Heroes (Part 12)
Brian Eno and the studio
John Morrish wanders in the ambience of Brian Eno's studio strategy, from a VCS3 to U2.
Producer is the wrong word for Brian Eno. His contribution is both too pervasive and, at times, too limited.
The French word "animateur" comes closer. It means not "the man who draws Mickey Mouse" but "anyone who makes things happen". And Eno has certainly done that. Compared to some of the people featured in the Heroes series, Eno has produced a very limited number of albums. He's had a smaller involvement with very many more.
In one sense he's like Oscar Wilde, a similarly flamboyant character who was said to have used his talent in his work but saved his genius for his life. Eno has spread his abilities wide: in composing and playing, in producing, in written work and lectures, and in interviews. His interviews, more than those of any comparable figure, are packed with intelligent ideas and theoretical musings. So his influence has gone far beyond the limited range of people he has recorded with or produced. Clearly, he is rock's foremost "intellectual", at the head of a tiny band indeed.
To be frank, the competition is limited. That's not to say rock musicians are necessarily stupid, nor that rock damages your brain, nor even that rock is somehow isolated from the prevailing currents of late 20th century intellectual life. No, the problem is that rock musicians see themselves as late-Romantic figures, believing inspiration to be inexplicable, semi-divine in nature, a type of magic that is easily snuffed out. "There's a real bogey among rock musicians about talking about music," said Eno in 1977, "they seem to think that if you discuss it, the magic dies or something. I disagree. I think that if you can argue yourself out of doing something you should. Anything that's strong enough will stand up to any amount of analysis."
Faced with what was, in effect, a rigidly formalised folk genre, the first "serious" musicians concentrated on pushing their own technical prowess well beyond that expected of the first generation r'n'b or rockabilly player. Frustrated by the "limitations" imposed by the old blues-based forms, they simply stretched them by drawing a false parallel with the art-music of an earlier era, producing lengthy suites, rock-symphonies and concertos. Or they drew their inspiration from jazz, adding a panoply of extended and altered chords.
But all this activity was out of step with the prevailing developments in fine art and contemporary art-music. There, the initial conception, the working method, and documentation, became central to the activity. A joke of the time claimed it took longer to read the average sleeve note than to listen to the performance, and often that was literally true. That was Eno's background: art school, teaching, lecturing, collaborations with a few big names, notably the Maoist, Cornelius Cardew. These were crimes to some: he was, they said, an intellectual dabbling in rock and roll. In fact, rock had been his first love, through the strange, entirely singular sounds of things like the Silhouettes' "Get A Job", said to be his all-time favourite. And he wanted to play rock.
But the problem was, he couldn't play an instrument, and didn't have the time or inclination to learn. Instead, he made the tape machine his instrument, and later the infant synthesiser. When he joined Roxy Music in 1971, he insisted on having "non-musician" on his Musicians' Union card. It was an arty jest, like Magritte drawing a pipe and writing "This is not a pipe" underneath. That first Roxy incarnation lasted two-and-a-half years, clearly the best in the group's career, and then Eno was back on the street, with no band, no money, and no recognised musical skills. But he had made some important friends.
The first of these was Robert Fripp, his collaborator on "No Pussyfooting". It was based around a tape delay system which later mutated into "Frippertronics" and Eno's first "ambient" music. Tape manipulation was an essential avant-garde device, and repetition a central, structural principle of the New Music, as it was known.
Repetition, in particular, had been claimed by two distinct groups of avant-garde figures. One lot wanted it as part of a general commitment to eastern mystic experience, because of its power to induce a trance-like state. The others wanted it because of the way it allowed the establishment of a solid norm from which they could then deviate in subtle ways.
Eno's reliance on such ideas was to become clear in due course. For now he concentrated on selling records with his album "Here Come The Warm Jets" which sounded rather as if Eno had seized Roxy and not Bryan Ferry. But it bore, for the first time, the "Produced by Eno" credit, something that showed itself primarily in a wash of synthesised "treatment" over guitars and vocals.
From there on "normal" methods of working lost their charm for Eno. Now he faced an unexpected problem: his own increasing musical competence, destroying his carefully preserved "innocence". He wanted to find ways of working "intuitively", of creating without destroying the "mystery" of creation. Once again, there was a parallel in the art-music world.
Early in the century, Arnold Schonberg had invented the 12-tone serial system of composition, in which a basic 12 note row was subjected to various modifications according to strict rules. Later composers, like the American computer pioneer Charles Babbitt, tried to formularise every variable in a composition, for instance pitch, duration, timbre and dynamics.
As a reaction to that, and in obedience to the principles of Zen which call on believers to lay aside all desire, John Cage formulated what came to be called "aleatory" music, meaning music incorporating elements of chance. Eno idolised Cage, and tried to allow chance to guide his work. Early on, he began to compose lyrics actually at the microphone, singing what came into his head then editing later.
A road crash led to an accidental discovery of great significance for Eno's career. It led to his discovery of a musical form that carries his greatest claim to originality, and may yet give him his place in history. As he explains on the sleeve of "Discreet Music", he was lying in bed when a friend brought him a record of harp music. He put it on.
"Having laid down (sic), I realised that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music: as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were part of that ambience," he wrote.
