from painting to cybernetics. Whereas his early pose led to a title of "Registered Cult Figure," later developments earned him the epithet of "prime theoretician of rock."

On Land, a deft collection Eno describes as "music that in some ways is related to a sense of place - landscape, environment," makes clear that pop music must relinquish any claim to him, except as producer. Our perceptions of him thus require serious readjustment.

Eno lives up to much of his legend, especially the part about inquisitive intelligence. But in person he seems altogether different from his media image. His ideas lose the glib, doctrinaire quality print so often gives them. His mercurial thoughts wind through a network of interconnected references; with a calm, unpretentious tone, he approaches each question like a careful but curious explorer. There are also qualities mostly hidden from the public eye. His conversation is littered with mild jokes and humorous inflections. Contradictions sometimes appear; though he hates doing interviews, he dives into them with obvious zest. He can even seem most childlike, as when he momentarily becomes fascinated by globulles of nicotine collecting inside his cigarette's plastic slip-on filter, or when he savours the last mouthful - his favourite - of a meal.

Having pushed against the limitations of rock on records like Another Green World and Before and After Science , Eno has since created his own field: ambient music. (he is also prominent in the neoteric realm of video art.) In the following pages, Eno leads the way through his syncretic mind and methods.

On Interviews:

I often wonder why people just don't research the extant material. Things I say that I consider most interesting usually never make the newspaper so I figure it's worth going on, because maybe they will one day.

When I stop talking about pop music, people stop listening. Pop music isn't by any means the central issue of my life; it's hardly a peripheral one. Generally, I talk more about other things. I don't think I even have anything very interesting to say about [pop music].

For instance, I recently did an interview... pathetic. I talked for two and a half hours, and I said some things that were new to me. The reason I like to do interviews is it's a discipline for me. I can think out certain things that I wouldn't articulate otherwise. When you have a con versation with someone you suddenly find you've said something in a clearer way than you ever thought you could. It's the discipline of having to be articulate that I find interesting. I use interviews in that way, to try to talk about things that are fresh to me. In that particular interview, I spoke about two or three things of that type, and none made it into the interview. One was about the value of reading the Wall Street Journal - the advantage of reading specific task-oriented publications, rather than general publications like the New York Times.

I guess what I like talking about are slightly more spiritual things than the nuts and bolts of contemporary music. By spiritual, I don't mean religious. I mean things that deal with your own spirit, your own sense of where you think you stand, where anyone stands, in relation to the world at large. The only rationale I have for doing interviews is that I want to think about certain things - and I find the most convenient way to think about them is to put myself in a situation where I have to be articulate. Lectures are another version of that; I like doing them.

On Thinking:

I think in diagrams quite a lot. I start making diagrams at a certain point in a conversation because, for me, they're an easy way to understand complicated ideas.

This is a diagram I was using to explain something [see below]. The question was, "Doesn't your work see to jump around all over the place?" When I start working I have an impression of where I think I'm going. When I hit a certain juncture something catches my attention and I go off; then, another thing catches my attention, and so on. At a point, I find I've drifted a long way away from what I thought I was going to do, but I like what I've ended up with. So I leave it there. This happens again and again on different pieces of work. When I look back at these pieces of work I see they all tended in a certain direction that wasn't clear to me at the time but becomes clear in retrospect.

I can be fairly linear in my thinking, but there are networks of thoughts, and certain ones keep coming around again and again. I have a book of diagrams coming out, with notes; the notes are essays, really. Have you seen a book of section maps called The A-Z of London? On one side a map will be continued on page 64; on another side it will be continued on page 48, and so on. I've always liked that idea. In my book, certain important ideas are underlined, and on the side of the page it says "go to page 28" - where you'll find a longer discourse on that idea. Within that discourse, other ideas will be mentioned.

The idea of the book is that instead of just going through it from beginning to end you trace a path that interests you. On one page you might come up against "the momentum of past events." Say you're more interested in what carries on from a different idea; then you go to that part. What I like is that you will continually recross the same paths after having gone through other ideas, so presumably they'll receive a different inflection then. You can read this book from beginning to end, but you don't have to. That's my way of defeating linearity.

Can you read this handwriting?

