Brian Eno: Thoughts, Words, Music and Art (Part 1)
Mark Prendergast begins a two part in-depth appraisal of the thoughts, words, music and art of one of the most influential artists of the last decade: Brian Eno.
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to find myself in the beautifully quaint city of Amsterdam. One quiet Sunday morning I strolled down with a friend to the 'begijnhof', a very old square. Off this lay the Amsterdam Historical Museum, which reveals to one with scale models, films, reconstructions and photographs, the entire history of the city. Inside, there were plenty of buttons to press and dials to turn as life-like miniatures lit up with the glow of population increase bulbs and growth chart meters. As we explored the many rooms and corridors of the museum, I suddenly became aware of music. At the end of a large room strewn with disturbing photographs of wartime Amsterdam, I saw a bright red flash, like a beacon revolving. As I drew nearer I noticed that things got darker here, and that underneath the beacon was a video monitor relaying a peculiar film about water. Since I couldn't understand Dutch, I sat there entranced by the flashing red light that arced around the area like a single laser show and the beautiful music that seemed familiar yet strange. I sat there for twenty minutes or more watching all these images of cascading, flowing water in slow motion, and then it clicked. In a word: Eno. In two words: How brilliant!
The music was strange because someone had mixed together segments from Music For Films (EG 1976), Music For Airports (EG 1978) and On Land (EG 1982), which unintentionally produced a completely new hybrid of these Ambient records.
The exhibition was actually about the engineering feats involved in providing adequate water drainage for a land in continuous battle with the sea. I'm sure Eno himself would be mildly amused by this application of his music, one that concurs with his personal belief in the importance of chance and novelty. I am certain that many visitors to the museum are lured to that corner by the entrancing music and hypnotic beacon, and not the subject matter, but once there cannot help but get involved. I was delighted to see one of my favourite modern recording artists undermining the preconceived notions of what music 'is' and where art 'should be'.
Earlier this year, Eno had two videos, Mistaken Memories Of Medieval Manhattan and Thursday Afternoon, released on PAL/VHS for popular consumption. The first arose from the accidental leaving of a video camera on his New York apartment window sill during the period 1978-1983, when he was resident there. He found that when he played back the images, the television set had to be turned on its side because the camera had been resting in that way. In a flash, the 'video painting' was discovered - a television image that was perfectly conducive to the aural quiet of his discreet music. Mistaken Memories is 82 minutes long and shows slowly changing skies, water towers, and the unfurling of clouds over the city rooftops.
Eno: "Like the music that accompanies them, the films arise from a mixture of nostalgia and hope, and from a desire to make a quiet place for myself. They evoke in me a sense of 'what could have been' and hence generate a nostalgia for the future."
Within this brief quotation one can find the kernel to Eno's unusual approach to music and art. None of his work is finite in any way, therefore it fails to subordinate itself to the rules of industrial perfection so beloved of our Western culture. He never utilises equipment or technology for its own sake and will happily accept mistakes and malfunctions as welcome gifts. All his work attempts to define a place or atmosphere that, when heard or seen, cannot be pin-pointed in reality. Within this, one can feel a yearning for change, a hope that things might be different. In that Eno refuses to compromise his approaches or results to the will of received notions and conventions, his work can be looked on as the most radical and relevant of our time.
The second video mentioned above Thursday Afternoon was made in 1984 for Sony of Japan. (Their TV sets are capable of holding up to being placed on their sides better than others, apparently.) It consists of seven 'paintings' of a female nude done in San Francisco. The music that accompanied the sequence was released on CD only at 61 minutes - one of the first CD-only releases that took full advantage of the format. Like Music For Airports, this music revolves around small bunches of piano notes played against an ever-changing background of pure sound treatments. As the piece develops, the atmosphere takes over and the piano begins to be lost within innumerable sonic layers. The piece seems to conclude in some natural habitat, like a jungle or swamp, with very distant bird noises just being audible.
In fact, Thursday Afternoon was Eno's last solo album. Since then he has concentrated on his video work, produced U2 and, with the help of Anthea and Dominic Norman-Taylor, established Opal - a creative artists' company that gathers together old friends like Daniel Lanois, Michael Brook and Harold Budd, and investigates 'possible' musics and situations with a keen eye to the innovative.