The material of "Discreet Music" dated back to the Fripp work, being made up of backing tracks with no surprises or "less than predictable changes. I was trying to make a piece that could be listened to and yet could be ignored," he wrote, in a phrase that could stand as a manifesto for all Eno's Ambient music, were it not such an inherently modest development.
Ever the optimist, Eno tried to sell the drifting wash of sound to the Muzak Corporation for use in its elevator-music business. He was turned down, not surprisingly, but "Discreet Music" is usually cited by Eno as his own favourite among his records. It's even sold well, over a long period.
Approaching the deadline for his 1975 album, Eno needed some way of generating inspiration. Total freedom as in "free" jazz was the last thing he wanted. "It operates on the assumption that if you remove all constraints from people they will behave in some especially inspired manner. This doesn't seem to be true in any sense at all — not socially, and certainly not artistically," he said in a 1981 interview.
Instead, he started building up constraints for his collaborators in an apparently paradoxical attempt to induce spontaneity. He was trying to get them to go beyond the stock responses of the professional musician, by limiting them to a handful of notes, or instructing them how many notes to play in a period of time, or modifying their instruments to make them harder to play, or making them play one another's instruments.
Later, this sort of experiment was codified in the celebrated "Oblique Strategies", a set of 115 white playing cards inscribed with gnomic utterances offering advice to the uninspired. I own one. It says, "Simple Subtraction": no doubt they work better as a set.
Much ridiculed, the cards appeared to do the trick, offering ways out of dead ends, and assisting in the creation of Eno's two most appealing albums "Another Green World" and "Before And After Science". These two mark Eno's apparent goodbye to the song form. He had always been ambivalent about words and his own voice. His fast songs had always been an ironic nod in the direction of rock history: in his slow material he discovered sincerity, a quality that was to become ever more important to him. Eventually, he moved over entirely into the slow, dreamy and complex sound-fields that first become prominent on these albums.
"Before And After Science" introduced the last of the borrowed elements that Eno picked up from contemporary music. In "Kurt's Rejoinder" you can hear a German voice picked up from the radio airwaves and mixed into the track. Radios, particularly short-wave radios, had been used in contemporary music since John Cage's 1951 work "Imaginary Landscapes 4". The radios provided the "indeterminate" element, the built-in spontaneity. Eno picked up the idea from a route that included Stockhausen, Holgar Czukay and even "I Am The Walrus".
It merged gradually with his increasing interest in non-Western musics, again a happy-hunting ground for the art musician since Claude Debussy heard the Javanese Gamelan orchestra at the turn of the century.
"I will write not 'my' music but rather the music of the whole earth, all lands and races." No, it's not Eno, but Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1966. The American systems music composer Steve Reich said something similar in 1970: "Non-Western music in general and African, Indonesian and Indian music in particular will serve as new structural models for Western musicians."
It might seem odd that I have left it so late to leave Eno's own records and comments to turn to his productions for others, but it makes sense. They say Bowie launched a whole batch of other artists' careers with each album. Eno did the same with each interview.
And the techniques that were explored first on his own records were smoothly put into practice for others. And so often he contributed without producing. Bowie's "Low" is an example. There he was merely adding atmospheric synthesiser overdubs.
But by the time of "Lodger", Bowie and his band were getting the whole "Oblique" treatment. Eno had formularised his two main working methods, and took the band with him. "As I'm turning knobs and fiddling with possibilities I'll hit a point where something fairly unique starts to happen, like a complex rhythmic construction. From there, I start to pile things up on tape, and try to figure where the net result is leading. This is a fairly empirical way of working, in which form is the guiding concept.
"Another method — and this is the one that characterises all of my Ambient projects — is first to conceive a structural proposition. In 'Discreet Music', for instance, there are two concurrent melodic cycles at work, but each lasts a different length of time. Of course, since they're different lengths, the cycles always overlay in different ways... In this method, system is the guiding principle, and in fact, dictates form," he said.
His high point as a producer must come with Talking Heads, where he almost became part of the group. He gave them a polyrhythmic cross-cultural punch that even their most assiduous imitators lacked. And in the Byrne-Eno collaboration "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts", he took the "found voices" idea to an extreme, and produced an album that stands as a monument to our time's cultural confusions.
The latest band to benefit from the Eno treatment is Ireland's U2. During recording, they reported that the balding theorist was more interested in talking to them than in messing around with sounds. Whatever happened, he seems to have saved them from becoming the "new Led Zeppelin" as some had forecast, and given them a number one album. Their guitar-based style is still intact, there is no U2 Funk Orchestra on the horizon, and at no point did they have to strum along to transistor radios.
It's a happy portent. Eno has drifted far from the mainstream, into a never-never land of airport music and film scores for unreleased films. The U2 album "The Unforgettable Fire" has brought him back to guitars and to songs. We should be glad. Despite his limited number of actual production credits, Brian Eno has made a contribution that for once deserves the adjective "unique".
Get Aunt Maude to buy you the boxed set, "Working Backwards". Failing that, go for "Here Come The Warm Jets", "Another Green World", "Apollo", "Low", "Remain In Light" and "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts". Or take 30 seconds of each of the above and listen to the tape incessantly. That's an Eno-esque way of approaching it.
Try Johnny Rogan's "Roxy Music" and the 1981 "Musician" yearbook. And anything by the man himself, if you've got a British Library reader's card...
Feature by John Morrish
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