Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville
By Lester Bangs
Part 3 of 4
Copyright 2003 Ben Catching III. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Eno walks into the recording studio, sets a reel of tape on the floor, and moves immediately to the synthesizer. Flicks a few switches, starts turning dials, and one odd sound after another fills the room--in fact, he seems to be pulling them around through the air like great worms. The tape delay system is already set up, a thin brown line stretching for about a foot between two giant tape recorders. Watching him at the synthesizers, my companion says: "Don't let him kid you; he may not play any other instruments but he knows exactly what he's doing."
What he's doing today is laying down ambient drones for an album by trumpet player Jon Hassell. A few minutes later Robert Fripp arrives to provide assistance. A few small pleasantries are exchanged between the two men, but Fripp wastes no time in unpacking his guitar, setting up, and then they begin the long slow process: Fripp will seek out a certain little succession of notes or some odd blare on his fretboard, while Eno tries various settings on the electronic bank in front of him. When they hit upon something they like, they let it flow for a while, Fripp playing the same lines over and over while Eno feels his way among the infinite possibilities of what can be done with them, and the tape delay system runs them back over and over each other building to a vast edifice. We sit on a couch down at the front of the room, right in front of the giant speakers, trying to be inconspicuous and feeling very lucky. Not many people have witnessed Fripp and Eno concerts, which is what this amounts to, Fripp standing up with one foot on a stool and the guitar on his knee while Eno bends over the board, complaining between takes about his back. What comes from the speakers over our heads layers upon itself again and again till it seems almost visible, a sonic mountain wall. Recording sessions are usually incredibly dull, but there's an atmosphere of intense, almost trancelike concentration in this room. The wordless rapport of the two men becomes palpable, then merges with the running commentary of technology in a trinity of engulfing feedback, reminding me of something Eno said during his lecture at the Kitchen festival the other day: "I'm interested in static music, but on a human level. I'm not interested in sequences, but the idea of using human beings as sequencers, because of all the little errors they put in."
During one break, he laughs: "Sounds like we've got a nice Fripp and Eno album here... I don't know about Jon Hassell," and describes their methods to the engineer as "a constructive approach to the kitchen sink."
"It's interesting," says Fripp, "that you can produce everything I've ever done on that machine."
"Yes," smiles Eno. "I just need one note."
"I'm redundant. Ta!"
Eno begins to tell him about another recent experiment: "I had a radio program going through, clipping out syllables people were saying and making melodies."
But Fripp is still fascinated, almost with an awe reserved for something creepy, by the synthesizer. "The most interesting thing about electronics is that I've spent so many years trying to extend (the) guitar musically, and you plug one of these things in and all you need is one note for all the same things. It's terrifying... Now I have to practice restraint," he adds as an almost nervously obligatory joke.
When Fripp is done, he packs up his guitar, says goodbye to all and leaves. There is little banter; it's almost as if the atmosphere of deep concentration must not be disturbed. He is barely out the door before Eno is back at the board, revving up his drones: "Well, back to the tranquil world of Brian Eno."
What's also interesting is how much you immediately miss Fripp. After hearing the two of them, one feels that Eno's tranquil world is only 50% of an organic whole which represents not electronic noodling but two people intensely listening and creating off of the way their minds seem to complete on another. A while later, when Eno has finished his drones, we mention this to him and he says: "Yes, Fripp always said he played his best guitar solos with me. I think it's because we don't get in each other's way; he's the virtuoso and I'm the... intuituoso."
Earlier, as I'd walked him to the elevator, Fripp had commented: "I just can't communicate with most musicians. It seems always that either they've got the technical chops and nothing else, or they're terrific at conceptualization and can't play."
The whole idea of ambient music is delicate enough (and subject to slipping into self-parodying formula at any moment) that one wonders whether any other two players, or either of these by himself, could do it right. In his liner notes for Music For Airports, Eno dismisses Muzak: "familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner," and insists that his contributions can be used as background (or foreground) music "without being in any way compromised… An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres... 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."
