The Sound Of Silence
A Thursday Afternoon with Brian Eno | Brian Eno
The master of ambience tells Alan Jensen all about art, culture, experimentation and the Smiths.
Some carefully chosen words on Music, Art and Culture from one of contemporary music's most influential and controversial figures.
'There are three kinds of things I say at interviews' says Brian Eno as I pack up my tape recorder and notebook at the close of our meeting.
'The class one things are really interesting, the class two things are fairly interesting, and the class three things are boring as Hell. People always publish none of the class one things, a few of the class two things, but all of the class three things.'
That, I suppose, is one of the reasons Eno has never given many interviews. I only got mine by sticking my foot in a lot of doors, being a nuisance on the phone, and being in the right place at the right time. The right place turned out to be the Polydor offices in London, the right time a quiet Thursday afternoon in mid-autumn. Coincidentally (I think), 'Thursday Afternoon' is also the title of Eno's latest album. But more of that later.
The surprising thing about Eno is that, in spite of what some music critics would have you believe, he's quite normal. He isn't a guru or a sage. He carries the air of a man who winces at praise, who shies away from the limelight.
Yet in spite of all that, he's become one of the most influential figures in contemporary music. His records sell in small quantities, and he hasn't had a hit single in his life. But ask many of those who have where they got their inspiration from, and a lot of them whisper reverently: 'Well, it all comes down to Eno, doesn't it?'
Eno was more popular when he played synth (one of the first rock players to do so) in Roxy Music. He was even more popular (in the mid-70s) when he made albums of quirky, eccentric songs with the help of other musicians.
He has achieved popularity indirectly through staying behind the mixing desk to produce records for the likes of Talking Heads, Ultravox, Devo and U2.
But some while ago, he rejected further adventures into the Land of Pop, in favour of a style of music that's come to be known as 'ambient', after a series of records Eno released under that title. It's music which assumes a place in the environment of a room, creating an atmosphere rather than demanding constant attention.
Some of his music has been written and produced solo, some of it has been created with the assistance of others, like fabled Canadian producer Daniel Lanois. Some of his work has been written in response to commissions for film and video soundtracks. Much more of it has been used as incidental music by the makers of television documentaries years after its release on vinyl.
And visitors to this year's Frankfurt Musikmesse trod the endless galleries of moving walkways to the accompaniment of Eno's ambient doodling, replayed over elaborate but discreet sound systems, in precisely the fashion its creator intended.
Like everybody else who has an ambition to meet the man fulfilled unexpectedly, I had a lot of questions to fire at him. I had decided on my tactics. I hoped to draw Eno out of himself, forcing him to answer those questions on a broad, all-embracing scale. I got more than I anticipated.
He grasped the thread of what I was getting at, often before I did, and phrased his answers in a very precise, thoughtful way, as though he was speaking in print.
Now and again he'd doodle aimlessly on a notepad with a propelling pencil, drawing straight lines and shading enclosed areas as he paused for thought. A few years ago, all sorts of things would have been read into this by hordes of faithful followers. But now, he's just doodling, occasionally using a drawing or two to illustrate a technical point or indicate a particular method of working.
When I got home, I tried manfully to trim down what had been said to short, meaningful paragraphs, the way you're supposed to, concentrating on the class one bits.
Out of context, that sort of editing doesn't really work. And anyway, any less than what I ended up with doesn't really convey the experience of a meeting with Eno, the flavour of the man. So here, with a little chronological juggling, is an impression of a quiet Thursday Afternoon with Brian Eno.
So why is the album called 'Thursday Afternoon'?
Because the music was written to go with a video called 'Thursday Afternoon'. The video was called 'Thursday Afternoon' because that was when it was filmed.
OK, so why has the album been released initially on Compact Disc only?
The quality of reproduction you get with Compact Discs eliminates all extraneous noise. My music is very quiet; silence is very important in my music. But then, having no silence in music is like having no black or white in painting.
But the music wasn't recorded digitally. It was recorded on a 24-track analogue machine, and then digitally mastered. The drawback with digital recording is that it only gives you about 15% range, as far as changing speeds is concerned. As I work at a lot of different speeds, this isn't enough. But they'll change that.
I expect I'll be using digital quite soon, though. I'll cut my suit to fit the cloth, make a piece of music that doesn't require speed changes. The only reason I like to change speeds is because it does something to the timbre of sound that I like, by bringing upper harmonics into hearing range, by halving the frequency of them.
