Silent Retreats

By Biba Kopf, from The Wire Issue 195, May 2000

Brian Eno’s sound installations, oases of peace amid the noise of the city, are where his Ambient theories are most fully realised.

“I like things that are on the edge between being recognisable and not recognisable, between being comfortable and slightly ominous; lets say, slightly unsettling,” explains Brian Eno, as eight wisps of sound slowly unfurl around his measured voice. Gently expanding outwards from their sources - the CD boomboxes positioned at different ponts and heights around his West London workspace-cum-retreat - they head off or merge with the distant workaday city noises drifting in from the outside. The music’s now hovering in shimmering layers, like a heat haze above a freshly tarmacked road, now haphazardly striking an uncommonly beautiful phantom chord when a heavily processed voice, timestretched and pitchshifted into a shape beyond human utterance, accidentally makes contact with a low end drone coming the other way. “I don’t want them to be completely unpredictable but don’t want them to be chaotic either,” Eno continues, intermittently breaking off to instruct his assistant Marlon Weyeneth to adjust levels or volumes. “So there’s always a lot of cusps involved, just the place where something could change into something else, where it could go this or that way, and spends a lot of time being balanced between the two.”

Like the music he has set in motion, Eno in the flesh maintains an aura of Zen-like calm at the centre of ceaseless activity. His time is in heavy demand — keeping up with the War Child charity he set up with U2 in the wake of the Bosnian war, picking up his own two children from school, initiating an intriguing new experiment in spoken word and sound, and, most pressingly, completing his latest installation called Place for the Sonic Boom exhibition. His desk is littered with scraps of paper on which he habitually scribbles diagrams or pie charts to illustrate a point.

Throughout the meeting, he leaps up from the desk to pull down the box of gels and slides from which he is making up the visual component of his installation, or to demonstrate his Photoshop transformations of light and shade, or to point out a sound source from a boombox, without ever losing that Buddha poise. Indeed, he is his own best argument for the efficacy of his installations n inducing calm, balanced yet productive states of mind.

In the past he has said that he was trying to create an atmosphere somewhere between a gentleman’s club and a religious retreat. His artspaces act as oases from modern city noise. In 1983 he set up 36 video monitors as the sole light sources in a pitch black hall in Tokyo’s La Foret Museum, bathing visitors in barely moving pictures of the Manhattan skyline. In the dark, the music’s ever-shifting focus somehow dissolved the physical dimensions of the space, but once you had adjusted to the giddying effect, the experience was more transporting than unsettling. His Sonic Boom room promises a similar interplay of darkness, light-source images and multipoint Ambient sounds.

“These shows are the most unusual thing I do,” asserts Eno, “because nobody else does anything like them. They really are something that have developed alone, and they occupy this funny little niche that really nothing else does. It’s not cinema, but people stay there for that length of time, like they would for a film. Very often people are in there for half an hour or two hours. It’s not painting but it somehow calls up the same sort of appreciations that paintings would -- it’s visual, two dimensional a lot of it. It’s not sculpture, it’s not performance, it’s not exactly music, although those are all a big part of it. It is something that really stands between a lot of other things.

“A lot of the fascination with these shows is,” he continues, “you have an idea what it is, you just don’t know how it is made, It’s not quite like anything you have seen before you are thinking, is it three dimensional or is it flat, how is it made up, what’s making it change, because it is changing all the time, and it’s quite unusual to be faced with visual sensations that are actually quite unfamiliar, you really don’t know what you are seeing. That’s the thrill of these shows for me. It is the dynamic of knowing that it is very simple, that what you are seeing is three slides overlaid, that’s all: it’s very very simple, and this, what you are hearing is eight CDs with not much information on them. And you think, God that’s so interesting, that with so little basic material you can explore so many permutations and find them interesting. It takes a long time for your mind to say, ‘Look, I have seen all these elements before and I am no longer interested in the permutations of them’. It is a sort of lesson in minimalism. But where the idea of minimalism was ‘less is more’, unfortunately it very often turned out that ‘less was less’. Well, this takes the idea that you don’t have to start with very much, but you just let them multiply against each other and that gives you a huge amount.”

