The Working Life of Brian Eno, by Sasha Frere-Jones | 07/07/2014
Relying on improvisation and collaboration, Eno has produced critically revered albums by the Talking Heads, David Bowie, and U2. Relying on improvisation and collaboration, Eno has produced critically revered albums by the Talking Heads, David Bowie, and U2. Credit Photograph by Richard Burbridge
In January, 1975, the musician Brian Eno and the painter Peter Schmidt released a set of flash cards they called “Oblique Strategies.” Friends since meeting at art school, in the late sixties, they had long shared guidelines that could pry apart an intellectual logjam, providing options when they couldn’t figure out how to move forward. The first edition consisted of a hundred and fifteen cards. They were black on one side with an aphorism or an instruction printed on the reverse. Eno’s first rule was “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” Others included “Use non-musicians” and “Tape your mouth.” In “Brian Eno: Visual Music,” a monograph of his musical projects and visual art, Eno, who still uses the rules, says, “ ‘Oblique Strategies’ evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation—particularly in studios—tended to make me quickly forget that there were other ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.”
Eno is widely known for coining the term “ambient music,” and he produced a clutch of critically revered albums in the nineteen-seventies and eighties—by the Talking Heads, David Bowie, and U2, among others—but if I had to choose his greatest contribution to popular music it would be the idea that musicians do their best work when they have no idea what they’re doing. As he told Keyboard, in 1981, “Any constraint is part of the skeleton that you build the composition on—including your own incompetence.” The genius of Eno is in removing the idea of genius. His work is rooted in the power of collaboration within systems: instructions, rules, and self-imposed limits. His methods are a rebuke to the assumption that a project can be powered by one person’s intent, or that intent is even worth worrying about. To this end, Eno has come up with words like “scenius,” which describes the power generated by a group of artists who gather in one place at one time. (“Genius is individual, scenius is communal,” Eno told the Guardian, in 2010.) It suggests that the quality of works produced in a certain time and place is more indebted to the friction between the people on hand than to the work of any single artist.
The growing influence of this idea, ironically, makes it difficult to see clearly Eno’s distinct contributions to music—his catalogue of recordings doesn’t completely contain his contribution to the pop canon. When someone lies on the studio floor and sings at a microphone five feet away, Eno is in the air. When a band records three hours of improvisation and then loops a four-second excerpt of the audiotape and scraps the rest, Eno has a hand on the razor blade. When everybody except for the engineer is told to go home, Eno remains. Behind Eno stand John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Erik Satie, but those guys didn’t make pop records.
It feels odd to call Eno’s new album, “High Life,” released this week, a collaboration. Credited to Eno and Karl Hyde, of the electronic duo Underworld, “High Life” is indeed the work of several people. But deciding that any one project of Eno’s is a collaboration seems off, because collaboration is Eno’s primary mode. Eno’s first recorded work was the sound of a pen hitting a lamp. Who deserves credit for that—Eno, the pen, or the lamp?
Born on May 15, 1948, in Woodbridge, Suffolk, he was christened Brian Peter George Eno. His father, William, was a postman, and his mother, Maria Buslot, who was Flemish, stayed home. When Eno was eleven, he entered St. Joseph’s College, a Catholic grammar school in Ipswich. According to “On Some Faraway Beach,” David Sheppard’s excellent biography, the school encouraged students to incorporate some part of the school’s religious heritage into their identities, so Eno called himself Brian Peter George Jean-Baptiste de La Salle Eno, after the patron saint of teachers. Eno has long had a vaguely aristocratic bearing, implacable and seemingly above the fray, which makes it seem plausible that he came from a long line of European clerics. People often refer to Eno now as a boffin, or describe him as looking like a professor or an architect. When I met him, in 2013, he was wearing a variety of comfortable fabrics that I couldn’t identify. He looked like someone who owns lots of expensive things, which he does, and is used to being listened to, which he is.
After St. Joseph’s, Eno attended the Ipswich Art School, beginning in 1964, and then moved on to the Winchester School of Art, in 1966. At Ipswich, he studied under the unorthodox artist and theorist Roy Ascott, who taught him the power of what Ascott called “process not product.” Having never mastered an instrument, Eno began experimenting with tape recorders, at the urging of an instructor and friend named Tom Phillips, who introduced him to the work of John Cage and the Fluxus group. At Winchester, Eno performed “Drip Event,” by the Fluxus member George Brecht. The entire “score” of “Drip Event” reads: “Erect containers such that water from other containers drips into them.” Eno then wrote a piece whose instructions read:
The instruments are in turn
ground down and individually
cast into blocks of acrylic
resin. The blocks are given to
Now the music begins . . .