Before we look at Opal in more detail, and consider the recent activities and thoughts of Eno, I think it important to go back to 1986 and the first proper exposition in England of his 'works constructed with sound and light'. These were video sculptures, pictures and dimmer designs that utilised the television screen as a reflective medium, around which outward refractive surfaces were built. Housed in London's spacious Riverside Studios, the objects were accompanied by semi-darkness and music not unlike that of Thursday Afternoon. This was an important testament of Eno's urge to be seen as an artist rather than a musician who just makes records or performs concerts.
The root of this particular event went back to 1983, when Eno was invited to exhibit his video paintings at the ICA in Boston with his friend Michael Chandler. Eno felt that Chandler's "very small paintings in quite dark colours" would not work with his own relatively bright videos. In another flash, Eno invented a totally new medium.
Eno: "It is a very simple idea, and it is an idea which I think is so fascinating and so rich in possibilities, that I can't wait to see other people starting to steal it. This enables you to do something that artists have been wanting to do for many years, namely to experiment with light origins and systems of controlling light in as satisfactory a way as one can control paint or music sound... There has never been a very well developed 'light art'."
The idea of sitting in an art gallery and being surrounded by paintings that continually changed, though very slowly, was mind-boggling. The music was, as usual, just beyond the threshold of audibility and seemed to be static and changing simultaneously.
Eno: "The music in these installations repeats over a very, very long time cycle; for example, 60 weeks or 100 weeks. These are very, very long pieces of music, and they are made long by allowing several cycles to constantly run out of sync with each other. The technical problem involved was trying to make a piece of music which I would never hear and could never predict. Obviously, I have never heard this piece of music properly - maybe only for 300 hours, but that is only perhaps for 2% of its life."
This use of chance procedure is, of course, a central theme running through Eno's entire creative life. His art college interest in La Monte Young and the tape experiments of Steve Reich, namely his 1965 piece 'It's Gonna Rain', are the backbone for this practice. The publication of Eno's Oblique Strategies cards in 1975, and their use on the albums Another Green World (EG 1975) and Before And After Science (EG 1977) are another case in point. Yet the fairly academic air of his interviews and discussions up to the time of the above quotes (Husets, Udstillinger; Copenhagen, January 1986) was then replaced with a more conversational and jokey style. Consider the following quote about pop video from the same session:
Eno: "I am constantly fighting a battle with the commercial people that I deal with, who say to me that you have to surprise people all the time: they say that people can only watch something for three minutes. The assumption is that you're all stupid, and every few seconds somebody has to poke you with a stick to wake you up, and this is the whole theory with pop video. In many ways the only direction for pop video is to get faster and more colourful and more extravagant, and this is indeed what happens. The technical tricks get exaggerated more and more, the number of edits increase, and the girls' legs get longer and longer. There's no limit to the length of legs that seem to be appearing!"
The discussion was incredibly loose as it ranged over his ideas for a "quiet club" which would not be geared "towards somehow speeding you up, presumably with the idea of obliterating what is assumed to be an otherwise average existence"; his "three dimensional" concept of music; nature - of which he said: "I'm interested in nature and looking at it from two different angles - one cybernetics, and the other genetic evolutionary theory," and so forth. He also discussed the rhythmic quality of his pieces in detail:
Eno: "These pieces have rhythm, but they are very slow. It's not just one rhythm... If you talk about rhythmic music in Africa, you never mean music with one rhythm... Nearly all African rhythms are based on two interlocking grids of rhythm and sometimes, of course, more complicated ones... I make music that is rhythmic but I have many, many rhythms, maybe 20 or 30 going on at once... I don't think rhythm in my music has disappeared but beat has, and that's a different thing."
