In our exclusive interview, the great domed one himself waxes ambient on remixing, jazz, Sinatra, computers, the Eventide H-3000 and his own original definition of a new, environmentally sound music
Back in the days before acid house, Brian Eno was the last musician anybody would associate with dance music. Now, the influence of his innovations in ambient music and video can be found in acts as diverse as U2, Slowdive, The Grid, The Orb and Moby. With two retrospective CD boxed sets due for release — one compiling his songs, the other collecting his ambient works and collaborations — Brian Eno speaks about the problems and potentials of music technology.
"I think what I became conscious of quite early was the idea that sound, in itself, as material had become a major subject of musical composition. If you look at the way classical music is written and thinks about itself, and the way musicologists describe it, they will always talk in terms of structures, melodies, rhythms and harmonies. Timbre' is a very small part of the total message, because the timbral possibilities of classical music are quite limited. A clarinet means a quite small palette of sonic possibilities. Therefore, it was possible in a score to say 'clarinet' and for you to know, pretty much, what that would sound like.
"I think what happened in pop music, because of electronics and recording and other cultural factors as well, was that suddenly it became possible to work with all sorts of sounds, to put together things that could never have been put together before. For instance, just the microphone enabling a singer to sing very quietly against a full orchestra. This, in itself, was an incredible revolution in eroticism. Frank Sinatra singing in an offhand, almost introspective way against a big band, was a fabulous breakthrough which could never have happened in any classical music because it's physically impossible. He would be drowned.
"As I started collecting records I started noticing there were distinct trends in my collection. The biggest trend of all was certainly towards this fascination for things that just had their own sound picture. Like some of the late '50s, early '60s records that I had, like 'The Mountain's High' by Dick and DeeDee. The moment you put it on, it sounds like nothing else that you've ever heard. Within the first second of that song, you're in the place. It's sonically so distinctive. Then, 'Be My Baby' by The Ronettes, where you had this enormous, huge sonic picture with the thinnest voice you've ever heard. The voice is like a little bee inside there. I got more and more interested in that kind of thing - and then psychedelic music was an explosion of that kind of material."
"It occurred to me, there are so many different formats for releasing things. You can make a CD that's album length. You can make it double album length and still call it a CD which doesn't have the stigma of the double album. It's just a lot of music. Or, you can do CD5s which are 20 minutes. I've done one in America which is 70 minutes long. It's basically one song, in lots of forms. You can do singles, you can do club 12-inches, public 12-inches. There's suddenly this whole proliferation of formats and the effect on me was, Wow! I don't have to think I'm writing a novel every time I do a record.
1"That really got frightening after a while. If you've got some kind of reputation, there's so much attention on anything you do, especially if you haven't brought anything out for a while. Of course, when it was vinyl, you assumed that people were going to listen all the way through. People really don't get up and take the needle off and skip tracks. Or if they do, it's a very annoying process that they resent. Making a vinyl album is a completely different idea and mind-set. You tend to think, I've got to make a coherent listening experience. If something's going to be annoying, or possibly won't have the longevity of the other pieces, I won't leave it on, because it's going to turn out to ruin the record after a while. It made record making less and less fun for me, because it meant that one tended to censor, more and more, the things that were nuttier and less well-formed in favour of the things that were more acceptable.
"With these new formats now, and especially with the CD player itself, and the knowledge that people can put something on and say, 'I don't like that,' and they're onto the next track - this is fantastic. What you offer to people instead of an album is a whole bunch of music, which they then curate. They find their own set of favourites."
"I suddenly discovered myself to be a kind of postmodernist, in the sense that I was noticing myself becoming more and more interested by the whole remixing scene and the idea of proliferating variety from one set of sources. Again, not going for the definite, single version of something - the 'perfect' mix. That just drove me nuts over the last few years, especially with computer mixing, which gives you the illusion you can get to that.
"The whole thing about computer mixing is actually gloss. But the thing about remixing is exactly the opposite. It uses computer technology but in a different way. It says, hey, what you can do with all these computers is be spontaneous. You can do wild things. If they're completely weird, you can correct them. If you've forgotten to include the four most important instruments, you still have the chance of fixing it. What happened, I think, in the last few years, people started using the technology (as always does happen in pop music), not for what it was intended, which was to do an old thing better, but for what wasn't intended. This was to do something new. It offered you a new way of working."