Brian's brain at work: Diagram of "anticipated direction" versus "real 'drift of things'" yields "development patterns of individual organisms"

On Creative Process:

As soon as you externalize an idea you see facets of it that weren't clear when it was just floating around in your head. You say something and you suddenly think, "So that's what I mean. Ah, yes. If I mean that, I must mean this as well." You follow the implications of your own ideas in a way that you don't if they remain tacit assumptions.

In organising a thought in any way an unsuspected dimension is added to it. It's exactly the same way with music. You work on a piece of music, you put in certain ingredients, and suddenly they react in a way you hadn't predicted. If you're alert to that reaction, that's what you work from. If you're stupid, you try to cancel that reaction out.

A lot of prople have such a fixed image of what the product should be that they refuse to allow any deviation. Again and again, they'll force the music into a mold until it goes where they want it to go. This generally leads to quite uninteresting music - or uninteresting anything.

If you're an intelligent cook you'll abandon the recipe at a certain time. You taste the dish and you realize there's the seed of an interesting new taste. So you work on that and forget you were making chicken Kiev, or whatever. You make something new.

On Money:

I make a lot of money from productions, collaborations. My records don't cost very much to make. They involve quite a lot of studio time, but I always get deals. They also don't sell terribly well - around 100,000, I suppose, which is enough to make some money from. My music is used in quite a lot of films, TV things, other uses. That's strictly bonus income, because they use stuff that already exists.

On top of that, I don't spend anything, really. I don't live an expensive lifestyle, and I don't travel as much as you may think. I don't like traveling that much; I like staying home. My extravagance is going to the movies.

On Film:

I'm very much a movie fan - although not much of a Hollywood fan. I like European and Japanese films, not because their concepts are necessarily more profound, but because their texture and color are so superior to Hollywood. After Hollywood abandoned Technicolor it never produced a decent color film again. By and large, Hollywood color is like American color TV. There's no tactile nature. In American television the object of lighting is to get everything in the foreground to be as bright as possible, and everything in the background far away. It's such an old-fashioned view. Technicians' work; it doesn't look like artists are involved. European or Japanese films capitalize on special qualities of light.

On Naturalism:

The concept of naturalism in any of the recorded media is worthy of debate. Has a film got anything to do with real life? I don't think it does. I saw a beautiful Japanese film called Hunter in the Dark. There was a dark night scene set in a greenish foggy marsh. A man in a purple kimono was in the top right-hand corner of the wide-angle screen. There was no relationship to anything you would see in real life, and it was absolutely staggering.

What do Fellini's films have to do with naturalism? He works with the inaccuracies of memory. In Amacord there's the tobacconist with the very big tits. In real life they were probably not that big. But they were his first big tits, and he remembers them as being very big. It's the opposite direction from naturalism: elevating things to mythical; archetypal status. Make them more dreamlike. That's a feeling I like a lot.

On Environment:

The recording studio allows you to locate music wherever you want. You can create your own acoustic environment. Mostly this is used fairly figuratively. If you record music in a hall, it comes naturally with the acoustics of that hall. When you listen to it, it recreates the sense of a hall in your living room if you've got a decent stereo.

But a recording studio is deliberately neutral acoustically, sometimes completely dead. The sound arrives on tape free of any environment. You can make it sound like a concert hall by using echoes and delays, or you can make it sound like a cathedral. Or like it's set in a sky-scraper, or a forest. People have tended to be naturalistic about this, except for Phil Spector or Jimi Hendrix. Spector was ultra-naturalistic to the point of surrealism - like he was recording in the biggest hall you ever heard.

I became interested in inventing places for sounds. I often listen to music and get a picture of a certain time of day, a certain type of light. I did that with On Land: for each piece I had an image of a time of day. On Land is specifically dedicated to the idea of creating places in music. It's a record that very much celebrates the special things you can do in a recording studio. Obviously, echoes are evocative because they remind you of places. But the echoes on On Land aren't like anything that could possibly exist. On some of these things I'm using 70-second reverbs. Nothing like that exists in nature or in artifact; even the Taj Mahal, which has very long reverberation, is only about 12 seconds. Nonetheless, [the 70-second decay] is evocative of a type of space. It's dramatized, just like Fellini amplifies the lady's breasts.

