For his latest album, musician/producer Brian Eno has returned to the world of songwriting. But his ideas about music are as radical as ever...
Unlike many rock and pop musicians, Brian Eno enjoys theorising about the creative process, especially when he can offer a new perspective on established ideas and working practices. On composition, for instance, he opines "It's intuitive to think that anything complex has to be made by something more complex, but evolution theory says that complexity arises out of simplicity. That's a bottom-up picture. I like that idea as a compositional idea, that you can set in place certain conditions and let them grow. It makes composing more like gardening than architecture."
These kind of statements have earned Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno (no less), born in 1948 in Suffolk, the title 'Professor Eno'. It was once a joke, but Eno now wears the 'Professor' tag proudly. "I'm happy with that title," he remarks, "because it says to people: here's someone who is coming from a different direction. He doesn't bring all of the baggage that comes with expressionistic rock music. It's something else. It's another art form."
Eno's bright and airy workspace offers several more clues about his "different direction", most notably a dozen or so identical Phillips ghettoblasters suspended from the ceiling by wires. One imagines them to have some sort of decorative function, but it turns out that these lowart objects are part of Eno's highart generative musicmaking experiments.
Ever since hearing minimalist composer Steve Reich's cut-and-paste tape piece It's Gonna Rain (1966), Eno has been fascinated with music that generates itself in semi-random fashion — resulting in "complexity arising out of simplicity". And so Eno has made several pieces consisting of disparate elements spread out over several CDs, played by a batch of ghettoblasters in 'shuffle' mode, leading to endless never-before-heard variations of the pieces in question.
"'It's Gonna Rain' was one of the most important pieces of music in my life," Eno comments, "and the whole idea of generative really came out of that. With a generative piece you set a machine going and it makes itself, and you as the composer are also the listener. The act of listening is the act of composing. When you're hearing these complicated shifting patterns going on, it's the aural equivalent of Moire illusions, and that very much impressed me. What also impressed me was how different the composer's role is from the old romantic idea that the composer pours out these wonderful things to the passive you, the listener — with art as a kind of tube that the artist shouts down to the more or less thick listener at the end."
"Honour thy error as a hidden intention," proclaimed the first of a set of Oblique Strategies cards which Eno devised (with artist Peter Schmidt) in the 1970s, to be used in oraclelike fashion whenever one was feeling creatively stuck. One particularly significant mistake that turned into a hidden intention occurred when Eno spent several months of 1975 bed-ridden after a car crash. Physically unable to play the role of the 'old romantic' composer, and being forced to listen to environmental noises with increased intensity, he hit on the idea of music as an atmosphere, an environment. It fit the concept of generative music like a glove, and this became the germination point of his most influential concept: ambient music.
Starting with Discreet Music (1975), Eno released several nowclassic ambient albums, including Music For Films (1978), Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978), Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980, with Harold Budd), Possible Musics (1980, with Jon Hassell), and Ambient 4: On Land (1982). All were wholly or partly composed according to generative principles, often making innovative use of the technology of the day, such as synthesizers, tape machines and delay lines. (Eno also famously devised the Revox tape delay process that was applied extensively by guitarist Robert Fripp, who unselfishly called it Frippertronics.)
These ambient albums complement Eno's more conventionally song-based output, first as a member of Roxy Music, then followed by No Pussyfooting (1973, with Robert Fripp), Here Come The Warm Jets (1973), Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), Another Green World (1975), Before And After Science (1977), and Wrong Way Up (1990, with John Cale). Many of these albums were made with extensive help from other musicians, exemplifying another Eno axiom: "people in groups tend to make much more interesting decisions".