A pretty innocuous question from the audience, regarding the apparent contrast between the rigidity of the video sculptures and the openness of his music, threw up a remarkably illuminating answer:
Eno: "On my record On Land, some of the pieces are very directly based on places that I know or knew as a child, and some of the sounds on the record are attempts at imitating precise sounds of those places. For example, on one of the pieces is the river I was born next to. It was a river that always had boats on with metal masts and pieces of wire on the masts, and when the wind blew they went 'ting, ting, ting'. And there were many of these boats, always, and this was the basis of one of those pieces of music. Now those are figurative; I call that figurative music, because it is very much an attempt to paint a picture... It is an interesting thing about music, that you can relate acoustic locations... When I make this music, the first consideration is 'Where is this music?'. I think, 'Do I know where I am in terms of the music?'. The first consideration is to try to picture a place that the music puts you in... I say, 'What's the temperature in this piece?', because sound behaves differently in different temperatures. 'What's the humidity?', because sound behaves differently in different humidities. 'Is it an open place or does it have walls? Does it have a ceiling? Is the ceiling right on top or is it a long way away? Are the walls made of stone or wood, or are they some other material? Is the place stable or do I feel like I am not quite secure in it?'. All of these things I can specify (in the studio) with reverberation. I can, for my own purpose, give the impression that instead of being on land I am in water, by using what I believe are quite universal psychological cues for responses... So I am working more and more in a spherative way, where I am definitely trying to make a place."
Eno went on to conclude this line of fascinating thought with: "All my work aspires to the condition of painting. What I like about painters is that they stay there, they persist. I like to see a painting on the wall and I like to look at it. I can stay for as long as I want and then get on with what I am doing, then I can go back to that again and then get on with what I am doing again. So I want to make music that has that condition of being almost static but not completely so."
Some months later (March 86), Eno arrived at the Riverside Studios to showcase his new works. It was to be the occasion of his last official press conference in this country. He reiterated his views on music as 'painting' and 'location', and went into the thinking and mechanics of his video art in quite some detail. As ever, he did not confine himself to the promotional job at hand but branched out into other areas of discussion.
With regard to sound texture, he had the following to say: "I think that the thing that the recording studio has offered to music, or electronics in general have offered to music, is the possibility of a tremendous expansion in the texture of instruments... People haven't generally taken advantage of the possibilities in material terms afforded by electronics... Recording in a technical sense has always developed towards some concept of fidelity."
He went on to talk of "abandoning rigid formats of what a studio does or what an instrument does" and that people who produce and make records do not understand that modern consumers treat records very differently to what they used to, like a piece of "interior design"... Again, during the course of the conference, he came back to the subject of texture, "a quality of time as well as of space and objects," and with regard to cycles in music passed the humorous comment: "I'm interested in the difference between cycles that, in geological terms, would be the difference between the formation of continents and the atmosphere set up by crickets!"
After that, Eno was to journey to Dublin, via France, for an Irish exposition of his new objets d'art and, of course, an historic involvement with U2 that would produce the most talked about album of the Eighties: The Joshua Tree.
Since 1979, Eno has continually had international showings of his audio-visual work. However, as the specific exhibitions have grown in complexity, and with greater demand, his energies have recently been more directed in this way. Most of 1987 was spent in Italy doing just that. One of the most intriguing events was 'Monuments And Music', held in the botanical gardens, Rome, that summer. This time the sculptures were by English artist Andrew Logan, and Eno provided the music.
Eno: "The Italians have apparently never had difficulty understanding the interdependence of the whole continuum of artistic activity. The 'Orto Botanico' is dedicated to palm trees - there are about 50 different varieties there - and Andrew is placing some of his larger pieces around the garden while I am making a new piece of music and a synthetic bamboo grove; hopefully complete with electronic cicadas!"
Later that year Eno was invited to Brazil for the Sao Paulo Biennale to show his video paintings. Music For Airports was the featured music for the event. His video art continued to be popular in Spain and America in 1988, with the latter given the benefit of a completely new display, entitled 'Latest Flames', which was showcased at the Exploratorium, San Francisco, last February. Yet, for all this activity, he still found time to compose music for television, work on Jon Hassell's live recordings at his own studio in Suffolk, give lectures and perform other academic duties. Interestingly, he was invited to Irvine College, California in November 1987 to address a symposium on 'Original Vision', where he discussed the processes of "chance", "naivety", "limitations", "necessity", "change of emphasis" and "re-contexting" and their importance in his work.