On Composing:

I'm always starting pieces of work. It's the only thing I do, really; these pieces don't go anywhere. For some reason, one of them will touch something in me. I never understand why at the time. As soon as I've got that, I recognize it as being the seed for something. There follows a period of looking at it in different ways, putting things with it, seeing how it reacts with other things - as you might do with a chemical.

The breakthrough stage is when I suddenly get a strong sense of mood or place. It's like a fetal idea at the time. I have to surround it with things that will nourish it, if you like; that's when I start thinking about psychoacoustics and electronics. Then craft enters into it.

Craft has to be dropped at a certain point. You've gotten somewhere and you have to decide what you want to do there. The sense of place becomes a seed for the sense of what happens in that place. There's another way of working which is quite different. I sit down and think, "If I connected this to this, and I set this up this way so that this happens to that, something might happen." That's the technological way of working: imagining a novel technological situation. If you understand those technologies to a certain extent, you have reason to believe a particular novel format might give you something.

I was working in a studio in Canada recently. They had a Fender Rhodes piano there, a standard studio instrument I almost always ignore. I thought, "I'll use that for a change. How can I use this to do something surprising?" I looked around and found an old amplifier with a rattly speaker. I took the speaker and sat it on the sustain pedal of a grand piano so the strings were all open. The sound from the Fender Rhodes would make the piano resonate in sympathy with it. Then I set up a microphone with a long plastic tube on it, one of those tubes you spin to get a note. The tube resonates at that frequency, so it was selective. (I did this with my engineer, Danny Lanois, who always helps me very much.) I sat down and checked out various notes on the Rhodes. One note - just one note - made the whole system come to life. It made the speaker shake with a beautiful purring sound, like a huge foghorn. The piano was ringing away, and the pick-up through the tube particularly resonated around that frequency and all the harmonics.

This was a case of having a technological idea and then seeing if anything could be made of it. It would have stopped there if that sound hadn't appeared. The avant-garde technique would be to go ahead with it anyway, because the process is supposed to be interesting in itself. I don't go for that. I think if something doesn't jolt your senses, forget it. It's got to be seductive.

Of course, when I got that sound, I was back in the seed position of the other way of working. It immediately suggested a direction I still haven't resolved. I didn't find anything more interesting than just the sound on its own. Everything I put on covered up parts of the sound.

On Knowledge:

Luis Bunuel said that in a film every object obscures another object. That's a great maxim for me. I have another version of that: Every increase in your knowledge is a simultaneous decrease. You learn and you unlearn at the same time. A new certainty is a new doubt as well.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm not doing to some extent now. People imagine that you set your sights on a goal, then you struggle to get there. I'm sure some people do that, but I never have.

From the age of nine or so, I knew I wasn't going to get a job. I'd always maneuver. After a while of maneuvering you find you are actually going in a directtion. A bit like that diagram again, the inverse. It seems like all you're doing is ducking things, but you realise there is a logic to it. The logic you spot isn't the one you're operating under.

On Cycles:

I seem to have come full cycle: the music I'm doing now is like the first music I ever did.

My first music used tape recorders with static. The pieces started, stayed where they were for a while, and ended. Nothing went forward but things shifted in relation to each other on a plane - a familiar idea in modern music.

Then I went through a lot of other things, this remaining as undercurrent. Gradually it became stronger and stronger; that's the music I feel. I started to drop those elements that occurred at other points in the loop, until I ended up with something remarkably similar, except enriched by the interim journey. The result of that journey is the acquisition of craft - the craft of using the recording studio, which I certainly didn't have then.

On Craft:

What does craft do, I wonder? It enables you to be successful when you're not inspired. When you start, everything works on inspiration. You get excited about something and you do it. But you can't sustain that. You cannot help but become blasé about the area you work in. It doesn't have the same mystery - consistently, anyway. You can't sit around waiting until you have another flash.

On Work:

The point about working is not to produce great stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can. There's no point in saving, "I don't have an idea today, so I'll just smoke some drugs." You should stay alert for the moment when a number of things are just ready to collide with one another.

A lot of factors go toward creating a work: technological considerations that suddenly are a little exciting to you, some feeling or mood, a nice day, you just had a talk with a friend. All sorts of things will coincide - and that moment doesn't last for long. It's like things in orbit; they'll move away again.