As many critics have pointed out (and as Eno himself noted in the liner notes to Discreet Music), this is very close to Erik Satie, who wanted to make music that could "mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner." (Perhaps this is why Pierre Boulez once wrote an essay entitled "Erik Satie: Spineless Dog.") One thinks also of a lot of the woodsier ECM chamber jazz recordings, and as with them even diehard fans may find that there is only so much they can take. Eno laments that "All the positive feedback I've gotten on the ambient stuff seems to be from the public; none of my friends like it much."
Depending on your point of view, Discreet Music, Eno's most passive piece, is either the definitive unobtrusively lustrous statement on ambient musics or a wispy, treacly bore that defies you to actually pay attention to it. Perhaps the Garden without the sombre reptile that is Fripp, it is also Eno's very favorite of all his recorded works, perhaps because it was the most painless to make: he just hooked up the synthesizer to a graphic equalizer, echo unit and two tape recorders, turned everything on, and left. "In a way," he says, "I think my most successful record was Discreet Music. Certainly it was in a sort of economist's terms of success, because it was done very, very easily, very quickly, very cheaply, with no pain or anguish over anything, and it's still a good record for me."
It appears, in fact, that the great and true love of his creative life is the tape recorder, and all of the things it can do. He is neither superstitious nor by-the-book about his little electronic implements, but instead regards them with a certain bemusement. "I'm very good with technology, I always have been, and machines in general. They seem to me not threatening like other people find them but a source of great fun and amusement, like grown up toys really. You can either take the attitude that it has a function and you can learn how to do it, or you can take the attitude that it's just a black box that you can manipulate any way you want. And that's always been the attitude I've taken, which is why I had a lot of trouble with engineers, because their whole background is learning it from a functional point of view, and then learning how to perform that function. So I made a rule very early on, which I've kept to, which was that I would never write down any setting that I got on the synthesizer, no matter how fabulous a sound I got. And the reason for that is that I know myself well enough that if I had a stock of fabulous sounds I would just always use them. I wouldn't bother to find new ones. So it was a way of trying to keep the instrument fresh. Also I let it decay, it keeps breaking down and changes all the time. There are a lot of things I've done before that I couldn't even do again if I wanted to."
His compositional method is entirely dependent upon tape recorders, as he neither reads nor writes music, and has occasionally complained about getting an idea for something when he's out somewhere and being unable to write it down; except that, he has also noted, some of his finest pieces (say, "St. Elmo's Fire") are impossible to notate. He "writes" by picking little things out on various instruments, running them through electronics, bringing in other musicians who more often than not have nothing in common with each other, then subjecting the basic tracks to as many overdubs as they'll need to satisfy them. If everything runs smoothly, he can emerge with something like 1975's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), the absolute incontestable Eno masterpiece to date. At least a decade ahead of its time, that record's rich textures, rhythms dancing against each other, and exotic synthesizer treatments of standard rock instrumentation revealed that Eno had already mastered his ultimate instrument: the recording studio. As the overdubs pile up in Byzantine splendor, it's easy to forget that he made this awesome tapestry with a lineup of guitar, bass, drums and percussion. Guests from Roxy Music, Portsmouth Sinfonia and other sources provided seasoning, and perhaps more than his ambient efforts, Tiger Mountain demonstrated what riches may be mined from the simplest musical materials.
The following year's Another Green World was the first application of his ambient experiments to actual songs. Where Tiger Mountain had the density and lushness of a thousand-hued tropical forest, Another Green World investigated various possibilities for small ensembles; it was chamber music reconciling the pastoral dells of Eno's geographic origins with the technological Alphaville that's his workshop.
Often, his methods make him one of the highest-price talents around, with huge studio tabs: when he went in to cut Before and After Science, he got spooked by favorable press response to Another Green World, and kept endlessly recording, revising, editing, stripping tracks and overdubbing on them again and again. He spent two years writing and recording endless new ones until he'd cut over 120 individual tracks, out of which he finally released ten. And with some anguish: he'd ultimately realized that this project was not going to just resolve itself, that he'd have to stop and release it at some arbitrary point or he'd just go on laboring over it forever.