The greater Eno’s preoccupation with large-scale installation work, the less interested he has become in producing music for home consumption, where he has no control over the listening environment If his desire to determine the conditions under which his music should be heard sounds somewhat megalomaniac, his beckoning oases of calm are hardly the work of a power-crazed Gesamtkunstwerker à la Stockhausen or Wagner. On the contrary, they’re the places where his theories about Ambient music are brought to their fullest fruition.

“For me, it’s the ideal thing,” Eno affirms. “It makes sense of the music The whole thing I have been saying about Ambient music for such a long time is that it is something to do with immersion, it is something to do with making a space that you go into. Well, this is of course exactly that. It’s not like giving someone a record and saying, ‘Make a space for yourself which includes this music’. It says, ‘Here is the musical space’. Because the music comes from lots of points in space, you are very aware of the three dimensionality of it. You are very aware of music as a spatial event, which is a big part of it for me, and it’s very nice when you experience that, and when you become aware that that sound comes from there and that one comes from over there, and this big one occupies most of the floor area or whatever. It is a really different way of hearing music when you hear it as a sort of sound sculpture. By which he means? “Well, one of the first things it does to you as a listener is, it invites you to be active in the space because you become aware that everywhere you sit is a different mix, basically, you know, you mix the piece by moving around. So that’s one thing. The other thing is, it’s much less like music and much more like nature. In nature, you don’t hear things coming from two speakers at you. You hear that bird up here, and that river there, and that car over there. By nature I don’t mean out in the fields, necessarily, I mean ordinary listening, if you like.

“One narrative within music in the 20th century was the move away from music as a separated-off form of listening, to music being more and more like listening to the rest of the world,” he continues. “This is what John Cage was talking about, and in an inverted way what Satie was talking about as well — breaking down the insulation around music and making it more like ordinary listening, so the same ears that you listen to the world could be brought to music. One of the messages of this multipoint way of listening is saying, ‘Don’t expect the music to come out of the same holes as it used to do before, don’t expect it to be the same language any longer’. Because any new kind of music is nearly always attended by a new kind of listening.”

The first thing that strikes you about Eon’s installations is the pleasure of the. experience. Sensual more than sexy or brutally physical, it coaxes rather than cashes its audience. Seriously lacking ‘attitude’, Eno’s thinking runs counter to almost all the artists that made the running in the last century, John Cage aside. How does Eno counter the criticism that if art is ‘nice’, it has no value?

“It is a criticism that really comes out of a particular romantic view of the arts,” he sighs. “It’s a fine art prejudice, I think, which only values the new and the iconoclastic, or which is used to associating those attributes with progress, whereas all the rest is, ‘Ah, who cares?’ That view says that the purpose of art is to shock us and shake us up and reveal some deeper truth by shock tactics. Well, I don’t believe in deeper truths anyway. I don’t have a lot of time for the idea, and the models that I prefer are those cumulative, sort of evolutionary models, where things change all the time, and those changes might be incremental a lot of the time. Occasionally there is a jump, but that is not the common run of things, and one doesn’t particularly worry if it isn’t happening, but sometimes a lot of things come together to make a suddenly different situation, then for a long time there’s quite a lot of vocabulary being added. It’s fine with me that it should proceed in that way. That’s how natural systems work, and when one is talking about a whole culture, that is what you are talking about a complicated ecology of ideas, where things constantly hybridise with one another, and new niches open up and get colonised by new ideas.”

The irony is that for all his ‘niceness’, Eno is one of the few figures who has removed himself almost entirely from that tiresome treadmill of artists snapping at the bourgeoisie they feed off. The art he is most devoted to, his installation work, is the most resistant to commodification. After all, it doesn’t tell a story as such, and you can’t take one home with you afterwards as a souvenir. Is it just a coincidence that a significant amount of Eno’s installation work during the past decade has been carried out in the ox—Soviet Union and the former Eastern Europe?