With so much going on abroad, Eno's British profile has been low in comparison, in the sense that his appearances as interviewee in the weekly music papers (a common and welcome aspect of his late Seventies and early Eighties work) are rare. Indeed, I cannot remember the last time he gave such an interview. Yet his presence on the scene is felt in no small way by the activities of his artistic friends and collaborators, Russell Mills, Laraaji, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, his brother Roger, Michael Brook and Daniel Lanois, whose work is organised by the company Eno co-founded in 1984: Opal. This is run by close friends and brother and sister team Anthea and Dominic Norman-Taylor, who are wholeheartedly committed to creating a different kind of freedom for artists, one that enables outsiders and innovators to have a free hand.
Starting in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in January '87 with the first Opal evening, a core group of Brook, Laraaji, Roger Eno and Harold Budd performed to a backdrop of slides/visuals/light objects courtesy of Russell Mills and Brian Eno. This show went on to tour extensively in Spain. Since then Opal has championed collaborations, performances and new perspectives on music both from its own artists' point of view and those of the public. It regularly contributes to the 'Echoes From The Cross' project which, since 1986, has been performed annually as a diverse concert in order to preserve the 19th century Gothic church of St. Peter's, in Vauxhall, and enhance its heritage. In fact, the performances which mix several styles of music with a contribution from one or more Opal artists take place within the church itself. Last March, I had the pleasure of hearing Eno's Planet Dawn (an old but unpublished piece) performed by a chamber ensemble.
Recently, Opal has launched its own record label - Land Records - with four releases from Roger Eno: Between Tides - a neo-classical ambient work that draws on Erik Satie and minimalism; Harold Budd: The White Arcades - a further exploration of slow motion flux and astral melody from the American keyboard maestro; Hugh Largo: Drum - an American post-punk rock combo with the accent on theatricality and atmosphere; and the combination Music For Films III, which includes new pieces by Eno, Lanois, et al, plus many surprises.
In April this year, Opal was responsible for the first ever satellite TV link between Russia and the West with rock music as its subject. Hosted by Eno, with Peter Gabriel, Chrissie Hynde, Paul McGuinness (U2 management) and Mark Cox (of underground group The Wolfgang Press) as panel guests, an important cultural bond was made with the 'unofficial' hard-core rock situation in the USSR. With such entrees into other fields, Opal is quite a unique little organisation. I spoke to Anthea and Dominic Norman-Taylor about how the company came about and its vision for the future.
Soft spoken and quietly mannered English, Dominic came over two years ago from Japan to join his sister in running Opal. There he had worked in advertising and was involved in managing a young female singer keen on having a Western audience.
"Opal was set up by Anthea and Brian back in 1984, after they both decided to leave EG Records. Land Records only really came into being at the beginning of this year. As you know, we were with EG and Virgin and, with all due respect to them, it didn't really work out terribly well. We were frustrated with not really having the kind of freedom we thought we should have got. Also, the way sales were going, and a number of things like that. It really didn't seem like a very good marriage. After going around to another couple of labels we thought it was going to be much of a muchness, so we said we'd go it alone in the UK. I know it has only been going a few months but, thankfully, we haven't looked back since."
Chatting to Dominic in the airy offices of Opal Ltd in Harrow Road one summer's evening some months back, we cover much ground on the ins-and-outs of running a record/management company with little or no experience. One sensitive point I bring up is the accusations of 'benign nepotism' that are often insinuated by writers and critics at Eno's collaborations. The position of his brother Roger has always been looked on suspiciously by the so-called experts, even though he's a classically trained composer with a background in therapeutic aid and now two great albums to his credit, Voices (EG 1985) and the new record Between Tides.
Dominic: "Well it's the kind of attitude - 'Oh! Here's an interesting little record from Brian's younger brother.' It's a problem, yes. I mean, Brian doesn't like it that much himself. It would be stupid to try and pretend it doesn't exist. It's very tricky."