When I said "resolve itself," I meant just that: Eno likes to believe that his music has a life of its own, and on the evidence it probably does. He likes to bring the music to a point where he can sort of step aside and let it develop of its own accord, and he has all sorts of devices for making this happen. Some are mechanical, like the Frippertronics tape-delay system, and others are more tactical and organizational, like the piece featuring David van Tieghem where the players could barely hear each other, or the set of cards called Oblique Strategies which he developed with his friend painter Peter Schmidt. The latter are a collection of more-or-less abstract directives from which one may be selected at random when one wants to change the direction in which a given piece is moving; the best-known is "Honor thy error as a hidden intention."
The main thing is that the result should be, in some sense, a happy accident. "There's two things happen, I think," he says by way of explaining his methods. "First of all, you can very laboriously set up a set of conditions, because you hope that at a certain point there'll be a--snap!--like that, which suddenly the thing will have a direction. But of course often you very laboriously will set up these conditions, and they don't generate anything. So you set it up deliberately so that it gets to the point where a synergy happens among the elements that you don't understand; it's not true that you can make something that you're finally in control of, rather the opposite thing: you can make something that extends your notion of control."
He recognizes that leaving at least part of the creative input up to chance processes and machines is asking for a certain otherness in your music, as if an outside entity were codefining it with you, and that one of the hazards of working this way is the loss of some of the more intensely passionate edges. "On the one hand the music sounds to me very emotional," he says, "but the emotions are confused, they're not straightforward: things that are very uptempo and frenzied there's nearly always a melancholy edge somehow. What people call unemotional just doesn't have a single overriding emotion to it. Certainly the things that I like best are the ones that are the most sort of ambiguous on the emotional level.
"Also, one or two of the pieces I've made have been attempts to trigger that sort of unnervous stillness where you don't feel that for the world to be interesting you have to be manipulating it all the time. The manipulative thing I think is the American ideal: that here's nature, and you somehow subdue and control it and turn it to your own ends. I get steadily more interested in the idea that here's nature, the fabric of things or the ongoing current or whatever, and what you can do is just ride on that system, and the amount of interference you need to make can sometimes be very small."
Of course, this is the sort of thing that could lead someone like New Wave guitarist Lydia Lunch to say: "Eno's records are an expression of mediocrity, because all it is is just something that flows and weaves, flows and weaves... it's kind of nauseating. It's like drinking a glass of water. It means nothing, but it's very smooth going down."
Eno himself not only recognizes such criticism but carries it further: "The corollary point is that if you're not in the manipulative mode anymore you're not quite sure actually how to measure your own contribution. If you're not constructing things and pushing things in a certain direction and working towards goals, what is your function? In fact, one of the reasons cybernetics keep coming up is that they do talk about ways of working that are different than that. They talk about systems that are self-governing, so which may not need intervention. They look after themselves, and they go somewhere which you may not have predicted precisely, which is generally in the right direction. But the assessment of these things is, of course, very difficult."
It may be that Eno has created all his systems as a way of protecting himself against a larger one. If it seems like he's all over the map (he also dabbles in video and writes occasional prose pieces for English journals), he wouldn't have it any other way, and it's not just a matter of being unusually creative, but of knowing what identification in the rock marketplace can do to anybody's creative drives. "The best thing for me would be to release each album under a different name," he said in one interview, and like many (most?) real artists he treasures his privacy. The chameleonlike quality of his whole solo career would be seen as one huge defensive tactic against being backed into corners and turned into a cliché by stardom. "I see myself often maneuvering to maintain mobility," he says. "And I'm certain one of the reasons that my whole kind of selling things is uncoordinated and clumsy is that in fact it acts as a kind of non-constraint to have it be so. The way most bands work is that they release an album, and then the next one, and then the next one, and there's this kind of linear thing, which tells them what the next album's got to be like. But what's happened with me is that since there's things coming out in all sorts of different ways, like there's Fripp and Eno and then there's Discreet Music and then there's collaborations of various kinds, then there's the occasional solo album, there isn't that kind of linearity of development. I still do retain the option of moving around, and people are gonna say, 'Well, what can you expect, he's never been consistent.' And it strikes me as a better position to be in.