"What's now happening over the top of the techno lock, is getting more and more fluid and cloudy. Also, it's getting mixed louder. The balance in the mix is changing, so that your attention is being drawn more and more towards the floating aspects of the sound, rather than the stepping, pulsing aspects of it. I suppose this is what they call ambient house.
"I obviously have an interest in what gets called ambient and I am very conscious of the processes of recording studios. It's all transparent to me. I can hear how it's all done. I've never heard much of the Aphex Twin type of ambient music. Whenever I do hear things, I don't particularly recognise it as being what I would call ambient. It might be that my definition is too narrow. In my experience, whenever I don't like anything, there's a very good chance that six months later I'll go, 'Oh yes, I see' and change my mind about it.
"I certainly don't have any proprietary rights over the term 'ambient'. What I would like it to describe is interesting music, at least. I don't want it to be a description that suddenly just attaches itself to something I knew, and had heard before, and tries to glorify something that I thought was commonplace noodling. The definition I still stick to myself is the one on the inside cover of Music For Airports, which unfortunately never got reprinted when Virgin repressed that record. It was headlined 'Ambient Music'. That was the first time that the phrase had ever been used, as far as I know. Then I tried to give a description of what I saw as a new musical area and a new way of listening to music." [see below]
"I don't use any programs. Do you know why it is? More than anything else, it's a physical reason. I've got SoundTools in my computer there, which I use as an editing system, but I get so fed up after working on it for a few hours. The only part of my body that's engaged is my mouse finger and my eyes. My body just starts to feel so... ooh, I just want to hit something or bounce around on the floor. It might sound like a hippyish thing to say, but I keep thinking to myself, this is not the physical condition that I want to be in when I'm working. If my body is feeling this frustrated and under-used, there's something wrong.
"Even at a mixing console, I feel much more engaged. There's reaching, and you can stand up and do it. There's an aspect of performance to it. But the complete lack of any feeling of performance with any form of computers is very frustrating. I think that's one of the things that shows in the music. You don't get bold, strange strokes. You don't get whatever the computer equivalent is of somebody going 'CHAANG!'.
"My experience of computer mixing, which I've had more experience of than other forms of computer work, is that it creates a cautious, perfectionistic way of working. I've banned computers in the studio, actually. I won't have them around. It isn't because I'm anti-computer. It's because nobody understands them well enough. Either the programs aren't well enough designed or they're just so difficult that nobody is yet intuitive with them. It's happened to me so often that I'd be in the studio and there's a computer there running some sequencer aspects. You look round and the brow is knotted. Someone's saying, 'I think if we just put the SMPTE in there. Wait a minute, I've got to ID channel four..." and you know the session is blown. Because now the guitar player's gone off to make a phone call, the drummer's gone to the lavatory, the singer's started reading some magazine article. The whole attention of the thing has gone. For me, the most important thing in the studio is to retain attention - to keep everyone there. That's what I do. That's my main job as a producer. To try to keep everybody there for as long as I can. If they're not there then get out of the room. I don't mind, but I don't want stray attention everywhere.
"Computers have so often punctured the balloon that I just won't have them in unless I'm convinced that the person using it is totally intuitive and has as little problem using it as the guitar player does with his guitar. I just can't stand that other mode you flip into: 'Maybe if we can just shift that 1/92nd of a beat...' It's hopeless. You can sit at home and do that on your own. Come in with the results. Wonderful. But to spend everybody else's time doing that is just selfish."
"If you went through, say, Moby's remixes of 'Fractal Zoom', you'd have to say, that's nearly all Moby on those things. I wrote a review two years ago for Art Forum of a book about Hypertext (Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing by Jay David Bolter, published Lawrence Eribaum Associates). I think that's such a new idea really. I now have my Hypertext disk here and I've added to it, so I've started to actually do a Moby on this book. It's still mostly the original author, but there's a percentage of the book that I have now, which is my own contribution.
"Now if I copied that and gave it to you, you would read it, you'd probably add some other things in. This idea of a book or piece of music, instead of being the vision of just one person which is put out into the world and then sits there for the rest of time, instead of being that it becomes a hub around which a community of activity takes place. The originator might even disappear entirely from that. I think that's a terribly exciting and modern idea.
"What has been happening in music for quite a long time is an unformalised, unarticulated version of what is now going to happen in writing. In terms of music, we've been living in a world of fluid, vague barriers; of the possibility of things crossing with one another; of the possibility of things losing their authorship and not having fixed centres. Narrative development was the bit that went first, where music started to become more and more a space for exploration, rather than a story being told.