I'm starting to understand more about the harmonic structure of sound. I can make sounds, in the first place, that have a harmonic structure like the one I like. In the past, I didn't understand why slowing things down made things sound so much nicer to me. Now I understand... well, I'm beginning to understand. So now I can make them like that without slowing them down.
You've been involved with a good many exhibitions of audiovisual 'installations' recently. In view of that, do you consider yourself a musician, or an artist?
I'd say that any good musician is an artist. I think that in the archetypal sense of the words I'm both, really. I seem to spend about equal time on both... and I mix them together as well. For me there's not a big distinction, because I think about everything in the same way. I'm after the same thing... things.
If people ask me, if I'm on a bus or something, I say I'm an artist. That way they don't ask any further questions. If you say you're a musician they say 'Oooh, do you play with a group?', and I can't stand those conversations. I often invent occupations. If I don't feel like talking, I'll just say something like "import and export", and that stops people dead. They don't question you further about what you do, because it sounds so unbelievably boring. "Artist" is like that. It's the truth, but it sounds boring.
What, precisely, are the 'things' you're after in your music and your art?
That's a difficult question, not because I don't have an answer, but because I have too many answers. What I'm after is creating works of art that are as awesome as the first works of art I ever saw. I'm trying to create an experience that I think of as the artistic experience.
Obviously I can't simply duplicate the things that have affected me that way, because the familiarity of them prevents them from having that effect. The same way, I can't duplicate my own successes, because part of the creation of that effect is making something happen that you didn't expect; using materials you think you understand, to create a result you know you don't understand. The result is not predicted by the sum of the materials.
I want to make things that put me in the position of innocence, that recreate the feeling of innocence in you.
So you're often as surprised at the results of your work as someone who views it for the first time?
Oh, I always am. I think often I'm more surprised, because I know how it was made. It always seems unlikely that what I end up with has come from the process it has. I use a lot of very cold processes. They seem rather passionless if you describe them, but I think of them as... It's the same as when you're growing a garden. There's a routine part of that. You've just got to water it every day, or whatever you have to do, and it's not particularly glamourous or amazing or cosmic, you just do it. Gardening is an accretion of several processes like that.
And then suddenly, these flowers come out, and they are surprisingly beautiful and complex. What you've done is partake in a process, you haven't really controlled the process... you didn't make the flower. To see that happen always fascinates me.
When I finally make a piece that is better than, or different from, what I expected, I think: What a lovely feeling! But they don't last for long, those thoughts. I soon go back to worrying again about the next piece.
How do you go about producing a piece of music? You say you worry about it, so that's obviously the first step, but what follows?
There are many possible first steps, but they usually take one of three forms. One is worrying about it, because I've accepted a commission or something like that. The second is arriving at it from an intellectual position of considering what I've done, sifting through and rearranging it, and trying to include more. That's designing a piece of work and saying this is the kind of method I'm going to use. And the third technique is to toy with something, a new piece of equipment, a mode on the piano or something like that. Those things can start developing, of their own accord, into a feasible piece of music.
The third method is actually the way people think composers work — though it's not often true.
I don't know if you've ever heard something Samuel Beckett wrote. In that book, Westward Ho!, he says: "Try again, fail again, fail better". That's about the state of it I think. It's not a case of expecting to make a perfect piece of work, it's expecting to make a better failure than you did last time.
I really begin by allowing myself to make a mess, and then seeing if I can get out of it. There's nothing worse than a 'blank canvas'. Picasso said there's nothing worse than a brilliant beginning, and that's true. If your first move is brilliant, you're in trouble. You don't really know how to follow it; you're frightened of ruining it. So to make a mess is a good beginning — and I'm quite good at doing that.
What mechanical processes do you go through, working on a piece of ambient music?
I pick a note on the piano. I play it, or get someone else to play it, for several minutes. Sometimes it's more like several hours, piddling around with the sound until I make it sound like a drop of water falling into a pool, for example. Having done that, I then record myself, or an accomplice, playing that note every... 23 seconds, or thereabouts.
Then I do the same for another note, repeat the process, only this time playing it every 21½ seconds, perhaps. Then I'll get another note played every 17 seconds, until I begin to build up a tracery of notes which cluster together in interesting ways.