The reason to keep working is almost to build a certain mental tone, like people talk about body tone. You have to move quickly when the time comes, and the time might come very infrequently - once or twice a year, or even less.

On Ideas:

Ideas are the result of meta-ideas, which are the result of meta-meta-ideas. I sometimes think I could put together all the ideas I've ever had that led to interesting things in about 20 seconds. Einstein said something like that: "Everything I've ever done could be understood by an intelligent nine-year-old. The only thing is, the nine-year-old wouldn't understand why it was important."

An idea can generate a host of other ideas, which in turn will generate a host of pieces of work. But those ideas are oblique; they come from a direction we don't expect. They'll keep coming back, but maybe not for a long time. I like to get them first time around if I can.

On Memory:

I walked past an enormous rubber plantation in Malaysia. It was a chaos of trees, thousands of them. I thought it strange they should be planted so randomly. Then I reached a point where I realized they were in absolutely straight rows. Only at one point could I see that.

Particular ideas create a point of view that organizes something that, from any other angle, is chaotic. The same is true of memories. You think about your past as a kind of jungle. Suddenly you'll have what I call a crack in time, where you can see right through the gap to the field at the other end.

I see a lot of ways of setting up that automatic patterning mechanism in myself. It has to do with perception; where you stand in relation to something is what you understand about it. I always saw a field of trees in rows, but what changed is where I stood.

On New York:

I've always found this a barbaric city, a wild place. Disorganized. I was in Chinatown recently. The smell of burnt meat was in the air from someone cooking kebabs on the corner. One of the Chinese restaurants had dead ducks hanging up. There was a tank of fish in front of another place, and people on the street selling things, bartering, haggling. A dwarf calligrapher was writing on the window of a bank.

Suddenly I had an impression of how similar this must be to a medieval European city, with all these weird activities going on. I'm now able to live in New York with great pleasure. I feel like I'm in a time capsule. I enjoy it a lot. I see the Dark Ages all around.

If I can survive and do something I like here, I can do it anywhere... except Los Angeles. On Land became a way of dealing with New York. It constructed an alternate, more desirable reality; these were the places I wanted to be. As I made these pieces I found the ingredients here in New York. It's like what I said about the alignment of trees. At a certain point I found out how to align myself - like having a vision of New York as a medieval city.

On Ambient Music

I like it as an ambiguous term. It gives me a certain latitude.

It has two major meanings. One is the idea of music that allows you any listening position in relation to it. This has widely been misinterpreted by the press (in their infinite unsubtlety) as background music. I mean music that can be background or foreground or anywhere, which is rather a different idea.

Most music chooses its own position in terms of your listening to it. Muzak wants to be back there. Punk wants to be up front. Classical wants to be another place. I wanted to make something you could slip in and out of. You could pay attention or you could choose not to be distracted by it if you wanted to do something while it was on. I can't read with a pop record playing, or with most classical records. They're not intended to leave that part of the mind free - my mind, anyway. Ambient music allows many different types of attention.

The other meaning is more pronounced on On Land: creating an ambience, a sense of place that complements and alters your environment. Both meanings are contained in the word "ambient."

Critics don't like these records, but people do. The response has been really encouraging.

People are doing the most interesting things with the records. I got a letter from a woman in Cleveland who works with autistic children. She had one child who never spoke; he had never made a single vocal noise in his life. Another one wouldn't sleep; he was ultra-nervous, in a wretched state. She put Discreet Music on one day, and the kid who had never slept just lay down on a concrete floor and went to sleep. So she went to the group where this other kid was, and she kept playing Discreet Music. And this little child - not only because of the record, I'm sure, though the other one was - started talking. I'm not claiming Discreet Music can make the dumb talk, but it's nice to know it can be used as part of an atmosphere that produces physiological change in people, or seems to.

When Music for Airports came out and sold fairly well, I thought people assumed it was going to be another Before and After Science. It takes a long while to learn whether you're selling on the momentum of your successes. I don't think that's so anymore. I've almost shifted audiences. I meet people who never knew I made a record of songs.

Critics can't stand these records, by and large, because in their search for eternal adolescence they still want it all to be spunky and manic and witty. They come back to rock music again and again, expecting to feel like kids. That isn't what I want from music anymore - not in quite that way. I'm interested in the idea of feeling like a very young child, but I'm not interested in feeling like a teenager.