Though Eno drew and painted at both Ipswich and Winchester, he left school with no plans to become a fine artist. “I thought that art schools should just be places where you thought about creative behavior, whereas they thought an art school was a place where you made painters,” he said later.
“I think negative ambition is a big part of what motivates artists,” Eno told me. “It’s the thing you’re pushing against. When I was a kid, my negative ambition was that I didn’t want to get a job.” After leaving Winchester, in 1969, Eno moved to London and became involved with a sprawling group called the Scratch Orchestra, led by the composer Cornelius Cardew. The orchestra conducted various “happenings,” some of which involved promenading through public spaces while playing; almost all of its work emphasized improvisation over technical skill.
In 1970, Eno ran into the saxophonist Andy Mackay, a friend he’d met while at Winchester. “Have you still got some tape recorders?” Eno recalls Mackay asking him. “I’m in this band, and we need to get some proper demos made.” Mackay owned a small synthesizer, operated with a joystick and small pinboard, which he encouraged Eno to take home and experiment with—a moment in pop history that is roughly equivalent to Jimi Hendrix’s discovering feedback. Eno mastered the instrument by using it as something other than an instrument. He fed the band’s music into the synthesizer, then sent the processed result through various tape decks and out through a P.A. system whose elements he’d collected over the years. The band began rehearsing in Eno’s house, with Eno acting as “sound manipulator,” a cross between a live-sound engineer and a band member. The outfit’s leader, Bryan Ferry, eventually chose the name Roxy Music. By the end of 1972, the band was famous in the United Kingdom, no member more so than the partly bald man with his long hair painted silver. Eno started his live career with Roxy Music by setting up at the back of the venue and ended up onstage, sometimes playing his synthesizer with an oversized plastic knife and fork.
Tired of butting heads with Ferry, Eno left the band in 1973, after two albums. It was his last stint as a permanent member of a touring act. But he was still under contract with Island Records, which had faith that Eno could become his own kind of pop star. In 1974, with various musician friends he’d collected over the years, he released two albums, “Here Come the Warm Jets” and “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).” The first album yielded a minor hit, “Baby’s on Fire,” written on the day Eno walked out of a meeting with Roxy Music, burdened with debt but so happy to be out of the band that he felt like jumping in the air. Both albums are perverse, slightly agitated, and playful, with many of the lyrics generated randomly and cut together from various sources (mostly Eno’s own notebooks).
Eno began “Another Green World” (1975), his third solo release and a gentle masterpiece, without having written any material. By prodding a group of musicians to improvise and then editing that material, he created something consistent and coherent. The album is stubbornly placid: distorted guitars heat without burning, bass lines circle without begging for change, and drums are placed so as to suggest upward growth more than forward motion. It is a very hard album to wear out. There is also a fair amount of singing, which somehow you forget every time you look at the album cover. The record fulfills the implied promise of the title, making the trace of a human voice surprising every time. Reflecting on the work, Eno said, “Someone told me that he read an interview with Prince, where Prince said that the record which most influenced him was my ‘Another Green World,’ which was incredibly flattering. It’s my understanding that Prince had picked up on the idea that you could have records that were kind of sonic landscapes with vocals on them, and that’s sort of what ‘Another Green World’ was.”
For most of his career, Eno has stuck to manipulating synthesizers or tape, give or take a digital innovation, and is credited on many albums as providing “treatments.” But he has taught himself most of the standard rock instruments, and sings on most of his own recordings. (For many years, he has been holding a weekly chorus of nonprofessional singers in London.) The credits for “Another Green World” make it clear that Eno was almost as interested in changing the language of rock as he was in saying anything specific. He is listed as playing several previously unknown varieties of guitar: “castanet,” “club,” “desert,” “digital,” and “snake,” in alphabetical order. His careful but violent processing makes these names more accurate than you’d expect. In fact, Eno had already described the “snake guitar” to NME’s Ian MacDonald two years earlier: “ ‘Snake guitar’ requires no particular skill . . . and essentially involves destroying the pitch element of the instrument in order to produce wedges of sound that can be used percussively or as a kind of punctuation.” Use non-instruments.