"I figure that the listener requires about half of what you think you require when you're the creator," says Brian Eno. "I've come to realise that I can trust listeners — they don't need to be constantly woken up. They're quite happy to drift for a while and come back in when the music comes back in. In general, the listener wants much less than the creator. When you're creating something, it's very easy to get into a nervous state and think 'Oh God, here's a whole bar where nothing happens,' and try to get more stuff in. But as a listener you're quite happy with these open spaces. I noticed that years ago when I was experimenting with Revoxes, and often found that I preferred the pieces played back at half speed. This was just not because of the softer, more sombre tonality, but simply because less happened.
"The track 'How Many Worlds' [on Another Day On Earth] is a very short song with a very long instrumental section. There's just enough voice in there to make you hear it as a song, making it a bluff, a deceit, and there are a number of bluffs like that on the record. I learned this when I made Another Green World, which had 14 pieces on it, five of them vocal pieces. I noticed that everyone thought about it as a song record, and I was pleased about that, because people bring more quality of attention to a song record than an instrumental record.
"You can research this. If you have a painting that's just a landscape, you see the eye moving in a very complex pattern as it scans it. If you put a figure in there, even if it is minute, then the eye will keep referring back to that. The same thing happens when we hear a voice. So for me it was like: I've been doing landscapes for a long time, and now I have reintroduced some figures, ie. the voices. Where are they going to fit? How big will they be? Is it going to be like the Mona Lisa, with a big figure in front of the backdrop, or more like a Constable painting, where it's just a tiny figure in a large landscape? And how can I de-stabilise that in some way, how can I put a voice in there and not make it the centre of attention?"
Eno's aversion to what he calls "the obsession with personality" might be thought contradictory from a man who was partly responsible for propelling Bono and co to world superstar status, but is deeply held. "This obsession has really held popular music back, in my opinion. Of course, I realise that it's the nature of what some people do. But I'm absolutely uninterested in the idea of using music as a vehicle for presenting the performer's personality. I don't want to say anything. I have a lot to say when you're asking me questions, but I don't want to use music as a way of saying things. What I want to use music for is a way of making things happen to me. I want to make things that create emotional or mental conditions for me, and one of the most important conditions is surrender. My yardstick for what constitutes good music is that it changes me. Do I think 'Wow, that's a new conception of how things could be,' or 'That's a new set of feelings that I have never experienced before'?
"Some of the [1970s] Miles Davis stuff did that to me. Listening to it gave me a sense of getting a glimpse of another world, almost like a scifi story. I've always had touchstones of music like that, to which I listen over and over again. It's Gonna Rain was one of those. The third Velvet Underground album another. And most recently there's an extraordinary band called the Books. I'm glad I only heard them after I released my last album, otherwise I would have gone back to the drawing board.
"Nearly everything I do starts as an experiment anyway, and the vast majority of things never make it on record. They're failures because they're not interesting pieces of music, but they teach me something. Someone once asked Edison why he patented several hundred different types of light bulbs before he hit on one that worked. He said 'I've discovered 1000s of ways of how a lightbulb doesn't work.' If you take that experimental attitude, nothing that you do is a failure."
Brian Eno's most recent solo album Another Day On Earth is his first collection of songs, by his own estimate, for "25 years or so". So why this return to vocals and songs after so many years?
"Funnily enough," Eno says, "when I was doing interviews 25 years ago the first question people asked me was why I had stopped doing vocal albums. Now people ask me why I have stopped doing non-vocal albums! The simple answer is that five or six years ago I noticed that I was starting to sing again and enjoying it. Also, since I stopped doing vocal albums and worked on the landscape side of music, certain technological developments have happened that give you the possibility to shape your voice, and that re-awakened my interest.
"One of the reasons I stopped making vocal records was because I was fed up with the identification that's always made between the voice on the record and the composer, as if this person singing was some sort of extension of my personality. But I don't care about my personality being the content of the thing. I always liked the idea of seeing what I was doing the way a playwright might think of a play or a novelist might think of a book. There are characters in there, but they're not the novelist, they're just characters in the book. And with the new voice-shaping technologies that are around now, you can suddenly make a voice that's clearly not your own."