"It's something that started happening by accident almost, and then I decided it was worth carrying that on. Since I often work by avoidance rather than by having a sense of where I want to go, what's often happened is that I've been faced with an option that careerwise looked tempting, and yet for some reason I didn't want to do it, so I'd just avoid it, and by avoiding I'd find that I'd gone somewhere else which can suddenly become interesting. One specific case of avoidance was the rock superstar thing, because when I first left Roxy Music the obvious future was a kind of solo career fronting a band, and I even started trying to do that. But as soon as I'd started I thought, 'I hate this, I really don't want to do this, it's really boring.' And so I started doing something else. But it wasn't what people think about artists, that you get these noble aspirations that 'I'm going to do this!' and just sort of soldier out like that. It was more a question of the other being dumb and boring and exactly the wrong role for me because I was the lead singer of this group, and I felt extremely uncomfortable as the focal point, in the spotlight. I really like the behind the scenes role a lot, because all my freedom is there. The reason I still don't tour is not that I have some ethical objection to them, but that I don't really know how to front a band! What would I do? I can't really play anything well enough to deal with that situation."
This brings up the famous "I'm not a musician" quote from early in his career, which confounds fans and critics alike to this day. It seems like a conceit turned inside out, inasmuch as I've got almost a dozen albums of his music sitting here. "Again," he almost sighs, "it was a case of taking a position deliberately in opposition to another one. I don't say it much anymore, but I said it when I said it because there was such an implicit and tacit belief that virtuosity was the sine qua non of music and there was no other way of approaching it. And that seemed to me so transparently false in terms of rock music in particular. I thought that it was well worth saying, 'Whatever I'm doing, it's not that,' and I thought the best way to say that was to say, 'Look, I'm a nonmusician. If you like what I do, it stands in defiance to that.'
"When I say 'musician,' I wouldn't apply it to myself as a synthesizer player, or 'player' of tape recorders, because I usually mean someone with a digital skill that they then apply to an instrument. I don't really have that, so strictly speaking I'm a nonmusician. None of my skills are manual, they're not to do with manipulation in that sense, they're more to do with ingenuity, I suppose."
And yet one wonders still how disingenuous all this might be. So I asked him point-blank: "Have you ever had any formal music or theory training at all?"
"Have you ever felt the pressure that you should get some?"
"No, I haven't, really. I can't think of a time that I ever thought that, though I must have at one time. The only thing I wanted to find out, which I did find out, was what 'modal' meant; that was, I thought, a very interesting concept."
Remembering how amazed I'd been to discover that I (who plays harmonica and zilch else) could play prime Eno compositions like "The Fat Lady of Limbourg" on piano, I asked him, "How well can you play, say, guitar?"
"Well, I always use the same guitar; I got this guitar years and years ago for nine pounds called a Starway, which I never changed the strings, it's still got the same strings on it. Fripp knows and loves this guitar actually, it's got a tiny, tiny little body, really small, and the reason I never changed the strings was that I found that the older they were the better they sounded when they went into the fuzzbox and things like that. I never used it except through electronics, and the duller the strings were the more that meant they got to sound just like a sine wave, so the more I could do with the sound afterwards. It's only got five strings because the top one broke and I decided not to put it back on: when I play chords I only play bar chords, and the top one always used to cut me there.
"One of the interesting things about having little musical knowledge is that you generate surprising results sometimes; you move to places which you wouldn't do if you knew better, and sometimes that's just what you need. Most of those melodies are me trying to find out what notes fit, and then hitting ones that don't fit in a very interesting way. This happened the other day in this session, when we were working on a piece and I had this idea for the two guitars to play a very quick question and answer, threenotes-threenotes, just like that, and Fripp said, 'That won't fit over these chords.' He played it slowly, what that meant, and it made this terrible crashing discord. So I said, 'You play it, I bet it'll fit,' and it did, and it sounded really nice, too. But you see I think if you have a grasp of theory you tend to cut out certain possibilities like that. Because when he explained it to me I could see quite plainly that technically it didn't fit at all. Each note was a discord with the chord that was there, not one note fitted, in the whole six notes almost.