The pairing of “In Dark Trees” and “The Big Ship” on side one of the LP presents Eno’s developing blend of odd and peaceful. The music is unobtrusive and instrumental: the first track is two and a half minutes, the next one barely three. “In Dark Trees” feeds a primitive rhythm generator (it was not yet called a drum machine) through the synthesizer, producing a tannic stutter. One guitar voices small unresolved chords that chatter through yet more echo. A second guitar enters after a minute and plays a slow minor-key figure that slides down the neck. It repeats three times, fading out on the fourth round. “The Big Ship” is anchored by a synthesizer playing unceasing sustained chords that suggest a hymn. (Hymns have been an obsession of Eno’s since childhood.) A guitar rises up in a distorted swell, following the chords closely, playing the root note of each one. The chords cycle without changing, though a contrapuntal arpeggio sneaks in and plays against the chords as they fade. The two songs quickly sketch two different spaces, one moist and shrouded, the other warm and open. By ignoring the virtuosic, personality-led rumble that his former bandmates in Roxy Music were making, Eno was moving toward a music that changed your perception of the space around you. Geography could be as memorable as melody.
Eno’s strategies don’t always appeal to the musicians he works with. In Geeta Dayal’s book about the album, also titled “Another Green World,” the bassist Percy Jones recalls, “There was this one time when he gave everybody a piece of paper, and he said write down 1 to 100 or something like that, and then he gave us notes to play against specific numbers.” Phil Collins, who played drums on the album, reacted to these instructions by throwing beer cans across the room. “I think we got up to about 24 and then we gave up and did something else,” Jones said.
In 1972, not yet a producer, Eno made his first visit to New York. He told Disc magazine that he already felt “emotionally based” in the city. In 1978, Eno returned to New York, ostensibly for a short stay, but remained until 1984. He said that “one of the most exciting months of the decade . . . in terms of music” occurred in the summer of 1978.
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Through friends, Eno heard about No Wave, then the dominant style for downtown bands who were taking punk to its logical extremes—abandoning song form, playing entirely outside of formal tunings, and foregrounding noise over signal. For the compilation “No New York,” which Eno produced for Antilles Records, he picked a number of bands to represent the scene. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, DNA, and the Contortions were included on the album, a fair slice of the smartest and most aggressive bands of the time. The album became famous, years later, as a reflection of a moment, but it is also valuable because many No Wave bands recorded so little during their brief careers. These four bands, however, did make recordings, which are all truer to their spirit than Eno’s vision of them. They all exhibited a faith in dissonance, distortion, or confrontation—sometimes all at once. The “no” in No Wave was important, and Eno, as sharp as he was to recognize the scene, still operated with a spirit based on the continuous Yes. “No New York” disoriented and teased where it needed to punch and bite.
Right around the release of “No New York,” Eno produced “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!,” the début by Devo, the visionary band from Ohio. Producing DNA, Devo, and Talking Heads in the same year shows impeccable taste. But taste is not an act—it’s an opinion. On the astonishing, criminally out-of-print “Devo Live: The Mongoloid Years,” you can hear Devo performing at Max’s Kansas City in 1977. Even in low fidelity, their rendition of “Uncontrollable Urge” is merciless, an inhuman sound that summons a human reaction. Few bands have had a similar combination of hostility and control. Under Eno’s watch, “Uncontrollable Urge” became slower and tranquillized—it moved with an unnecessarily light swing. Devo’s Jerry Casale told the Guardian, in 2009, that the band found Eno’s approach “wanky.” “We were into brute, nasty realism and industrial-strength sounds and beats,” Casale said. “We didn’t want pretty. Brian was trying to add beauty to our music.”
What became increasingly clear in the seventies was that Eno’s embrace of possibility and chance wasn’t as free-form as it seemed—it was a specific aesthetic. His name shows up on very few records you would describe as hard or aggressive, and his love of the perverse has never been rooted in hostility. Eno fights against received wisdom and habit, but rarely against the listener.