And so Another Day On Earth features many vocal treatments, most obviously on the track 'And Then So Clear', on which Eno's voice is pitch-shifted upwards an octave, and the vocoder-like effects on 'Bottomliners'. "Quite a lot of the vocal effects were done in a Digitech Pro Vocalist," revealed Eno, "which I don't think was ever very popular. It's a standalone box, not a plug-in, and it has lots of interesting functions. It's an intelligent harmoniser that you can run off a keyboard, so it will harmonise with the notes of the chords that you're playing. You can have a group of voices following the chords.
"It also has a gender-changing function, with which you can alter the formant structure of your voice. That's what I did on 'And Then So Clear'. I also pitched the voice up an octave, and played the melody line on the keyboard as well. The latter gave a very funny effect, because it makes the change between notes slightly artificial in an interesting way. I also applied Pro Vocalist for the vocoder effect. Plus I used various forms of Auto-Tune a lot. This is very interesting as an effect, in that it gives this unnatural perfection to your voice."
Elsewhere on the album, for 'Long Way Down', Eno manually synchronised his vocals with an out-of-time keyboard melody, while in 'Just Another Day' he repeatedly cut up the main phrase, so that "the listener had little windows on it". These are effects that can only be done in a computer, and it emerges that Eno recorded most of Another Day On Earth on a Mac, using Logic.
"Two pieces, 'Bottomliner' and 'Under', were started before my computer days, about six years ago, on a Tascam DA88," he explains. "For a while I was in this very awkward in-between land, working partly on DA88 and partly on computer, and this was an awfully clumsy period. I really despise digital tape recording, it's so fragile. So then over the years I went through various versions of Logic, from 4 to 7.1. There's still quite a lot of hate going on for me in working with computers, but I think programs have improved a great deal. The objections I used to make have been taken on board more by programmers. Programs are less menu-intensive than they used to be, and Logic is a very evolved program. I also think that plug-in instruments today are very much better than the early ones.
"The problem remains the interface with the computer keyboard. There are certain decisions that you make on a keyboard that you wouldn't make on a guitar, and vice versa. You have to stay aware when you start working with a computer that you're on a very tilted playing field. You're more likely to do some things than others. It can be very interesting when you try to do something that isn't within the normal inclination of the computer.
"For instance, on the track 'This' I began with a bass part, and then tried to fit some drums to that. I have many wonderful drum programs, the best of all being Groove Agent. It has loads of different drums in loads of different styles, but nothing that fit this bass line. In the end I decided that I needed to play the drums, but I tend to play slightly ahead of the beat. And when you quantise and it doesn't sound right, it's because it's not how you feel the beat.
"It's very easy to do all these things that computers want you to do, like quantise, or use equal temperament if you're working with a keyboard, or use endless tracks and editing options, and in that way have the computer determine what kind of music you're making. This has been fatal for a lot of people, because the number of options at every stage proliferates exponentially. What I often see in studios is that when one problem can't be solved quickly, for instance the lyric writing, which is always a problem, people start working on non-problems, like let's try 38 different guitar parts on a song and let's play around with the sounds in 150 ways each. A huge amount of attention goes into re-cooking the bit of the track that doesn't need attention. So you need to be very aware of the potential of technology to pull you into screwdriver mode."
Although he find much to dislike about computer recording, Brian Eno acknowledges that computers can be used for generative purposes (he uses Koan software a lot, on the new album for a textural background pad in the track 'Going Unconscious'). And he singles out Native Instruments and Korg as "companies that have both, in their separate ways, made contributions to solving the computer problems I've been talking about. I'm a big fan of Native Instrument's FM7 program, which is sort of based on the Yamaha DX7 [Eno is famous for his mastery of Yamaha's FM synth]. It's the DX7 that I always wanted to have, because you can suddenly connect things in different ways. With the FM7 you can also tune the keyboard in any way you want, so you can make music in just intonation, or Arabic intonation, or whatever.