Q: I've never heard any of this music on the radio. Jon Hassell's last collaboration with Eno, Power Spot (ECM 1986), would have been perfect for Radio 3 or any of the less restricted independent stations here. But alas, as ever, one cannot hear such great stuff on British airwaves.
Dominic: "No, not in this country. In Europe and America I believe it's much better because, especially in the US, the university and local radio stations are particularly sympathetic. It's just seen as alternative music there, non pop stuff. In Germany I've heard our stuff quite often. Unfortunately, it just seems that radio in this country just always wants to play pop music."
During the course of the conversation Dominic admits an interesting fact in relation to the lack of widespread knowledge and acclaim in England for Eno's audio-visual experiments: "No one really reviewed the Riverside installation. To be quite honest, I don't think that many people in this country know who Eno is. Certainly, people are far more aware of the name in places like Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan or America." Also, in response to a question relating to the 'intellectual listener' tag that this music often receives: "I honestly think it appeals to all sorts of people. Some writers have an image in their head of what kind of people listen to this music. Someone said to me the other day that they were in a taxi with some cabbie, and he started going on about Jon Hassell and Harold Budd! Imagine this old cabbie trundling along in his car, and for some reason he said 'Oi! I roilly loike Jon 'assell and 'arold Budd.' I honestly think it could be anybody who likes it. I mean, before I joined Opal I used to listen to mainstream pop and classical."
Where Dominic is outwardly subdued about Opal and its role in creating something new in British and world music/art, his sister Anthea is more livid and enthusiastic about the whole thing. I'm sure this arises from the fact that for two years she was doing it all herself and now, when everything is coming together in a big way, she is happy to be addressed questions. As one of the few women working in the record and management side of the music business, she deserves a lot of credit, particularly for her wile and acumen in approaching things obliquely and achieving much success. I spoke to her some days later at her Chelsea flat.
Q: According to Dominic you worked at EG Records. Is that where you got most of your experience?
Anthea: "Everything seems to happen by chance, I think. I joined EG in 1974 and left in '83. When I got the job I didn't have any real qualifications at all. I was quite young at the time and short of money, and needed some temporary work. I had no secretarial experience but did have a background in science, so maths was no problem to me, and therefore I was given the job of sorting out the royalties, since EG was quite new in those days, you know. There was such a lot to do that they ended up giving me a permanent job as 'royalties clerk'. I really enjoyed doing that and I got on really well with them, so I became 'copyright manager' and eventually a director of the company."
As the years went by, Eno formed a very healthy relationship with Anthea with regard to his creative ambitions and musical output. Feeling that the EG situation had run its course, they both left in 1983.
Anthea: "Brian and I decided to set up a company together at the beginning of 1983. From the beginning it was very clear that it was to be an artists' company. Within many conventional record companies, the relationship between the artist and the organisation is one of bank manager and client. What mattered to me was the mutual relationship, of like being more of a servant to the artist. Like the artist has got the ideas and is the creative one, and I'm good at administration but need a good artist to look after. So Brian was very happy for me to do that but also wanted all his friends to have the same benefit. Then it quickly spread to other artists - and that's the basis of Opal."
Q: Opal and Land Records are not necessarily Brian's sole creation. It's more of a team effort, isn't it?
Anthea: "Well, it's easy to have a phrase that says it's so-and-so's label. You get this with Sting or Stewart Copeland, and even Phil Manzanera. Well, with Sting's Pangaea project he's helping to release all kinds of music that interests him, and therefore he's obviously doing a label. With Land it is much more a bonafide label, whereby all the artists on it are equal contributors to the total image. The group Hugo Largo came up with a good expression for Brian's role, which is 'curator' - and that's a nice image. It's like a museum which has a collection. It doesn't mean he owns it, but he decides 'Well, we'll have this rather than that.' He gives artistic guidance, certainly, while myself and Dominic have a large artistic input as well."
Q: Is the music on Land at present, and will it be in the future, a specific stylisation of 'new music'?