So that's a typical mechanical process — quite unexciting, really. Nothing much happens for the first eight or ten hours, doing something like that. You have to suspend your need for gratification for a while and just trust that it's going to work out.
You seem to be quite content working in this fashion, and producing ambient music. Do you have any traditional songs up your sleeve? It's still what a lot of people remember you for, after all...
People are always talking about that. They piss me off, quite honestly, because I know the very moment I decide to do an album of songs, everyone will have finally cottoned on to what I've been doing in the meantime, and they'll say "Oh, why don't you do some more Music for Airports — that was great!" That's what people will be saying in 1989. It's the story of my life!
You know, when I was doing albums of songs, nobody had the slightest bit of interest in them — except people who are now in bands.
Everyone I meet from a band says "Oh God, your albums? Great! Really liked 'em. We based our whole band on your idea."
I get this feeling that everyone who ever bought one of my records is now in a band. The mathematics of the situation would work out, I can tell you.
So you aren't going to do an album of songs in the forseeable future?
I just don't think about it, you know? If it happens, it happens. It doesn't preoccupy me much as a subject. I just do what I like doing. I always have done, and I always will... and... the proof of my pudding is that I'm still eating!
I have a wonderful life actually. Everybody I know in the business has got some kind of problem or other. They're tied into something they don't want to do.
Everybody says they don't want to write songs, but they've got to! They can't write, they don't have any ideas... all kinds of problems. They all say it. Well, I'm not short of ideas, but I don't have many for songs, so I don't write songs. I do the things I've got ideas for.
Let's talk about something you are interested in. You've been credited with playing a lot of different instruments on your various albums. What's your favourite instrument of all?
I really like pianos. Grand pianos I like a lot. And the tambura, that's a lovely instrument, a kind of four-stringed Indian drone instrument that's always used behind ragas. They pluck over the four strings so it just plays a continuous drone. I guess they're my two favourite instruments.
I like the bass guitar, too. It's the only instrument I have the remotest hope of learning to play before the end of my life — though I don't know what I'll do with it once I've learned. I have a lovely bass. It's an old 1962 Ampeg fretless, an absolutely beautiful instrument, with 'f' holes cut through it. A unique thing, really.
What is it you especially like about the grand piano?
I like it because of the complexity of its sound. If you hold the sustain pedal down, strike a note and just listen... that's one of my favourite musical experiences. I often sit at the piano for an hour or two, and just go "bung!" and listen to the note dying. Each piano does it in a different way. You find all these exotic harmonics drifting in and drifting out again, and one that will appear and disappear many times. There'll be fast-moving ones and slow-moving ones. That's spellbinding, for me.
The interesting thing about the piano is that it's kind of a compromised instrument, because of Equal Temperament. You know, no piano you've ever heard is in tune. Pianos are not tuned to be perfectly in tune. You can't do it. If you did, you could only play in one key.
That's the interesting thing about chordal music. If you were only going to play in C major, you could tune a piano perfectly in C major. That is to say that the fifth would be exactly 1½ times the frequency of the fundamental, the fourth would be exactly 1¼ times that frequency, and so on. Each interval would be a perfect ratio, the way Pythagoras planned it to be. But if you do that, you run into a problem if you want to play in any other key. This problem is called the Pythagorean comma or Syntonic comma. If you play in any other key, your fifth, for example, will be several per cent flat. This can't be avoided.
So naturally, most music is written not in C major, or any one key; it's written in several keys. Many systems have been evolved to make the compromise. What you do is say that you don't mind some notes being slightly out of tune. People usually decide it's easier to tolerate an out-of-tune third than an out-of-tune fifth, so they make their compromise on the third. There are lots of books about this. It's an interesting subject.
So you find the way people can't tune pianos interesting?
Yeah. I used to think the opposite. I used to think: Piano? Compromise! Pathetic instrument, can't be tuned.
But now I think what makes a piano so interesting is that it's generating so much complex information. Like... if you play an A at 440Hz, it generates harmonics at 880Hz, 1320Hz, 1660Hz, 2220Hz... and so on. These harmonics are very important to your appreciation of the feeling of a piano note. If you subtract these and just leave the fundamental, it won't sound like a piano.