"For me it's always contingent on getting a sound which suggests what kind of melody it should be, so it's always sound first and then the line afterwards. That's why I enjoy working with complicated equipment, because I can just set up a chain of things. Like a lot of my things are started just with a rhythm box, but I feed it through so many things that what comes out often sounds very complex and rich, and as soon as I hear a sound it always suggests a mood to me. Now, most sounds that you get easily suggest moods that aren't very interesting or have been well-explored. But working this way, I'll often find that I get pictures. I'll say, 'This reminds me of…'; like, "In Dark Trees" on Another Green World: I can remember how that started and I can remember very clearly the image that I had which was this image of a dark like inky blue forest with moss hanging off and you could hear horses off in the distance all the time, these horses kind of neighing, whinnying…"
"Was this an image from your personal experience?"
"No, it was just what the rhythm box suggested. You know, if you're in a forest the quality of the echo is very strange because you're getting echoes back off so many surfaces of all these trees at different places that you get this strange itchy ricochet effect all the time."
Since he was on the subject of Another Green World, I decided to ask him about some of the instruments listed on that album's liner, with such exotic appellations as "snake guitar," "digital guitar," and "desert guitars." In the case of the first, for instance, I had often thought that given Eno's reputation it would not be out of the question for him to lay a guitar down in the middle of the recording studio and tape the sound of a reptile belly crawling slowly across the strings.
He laughed. "Well, I certainly wish I could live up to some of those fantasies! All those words are my descriptions of either a way of playing or a sound; in that case it was because the kind of lines I was playing reminded me of the way a snake moves through the brush, a sort of speedy, forceful, liquid quality. Digital guitar is a guitar treated through a digital delay but fed back on itself a lot so it makes this cardboard tube type sound. Wimshurst guitar came about because on "St. Elmo's Fire" I had this idea and said to Fripp, 'Do you know what a Winshurst machine is?' It's a device for generating very high voltages which then leap between the two poles, and it has a certain erratic contour, and I said, 'You have to imagine a guitar line that has that, very fast and unpredictable.' And he played that part which to me was very Wimshurst indeed."
"Do you find," I wondered, because I didn't know it could be done this way, "that with musicians you often can give them verbal instructions like that, just sort of point a picture and they'll be able to do it?"
"That's normally how I do it. And I describe things in terms of body movements quite a lot. Or I dance a bit, to describe what sort of movement it ought to make in you, and I've found that's a very good way of talking to musicians. Particularly bass players, because they tend to be into the swirling hips. I'm more into the sort of puppet thing, as if you're strung somehow."
Only when he's completed the instrumental tracks does he go to work on the lyrics, and his method of arriving at them is as unique, even controversial, as everything else about how he works. What he does is sort of deduce them, in a way that can be infuriating to us word jockies. As with most of his music, Eno "finds" his lyrics by setting up a situation in which the words are produced through an interaction between his subconscious and colorations suggested by the music itself. I asked him if, working this way, he sometimes discovered a year or so later that something he hadn't even realized before was what he was getting at. "That's nearly always what happens, because the lyrics are constructed as empirically as the music. I don't set out to say anything important. It's like a painter friend of mine says about when he start working, 'It nearly always starts off with me just wanting to play paints.' As far as I'm concerned the only good work ever comes from that child at play sort of reaction, or dabbling, or really rather humble beginnings. It's getting excited about a sound or a rhythm or something very straightforward, and pushing it along and saying, 'Well, that would happen if I did this or tried that and then that and that,' and at some point this set of ingredients that you've combined in a fairly dabbling fashion suddenly produce an interaction that wasn't predicted. That's the point at which it starts to take off, because as soon as that point happens it starts to dictate its own terms. With the lyrics I have these tricks and techniques which were first conceived as a way of defeating self-consciousness about writing lyrics, and because I don't have anything to say in the usual sense. I prefer to let the music prompt something from me, see what that prompts and then examine it after the event. So what do I first is work on the track till its identity is fairly well established, I already know how it's gonna sound in terms of textures and time and speed and all that, and I just keep playing it very loud and singing along with them, just singing anything really, and sometimes that anything is just right for it. It's the only thing I do, I guess, that approaches improvising, because everything else is very pedestrian in the way it's made. What often happens is that I get an idea of how the words will fall and what their function'll be rhythmically, so I start singing or placing the syllables in a certain way, and they're just nonsense at the beginning. Then certain types of sound will emerge, like a particular vowel sound will suit a particular song. Like, for some reason, the vowel sound 'i' suited "Baby's On Fire," it's a sharp kind of thin sound; so then I'm working around two things, which is this vowel sound and this syllable construction, and quite soon words arise from that, and you only need to get about six words out of that for you then to have a good clue of what the song is going to be about. And I know it sounds extremely perverse whenever I explain it, to finally at the end of it all sit down and read it and say, 'Ah, so that's what it's about.' But what strikes me is that following this process, the preoccupations that manifest are not ones that you're necessarily conscious of at any earlier point."