Anthea: "We absolutely want to be the opposite of that. There are so many different things going on in so many areas that are interesting, and it's quite funny that most of the demo tapes we get seem to be imitative of what Opal artists have done already. People assume that having done one thing that you want more of it. The last thing we want is more Ambient stuff. Yes, there should be some sort of unifying thing to the music - something that, say, could be called a frontier in mentality. What I hope is that the things we get involved in are not self-indulgent. The recipient of the work we put out should be getting a good deal."
Q: What about your market? Is it quite defined or is this music for everybody and anybody?
Anthea: "Well, I wouldn't like to say it's for anybody, because that would be insulting to the people who buy it. But I don't think it has to be so specialised. There are markets out there that haven't been explored, and one of them - say, with Harold Budd's music - is women. Up to now, the female record buyer has been perceived in two categories: the teenyboppers and the housewives. Women, as buyers, are categorised by record companies as frivolous buyers of music only. They don't really think of women like me, and there are lots more like me."
Moving on to the music itself, the first Land LP is Roger Eno's Between Tides, a superlative work of great beauty which fuses the chamber music tradition of classical acoustic music with precision piano playing that draws on equal levels from Erik Satie and Brian Eno's earlier work, particularly 1975's Another Green World, from which the track 'Between Tides' itself quotes. Despite his obvious talent, Roger is considered by the unenlightened to be a closed book; a dark fish that swims in the wake of his brother's more famous achievements. This is a silly notion that Anthea is quick to dispel.
Anthea: "Though Roger has got the musical training, it is a fact that he's more melodically gifted than Brian. Roger is a born musician. It's not so much his training but you can take Roger, sit him at a piano, and he'll turn out a tune. He's genuinely musical, with melody flowing right through him. He's constantly writing new pieces of music and being quite prolific. He studied at Colchester Institute - in fact it was the euphonium - and though he can read and write music and all that, he is not an academician. He's 11 years younger than Brian, who has just turned 40, so they hardly knew each other as they grew up. Yet there's a musical thing in the family. They've got two sisters who've got lovely voices and are musical, but they've not utilised their talents in that direction. Neither of their parents were directly involved in music but, a generation before, their grandfather was quite musical in that he made organs. And an uncle was in a brass band in Germany - or something like that. What's good about Roger is that it's always good to hear his music first and then meet him, because it's such a surprise. From his music he sounds like a sort of 'classical' composer, but in reality he's the biggest lunatic you'll ever meet! He could be a stand-up comedian."
Q: Does he teach or play with orchestras?
Anthea: "Not much. He lives a very simple life and his only source of income is the few record's he's done and the few film scores. Every now and then he's done a performance for some theatre or something like that. You see, his ability is hard to categorise, in that it's not conventional in the 'classical' sense of the word but he's using those acoustic instruments. He quite dislikes electronic means, though he can turn out a song or tune in virtually any style. But he's got quite a traditional streak in him, a little bit old-fashioned in a way."
Harold Budd's new LP The White Arcades is a fascinating extension of the 'sound painting' techniques explored on 1986's Lovely Thunder and The Moon & The Melodies with The Cocteau Twins (see interview: SOS December 86). To my mind, it's his best record to date. The thunder rolls are ever present but are now subsumed to indefinable piano and synthesizer textures. Though Brian Eno is involved on 'The Real Dream Of Sails' and 'Totems Of The Red Sleeved Warrior', it is on a small-scale, especially on the glorious miniature 'The Kiss', that Budd's genius for understanding the potential of piano timbre shines through. Now resident in England, Anthea sketches in some more details.
Anthea: "Harold recorded that all on his own in Palladium Studios, Edinburgh. That's the sort of Cocteau Twins connection, in that it's a place they've recorded in a lot. He's still friends with them, and one day was talking about some recording he'd like to do, and they just went ahead and booked the studio for him. Robin Guthrie was involved on one track and Brian did some treatments and engineering on two others. The album was still mainly recorded at Palladium, then a bit at The Cocteau's own studio, and the rest at Brian's Wilderness Studios in Suffolk. Really, Harold is quite a lonesome man in that he has and does mostly work on his own."
Next month, Part Two continues with further insights into the vision and philosophy that is Opal, plus Eno's own analysis of the application of electronics within his music.
Opal Ltd, (Contact Details).
Part 1 | Part 2
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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