To give you an idea of how important they are, take the example of a violin. There are about 27 audible harmonics, and they go up to really high frequencies. If you analyse a typical violin playing, for instance, a low D, you'll find that the fundamental note, which is the note everyone will say is being played, has a percentage of energy compared to its harmonics of 0.01%! So a minute fraction of the energy of the sound is in the fundamental. Most of the energy comes from the harmonics — and the fifth, for instance, is a C, so they're not even strictly related notes.
The nature of acoustic instruments — not synthesisers, I might add — is that they have these complex harmonics. Now, if you hit two notes together, even two notes that are related in a simple way like an A and an E, you get really extraordinary groups of harmonics. Not only do these notes generate their whole harmonic series, but the harmonics interact. You get both the product and the difference of them.
So the ear already hears very complex sound from a simple instrument. But, further than this, because of the problem of Equal Temperament and Just Intonation, because you can't tune a piano perfectly, you never have such a simple interval. There are much more complex numbers than these involved with a piano, and that means you get some much more exotic harmonics, which really are very transitory. It's the most extraordinary instrument for that.
Finding out about harmonics is actually a good way of understanding a lot about music, I think. And finding out about the piano, and about the history of the piano, is like studying a history of music.
So much for traditional acoustic instruments. What about electronic ones?
At the moment my favourite synthesiser is a Yamaha DX7. It's funny; it's the single most popular contemporary synthesiser. Everybody has one. But nobody knows how to program them. They arrive with these factory-set sounds and that's all most people use. They never change those sounds.
I've become very interested in programming it because it allows you to create different harmonic series quite precisely. In fact, it's really via the DX7 that I got interested in harmonics, not the other way round. I would be doing things on the DX7 and I would notice that certain number relationships were interesting. So then I started getting books about acoustics to find out what I was doing, and how that related to ordinary instruments.
It's a very good synthesiser, I think. In fact, I'm very surprised that Yamaha haven't given me one free. I didn't own one for a long time, but I bought one. I finally gave in. I can't wait for Yamaha. I'll put in a good word for you, Yamaha, even though you wouldn't give me a synthesiser! I know I'm not a big seller...
You've been quoted as saying some pretty controversial things about the purpose of music. Can you put the record straight?
That's a big question!
It doesn't have one purpose, that's the thing. It has all sorts of purposes. All of those might be subsumed into one basic pursuit... which is the pursuit of 'culture'.
OK, so what is culture? It's the way human beings transmit certain types of information to one another. There are two ways of transmitting information. One, which is often genetic, is what we all do, quite accidentally, by having children. All creatures transmit information about their environment genetically. A species is the sum total of genetic information. So, that's one way of transmitting information and it's... slow. And it is not accessible, the information is not available instantly. It's available only to the next generation.
Humans have developed another way of transmitting information, and that is 'culture'. Culture subsumes all kinds of things, like mathematics, language, art, science, all those things. These are all ways not only of understanding things about the world, but of finding ways of telling other people. Some of them are very definite, like mathematics. Latin was quite a definite form of transmission, which is why it was the universal language of the middle ages.
Others aren't so definite, but that doesn't mean they're of a lower quality of information. It just means that it's a different type of information that isn't susceptible to definite terms, definite language. Part of the nature of the information is that it has to be re-experienced and rediscovered by everybody.
I can't tell you about a musical experience. You might be able to understand my words, but it's not the same as having that musical experience. If I go and hear a new Steve Reich piece, write a report, and give it to you, you're not going to go "Oh God! It's beautiful! Oooh!" Some experiences are not susceptible to the same kind of language. So people keep making these experiences.
Culture is all human behaviour, outside of pure instinct. Everything we do is cultural: gardening, cooking, different fashions, architecture.
What artists do a lot, in music in particular, is look at culture in the world. Music doesn't depict something, it's about other music. So quite a lot of the business of 'culture merchants' like myself is studying how culture works — how it changes and how it changes us.
People who write about culture, critics and writers don't think about culture. It's not something they understand as a whole field. They think: Culture? What's that? Name of a reggae group, isn't it? And if you do say 'culture' they think it's some snobby word for some kind of arty shit; nothing to do with passion and 'on-the-strings'. But ghetto-talk is culture, as well. Breakdancing is culture. The Smiths are culture...
...What do you think of modern pop music?
I rather like them. The Smiths. I think they're a good band. I think Morrissey is an extraordinarily arrogant person, especially considering that he's probably the most successful tone-deaf singer the world has ever known. But that being said, I like his singing quite a lot, and I like their records. I could live without some of his studied miserableness, I suppose.