“I’m not sure what the answer to that is,” he responds. “One of the things I noticed about Russia when I lived there (Eno spent a year in St Petersburg in the 1990s], there wasn’t really that interesting a painting scene, and there wasn’t that interesting a music scene and so on. In terms of the conventional art categories that we have over here, it didn’t score particularly well on any of them. However, what it did have was something that was so much further ahead of us: this new emerging ‘intermedia’ scene. For instance, in St Petersburg there was this woman who had this thing called The Laboratory Of Experimental Models, which was this indescribably strange, highly choreographed combination of a strip show, a ballet performance, a piece of performance art, a happening, a musical, just this whole collage of things, but all slightly warped and different... And she does this thing in galleries, discotheques, strip clubs, just any kind of venue. What I see a little bit there is the conventional categories that we have markets in are all rather weak there. However, there are these new kind of weird forms with different people developing these different little groups that don’t really fit with any of them, and this is the strength of those countries, I think, because there is no particular reason to stay in any of these categories. But there is here; there is a whole economic reason for being a painter rather than something more diffuse; people know how to sell paintings, they know how to buy them, there’s a whole market in their value. What happened in Prague, Russia and other Eastern places I have been, they saw this work I am doing as one of these funny shaped things, basically. Nobody had any difficulty at all with handling it as an idea of a work that drew on these various elements and didn’t quite fit into any of these slots, nobody had any trouble with it.”

Eno could be describing the more open conditions that obtained in the West in the 70s. What went wrong here?

“The marketing,” he responds. “I saw it happening with Philip Glass, as an example. I am not trying to put him down or anything like that, but he was a very, very exciting experiment in the late 60s and early 70s, this thing that stood on the border between the technology of rock and the concerns of modern classical music, if you like. It was so exciting. But the NEA and the Guggenheim, these places that award grants in America, they award grants for things that are quite precisely definable. They would give grants for orchestral works, because it is stuff written on paper, so it sort of forced those composers, if they wanted to make a living, because there wasn’t a very big market for them on the rock ‘n’ roll circuit, they were kind of forced into those categories.”

Let’s make art too ugly to turn into advertising!” roars a line from a story Eno is developing for a new type of radio Hörspiel he is presently experimenting with. Except, of course, Eon doesn’t roar: he enunciates each word in that slow measured voice so that it seeps into the horizon of the music — rather than taking precedence over it — “like drops of rain”.

“I have started working with language again recently,” Eno explains, gesturing to the music going on in the background. “There is language in this but it happens to be in Japanese. I had three shows — in Bonn, Berlin and Amsterdam all these three shows I had stories going through them, they had language as another layer. But the way I made these work was by telling the stories incredibly slowly. It... was.., at... this... kind... of... speed. That seemed to me to work, because it didn’t overfocus you on the story. It didn’t make you think, OK, I am listening to a story and it’s got music in the background. An interesting thing happened, the gaps were so long, you kind of forgot there was a story going on anyway, but if you did start paying attention to it, you started wondering what the next word would be. As the thing developed you started to think you could guess the next word, you would try out a few possibilities. It was like going to a world championship chess match, where you have got the masters up there and everybody has their own little chessboard, and part of the game of being there is trying to predict the course of the thing.

“Come into the studio and I’ll play you something,” he enthuses, and proceeds to recite a new story, with lengthy pauses, over a marvellously tactile rhythm he has improvised from a hands-on Korg Chaos and Pioneer sampler set-up.

“All the artists of the world got together one day —
And finally they discovered what it was they had to say —
Enough of abstraction! —
Enough of indulgence! —
Let’s make pictures they’ll raise their fists to —
Let’s make songs they can chant from the barricades —
Let’s make art too ugly to turn into advertising...

He breaks off and says, “That’s the great thing about this set-up. I try to make things as tactile as I can. That’s another funny prejudice people have, that if it is technology, then it must be cold, but the trick is to make it so that the technology is an extension of your muscles, or your brain, depending on what the technology is, but I think that most people are happy to use the computer on completely its own terms.

“What I am always trying to do is to kind of move back to a place where I am using as much of my body below the neck as possible. Because what I really hate is when it all becomes head music, when everything becomes nicely quantised.” Gesturing towards the computer screen, he says, “That thing is very rarely turned on now, because when you get into that landscape it is very hard to keep any muscular thing going, and I think there’s a lot of intelligence stored in here [Eno slaps his arm]. Three million years of evolution and this computer thing says, ‘Ignore all that’. There is some sort of hubris: ‘I’ve got a computer and I am going to use it’.”

© Biba Kopf 2000