In fact, as Eno found more ways for technology to carry out his beloved generative rules, his music became less and less like rock music and closer to a soundtrack for meditation. The same year that he released “Another Green World,” he also put out “Discreet Music.” The A side was a thirty-minute piece that was written as much by machines as by Eno. In the liner notes, Eno wrote, “If there is any score for the piece, it must be the operational diagram of the particular apparatus I used for its production. . . . Having set up this apparatus, my degree of participation in what it subsequently did was limited to (a) providing an input (in this case, two simple and mutually compatible melodic lines of different duration stored on a digital recall system) and (b) occasionally altering the timbre of the synthesizer’s output by means of a graphic equalizer.”
The result is an area of sound without borders or time signature. There is no rhythm track, just layers of monody, lines programmed into a synthesizer and playing over each other. It is hypnotic, and fights your attempts to focus on it. In 1978, he started to use the term “ambient music”: the concept stretched back to describe “Discreet Music” and the work of earlier composers, like Satie, who coined the term “furniture music,” for compositions that would be more functional than expressive. In the liner notes of “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978), Eno wrote, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
But “Music for Airports” was not nearly as docile as Eno wanted it to be. Though the music is gentle enough to be background music, it is too vocal in character and too melodic to be forgotten that easily. I can recall entire sequences without much difficulty. As much as Eno wanted his music to recede, and as potent as the idea was, he failed by succeeding: the album is too beautiful to ignore. But, in some ways, history and technology have accomplished what Eno did not. With the disappearance of the central home stereo, and the rise of earbuds, MP3s, and the mobile, around-the-clock work cycle, music is now used, more often than not, as background music. Aggressive music can now be as forgettable as ambient music.
In May, 2013, Eno gave a talk at the Red Bull Music Academy, in New York. Interviewed by the journalist Emma Warren, Eno said that he had created music for a hospital in Brighton, most of it not commercially available. We heard a snippet—it was Eno music, for sure, with muffled bell tones and sustained notes that avoided either high or low extremes in pitch. As much as this may be a default sound for Eno, he sees his music as addressing the parasympathetic part of the nervous system, which, he said, “deals with digest and rest, and calm down and connect things together, and so on.” It was as if Eno had been drawn to a set of sounds that he has spent his life working with, only to find out later why he chose them.
Eno told me that he heard from a fan who manages a supermarket in London and decided to play “Discreet Music” there. A week later, Eno went to visit him. “He said, ‘It was lovely—people stayed much longer in the shop and bought far less.’ I thought that was a very nice thing to say about the music.”
The most successfully ambient of Eno’s ambient albums is the 2012 release “Lux.” The core of the piece is twelve patterns, which use only the notes corresponding to the white keys on a keyboard. Eno brought an early version of the piece to a gallery in the Palace of Venaria, near Turin. He said that the gallery, a long space connecting two wings, is “all stone and glass, so it’s very echoey.”
The first version of the piece didn’t work in the space, so Eno began reworking it. He used the “convolution reverb” feature of the popular music-programming software Logic Pro. It allows you to record a sound—like a handclap—in a space, and then produce a simulation of that space’s natural resonance. In the privacy of his London studio, Eno could play sounds “in” the Venaria gallery.
He found a certain register, between three and five kilohertz, that “really seemed to sing in that space,” and directed the piece toward that range. The musician Leo Abrahams played a guitar-synthesizer hybrid, and the violinist Nell Catchpole played along to the original patterns.
“The process of making the skeleton of it was generative, in the sense that I set in motion various processes and let them do their thing,” Eno told me. “But what was different this time was I thought, O.K., I’m going to listen to that, and I’m going to find out where the sort of moments are that something unusual happens, something you didn’t expect happens, and I’m going to work on them—so from a generative beginning I then went into composer mode, basically, which I haven’t ever done before. In the past, I’ve really let the thing just carry on, do its thing.”
The result is both remarkable and almost impossible to remember. I’ve listened to “Lux” as often as any of Eno’s work, but I don’t think I could reproduce five sequential seconds, even by humming. I just know it.
Eno has two new albums made in collaboration with Karl Hyde, “High Life” and its companion, “Someday World,” released in May. “Someday World” uses unfinished pieces from the early nineties that Eno described as “polyrhythmic musical textures.” Hyde played guitar over these tracks and contributed most of the lyrics, which are stripped of ego in an appropriately Eno-like fashion: many began with phrases Hyde heard spoken on the streets.