But I don't listen to records much.
Is that a deliberate thing, or do you find you just don't want to?
I don't think about it. I don't have a record player, funnily enough. I think life's too short to listen to records, at the moment. Well, I do listen to some things, but I usually like to listen to the same thing over and over for months.
I'm quite happy to accept that I don't know most of what's going on in the world of music. I never have done. You have a choice when you get interested in culture. You have a choice of trying to absorb it all, the American style of 'doing the sights' in two days, or else you can just decide: "I'll stay in this one place, because I like it here anyway, and I'll really understand this. I'll really find out about it". That's what I do.
I was in Venice a while ago. I had an exhibition there. Venice is a beautiful city. I'd see wolfpacks of Americans, running around with Nikons flying off their backs, bursting into quiet squares with a great crunch, going: "Ahh, where's Saaaan Marrrco?"
So I spent most of my time sitting in the back garden of a friend of mine. She has a back garden with high walls all around it, and all you can see is the tops of some other Venetian buildings. You can hear the gondolas going by.
I have the arrogance to believe that you can find out a lot more about a place that way, than you can by seeing the sights. I've seen San Marco a million times on postcards, and the real experience isn't dramatically different. But I've never had the feeling of sitting in a Venetian garden and hearing that sound of the gondolas splashing by.
Just to sit in one place and to soak up the atmosphere of that place... I mean, all spots have the same atmosphere at a given location, and somehow I think tourist sights have been robbed of their atmosphere by being tourist sights. It's as if taking too many photographs of something eventually makes it become unreal, become an image of itself. So I like, with music and with everything else, to stay in the same place for a long time... until I feel like moving somewhere else, then I stay there for a long time.
I've been living in Chelsea for a while, but I don't particularly like it. I've seen a flat this morning that I like a lot. So I might be living in a proper place soon. Expensive, though.
Are you an intellectual?
Sure! Most people are. I don't know what that word means, really. What does that word mean? Someone who uses their intellect? What do you think it means? That's my question to you.
Well, are you a person who reacts to things intellectually or do you react to things with your body?
I do them both. The former usually follows the latter. The first reaction is physical or emotional. But then I want to know why I had that reaction. I like to think why things have happened in a certain way. Is that what you mean by being an intellectual?
People usually use that word in a condemning sense, of someone who can't react in any other way, of someone who's detached from their real responses, because there's a huge body of 'theory' that dampens every situation. Well, there are certainly people like that, but I don't call them intellectuals. I call them 'clever people', 'brainy people', 'eggheads'.
...I know I have a bit of an egghead; physically it's a little bit that way I know. But that's an unfortunate accident of nature. If I were a swarthy, ruddy Italian, with a greasy forehead, nobody would ask me if I thought I was an intellectual. I could say what I liked.
I think people who say they despise intellectuals are frightened of knowledge in some way. They're frightened that to understand something is to rob it of its power. In my experience that is never true. First of all, you can never understand something totally. But when you begin to understand something, you realise how much more there is that you don't understand.
Take that book on the table there. It's a book on the paintings of Ron Kitaj. I follow his work really closely. I like it a lot. I'm always looking at his work, and reading everything I can about him... and I try to understand this guy. Now, has this lessened my appreciation of his work? No, it hasn't. I find it even more fascinating and interesting than I ever did before.
People think that to explain something is to explain it away. That's not true.
You've been fairly nervous throughout this interview. Do you like talking about yourself?
Ah... yes. Well, actually I don't particularly like talking about myself. I'm not that interesting to me, because I live with me all the time. So there's no glamour in me for me.
But I like talking about ideas. I find them terribly interesting. God! When I lived in New York, I used to like overhearing conversations at cafe tables. That's a good way of finding out about a city, as well, much better than sight-seeing. In New York, everybody talks about themselves. The word 'I' must permeate the air. If you could clean the air of every other word and just hear all the I's sticking out, it'd be like rain...I,i,i,I,i,i,I...
Everybody just babbles on about themselves. They all think they matter to the effing world. As if the existence of any of us makes any difference to anything.
One of the nice things about the kind of music I'm doing now, is that it makes me feel quite unimportant. I like that feeling. Rock music, on the other hand, tends to make you feel very important.
Interview by Alan Jensen
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