"Korg have their Kaoss Pads, which are a way of taking sounds into the domain of muscular control. If you have a few Kaoss Pads in line, like I do, you can really start playing with sound itself, with the physical character of the sound. The pads are very intuitive, anyone can learn to use them in a second. It's immediately obvious what you do, and it immediately takes you into a completely different place, because when working with computers you normally don't use your muscles in that way. You're focused on your head, and the three million years of evolution that resulted in incredible muscular skill doesn't get a look in."
But doesn't intuitive, muscular skill bring in more personality, something he's not too keen on? Eno shakes his head. "I would say that, funnily enough, the muscular part is more likely to bring out our collective, shared part, while the brain part is more likely to be the individual, separate part. I feel that when I'm in the muscle world, I'm getting out of this little thing I call Brian Eno, and I feel more connected to a bigger community."
Another Day On Earth was mixed in Logic, with the aid of the Kaoss Pads and other outboard. "When I was playing parts live into the computer I would do processing through external boxes. I'd also sometimes feed stuff out of my computer through the Kaoss Pads. There's a lot of plug-in processing going on. I'd usually print the processed track inside of the computer, and then push it back in time, because when there's a lot of processing you get latency problems. I like working like that, because I can do different things with the already-processed track."
What about other objections often made against computer recording, such as that albums recorded in computers can sound flat and lifeless? "It's indeed interesting that after working in computers for a while," Eno agrees, "when you then listen to something that wasn't made in a computer, it sometimes has a shocking, sparkling, liveness to it. But in my opinion you simply have to accept that something happens when working with computers, and you work within that constraint. If you're a print artist, you know that lithographs will give you a different effect than silk screens. So I'm aware that in working with computers, you exclude certain sonic possibilities. As you do when working with analogue tape. The types of sacrifices you make are different. In working with digital you sacrifice certain possibilities of sonic range and depth, while in working with analogue you sacrifice all the operational freedom that comes with computers."
Eno also reckons that today's higher sampling rates and bit resolutions mean that the sonic problems associated with digital are being solved. Yet he immediately puts his argument about the sonic distinctions between analogue and digital in perspective. "I'm not sure it's so much to do with the internal characteristics of the media as with the different ways that you work when you're using them. When you work with analogue, you tend to go for a performance, because it's too complicated to cut up tape, and so on. So you tend to do takes until you get a good performance. But with digital you say 'That's a good bar, we'll copy that a few times.'
"Also, when you work with digital, you tend to work with people who aren't sound engineers; they're computer operators. Or at least they're not people who have spent their lives listening to drum sounds and thinking 'I wonder how I can make that sound better, perhaps with this compressor instead of that one, or perhaps if I move that mic a little bit away from the drums.' I think that's a different world, and the most important distinction between analogue and digital is not to do with the technologies themselves, but with all the aspects surrounding these technologies.
"I engineered Another Day On Earth myself, because otherwise I would have had to spend six years in a commercial studio and pay staff, and that would have become too expensive. But on the song 'Under' the drums were recorded by someone else, a long time ago. When you listen to the album, the drums on 'Under' are definitely the best-sounding drums on there, and that's not only because it's one of the world's best drummers playing [Willie Green] but also because he was recorded by an engineer who was very good at recording drums. But people that work with computers normally sit on their own, and are simultaneously being musician, engineer, composer, all these different jobs. It may be humbling to say, but perhaps we're not all equally good at all these jobs, and there's a reason for calling in the experts."
Despite his reservations about computer recording, Eno has now decided to go further into the computer-only world and sell his studio. "I'm fed up with having a studio. I want to get rid of everything. It gives me the wrong idea about what my job is. I don't want to get up in the morning any more thinking 'Oh, I'd better do some music today,' because all this equipment is sitting around looking at me and expecting me to use it. I'd like to get up and think 'What shall I do today?' And this could be music, but also something else."