'Writing was actually a very fossilised form. The people who tried to break that form - Borges, Beckett, Burroughs, Joyce - in a way, experienced several brilliant failures in their attempt to get around this problem of the linearity of writing. Painting, as well, aspired to music, because music was the condition that they would like to have moved their art towards. Now, perhaps, because of Hypertext we can imagine a writing which gets in sync with the way music is now. But of course, what's going to happen in the meantime is that music is going to go somewhere else. I don't know where. Where next for music?
Warners in America have an advanced research department where they're always looking into what sort of futures there might be. I sent them my review about the Hypertext book and said this is going to be the future for CDs. So instead of presenting a line of music, you present a space and somehow, there are ways of navigating through that. It's very hard to imagine how it would be done but it's a fabulous idea."
"I think this is a tragic story, in a way. When I worked with Bowie on the three records we did together (Low, Heroes, Lodger) we had Fripp in, playing solos. On one song, I concocted a solo from him. He had three solos on three tracks and I was switching in between them, so you got these impossible jumps of three octaves or something, all over the guitar. A couple of years later, it came time for David to go on tour, and he had Adrian Belew playing guitar - a phenomenal guitar player. Poor Adrian, he learned to play them. It was astonishing that he could actually do it, but when he told me, I thought, 'You poor guy, why didn't I tell you before?'"
"It's a great time, I think. I don't think music has been so unsure of itself, or so fluid in its identity for 25 years really. This is a bit like how it felt, as I recall, in the late '60s, when there were all sorts of things going on and they all sounded very different from one another. Just remember Country Joe & The Fish and The Velvet Underground - they were both around at the same time. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix - these things didn't represent, to me, variations of the same kind of music. They represented different musics that in some areas overlapped. It was later on that convergences were forged out of them. That always does happen, I suppose, as you find the most marketable elements, the consensus of marketable elements. Now, those things have separated out again."
"Something that has been interesting me a lot at the moment, is the strange way in which jazz has been co-opted into a lot of music now. It's the aspect of jazz which I like best. The aspect of jazz which I enjoy is where it's courting the edges of breakdown. Where the structure is teetering on the edge of falling apart and then, suddenly, it triumphantly comes together again. It seems to me that jazz is the best metaphor for the whole of the music and the culture scene at the moment.
"Techno music is very locked. I don't like it. The whole history of the sequencer is really a way of locking everything together, and you screwed it tighter and tighter. That was exciting for a little while, because it had this futuristic, robotic quality, but it very quickly got very tiring to me. I started finding that what I liked more and more about jazz and what's called world music, is that it's not very tightly locked. There's always a lot of shift. There might well be a beat. No problem about that, but there are also several interpretations of it at the same time, so you get a kind of furriness to the identity of the thing. Jazz ties in well with various aspects of new thinking - chaos theory and so on."
"Until music-organising technologies and text-organising technologies become much simpler, I don't expect very good results from either of them. What I expect is that they both confirm an older way of thinking. In theory, they open up new ways, but they require that you practice an older way of thinking. That older way of thinking is very manual based.
"To give you an example of something that isn't like that - I don't know if you know this machine - the Eventide H-3000, it's called. It's a processing tool, basically, but it's a very, very versatile one. But it's not Japanese, so it's built for Americans with short attention spans who want results quick. It's a fabulous machine. It's so well designed. You switch it on. You select a program, which is very easy to do. You can just turn a wheel and you can go through them all. The program offers you, on the few controls that are there, the parameters that you're most likely to want to change.
"Then it offers you another level of parameters you're less likely to want to change but can if you want. Then it offers you yet a third level of the architecture of the whole system. You can interfere with that, as well. The important thing about it is that you can use this machine intuitively from five minutes after you've unpacked it. You're enjoying it, having fun with it. It so quickly becomes part of what you're doing. It never wastes time in the studio. In fact, it always creates so much excitement in the studio. I have one, and I carry it around with me now whenever I work with people. I think that machine is a real model of how design could be in the future: hierarchicalising the levels at which you can intervene.
"What's happening in music, though, is that there's always the struggle between increasing options and making something usable, and they really are almost opposed in effect. For people who design things, it's very easy to add new options. It's very difficult to think of better ways to access them. That's where all the failure of design has been - in the actual interface. These machines have to correspond with someone like me, who didn't grow up playing video games."
Interview by David Toop
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