One of the album’s shortcomings is its thin sounds. This is odd, as Eno is typically adept at processing sounds until they are pleasantly far in timbre from their source. The horns embedded in “The Satellites” and “Daddy’s Car” blat feebly, recalling a dog toy underfoot. The few pleasures on “Someday World” are Hyde’s plainspoken but unpredictable lyrics, his stringent guitar playing, and the woody thrum of Eno’s multitracked voice. (Hyde provides the album’s main vocals.) “Who Rings the Bells” is the song to keep. Two guitars chip out interlocking patterns over a simple, active beat. Hyde’s vocal phrases are long and relaxed, occasionally sung with another voice in harmony. “Who rings the bells? Who pulls the rope? Who barks like a dog?” He sings these words with the same languor Eno exhibited on his solo albums of the seventies, as if pitches were both easy to hit and not that important. Finally, though, “Someday World” is, at best, a good advertisement for Hyde as a singer and guitar player and a terrible introduction to Eno.
Much better is “High Life,” recorded in April, after “Someday World.” Wanting to extend their work together, Eno and Hyde decided to record in front of several journalists. With typical Eno perversity, this surprise appendix easily outstrips the main text. Eno and Hyde sound energized and make forty-five minutes—the same length as “Someday World”—fly by. “Return” is built from Hyde playing his guitar with what sounds like a drumstick, making a clacking eighth-note ostinato that almost rings a chord while also muting it. Several layers of this guitar playing build up a pleasantly shifting rhythmic center, like Steve Reich’s moiré patterns. Hyde sings out loud in harmony, and the whole song rises imperceptibly, forcefully, and then ends, nine minutes feeling like four. “DBF” is an instrumental derived from the same ideas undergirding the earlier Eno productions “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” and “Remain in Light”—the clipped guitar sounds and drumming architecture of Afrobeat tricked out with, as the album credits put it, “slicing and treatments.” It’s alive and fluid, as comfortable and sure of itself as “Someday World” is past its sell-by date. The best sonic collision is “High Life” ’s third track, “Time to Waste It,” which pairs voices with a reggae rhythm, quiet and driven only by a trace of percussion. The dangers of British people futzing around with reggae—a clear and present menace, now and forever—are deftly avoided by making everything on the track (except for guitar upstrokes) sound like anything but reggae. Hyde’s processed voice is eerily like Dolly Parton’s, even when it’s massed up high in digital reverb. This is Eno’s comfort zone—elements you’ve heard before, turned over and laid across each other at funny angles, rejecting the standard order yet admitting pleasure.
In 1980, Eno produced the Talking Heads’ ”Once in a Lifetime,” one of the songs that I manage to remain intimidated by no matter how often I play it. Like most of “Remain in Light,” the album on which it appears, the track is heavily indebted to the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti, the influential Nigerian bandleader whose music Eno introduced to David Byrne. Eno’s production of this transparent, polyrhythmic light box, it turns out, is based on a mistake—his own. “That song was a very good case of people not agreeing about the one,” he told me, referring to the first beat of each measure. “I always heard it in a different place from everyone else, so I just kept sort of building things onto my one.” Eno’s haphazard instinct helped turn the brittle and wary Talking Heads into a supple, playful, Dada-esque dance band. Eno often works with highly skilled musicians, and then asks them to play against their own virtuosity. In this, he reminds me of Matisse, whose late work is his least ponderous: the scissor cuts of paper, often in leaflike shapes, are also a sort of rule-based art. He could no longer paint, so the method had to fit his body. And it was better. The scissors determined the aesthetic as much as his brain did.
“I have a trick that I used in my studio, because I have these twenty-eight-hundred-odd pieces of unreleased music, and I have them all stored in iTunes,” Eno said during his talk at Red Bull. “When I’m cleaning up the studio, which I do quite often—and it’s quite a big studio—I just have it playing on random shuffle. And so, suddenly, I hear something and often I can’t even remember doing it. Or I have a very vague memory of it, because a lot of these pieces, they’re just something I started at half past eight one evening and then finished at quarter past ten, gave some kind of funny name to that doesn’t describe anything, and then completely forgot about, and then, years later, on the random shuffle, this thing comes up, and I think, Wow, I didn’t hear it when I was doing it. And I think that often happens—we don’t actually hear what we’re doing. . . . I often find pieces and I think, This is genius. Which me did that? Who was the me that did that?” ♦