"But isn't it difficult and mysterious enough to try to understand why you love a certain person?" asked my companion. "Isn't that feeling worth writing about?"
"No, not for me. I'm not interested in it. I mean, I'm not interested in writing about it. It's certainly not something I would ever use music to discuss, at least not in clear terms like that. You see, the problem is that people, particularly people who write, assume that the meaning of a song is vested in the lyrics. To me, that has never been the case. There are very few songs that I can think of where I even remember the words, actually, let alone think that those are the center of the meaning. For me, music in itself carries a whole set of messages which are very, very rich and complex, and the words either serve to exclude certain ones of those, or point up certain others that aren't really in there, or aren't worth saying, or something. It's like David Byrne said to me the other day: 'Sometimes I write something that I really can't understand, and that's what excites me.' I felt such a sympathy with that position."
Eno's unique methods have led him into several collaborations. Byrne's Talking Heads are only one of several New Wave groups who have enlisted his services as producer--like Eno, they're former art students (as are the far less interesting Devo), and their jerky erratic rhythms and at time almost psychedelic textures lend themselves perfectly to his own eccentricities via electronic treatments. He says Talking Heads are "the best working relationship I've ever had within rock music," and it definitely shows: he sounds like a fifth (and crucial, on the evidence) member of the band.
More controversial are Low, "Heroes" and The Lodger, the triology of albums co-written and performed with famous pop dilettante David Bowie. Even Bowie and Eno fans are in disagreement about them, many in either camp feeling that the other guy should have never entered the picture. The first side of Low is really interesting and some people consider The Lodger a masterpiece, but in general these sound like half-baked imitations of the Real Stuff as in Tiger Mountain, Green World, etc. They sound half-baked probably because, unlike Eno (who is one of the hardest-working people I have ever met), Bowie's not known for his long, arduous hours of disciplining craftsmanship; like Bob Dylan, he likes to just hit the studio, cut the sides as fast as possible and head out to the next party. "I think his problem is that he just doesn't give himself any time. He's always got too much to do, and I guess he thinks that the music is just gonna appear magically in his head, and that's an illusion. You have to work hard, you really have to take a lot of time at it. It means withdrawing in some sense from the world--you don't have to stop living wherever you live or whatever, but it does mean you just can't carry on a fullscale social life and a fullscale film career, for instance, and do tours and all that and write music. You just can't do it, you run out after a while. And so I think what happened was that he just wanted to do too much, and because the stock of whatever creative impulse that he had is getting depleted--now I think he's a great artist, I just tell you this--so what happens is that he takes other people for that source idea. In quite a few cases the songs we've written together started with me, like me working on my own or working with musicians. Actually we do it all different ways, sometimes they start with him, sometimes he's got a song already written which is finished which he presents to people. Other times it has started from just a sound again. Like the song "Moss Garden," I got this sound on the CS-80, a really beautiful sound, and I said 'Why don't we put some of this down and later I'll put some chords down and maybe we can stick it into something else.' As it turned out, this simple chord sequence was nice, and became the song."
Working this way, without any set rules for the music and no real message for the lyrics to impart, Eno would seem to have no real way of judging the merit of various records beyond the purely arbitrary. So I asked him how he decided, say, that Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) was totally successful where Before and After Science was not. "Actually it usually depends on how much they're a source for later work. For me Tiger Mountain is a kind of magic album; there's so much in there that I just wasn't conscious of putting in at all. That's a prime example of just having a good time, really, and for years afterwards seeds in that still keep coming up, I still find things in that record that surprise me. Whereas some of the others are just dead ends; they can go no further and they stop there. I feel that about Before and After Science. A cut like "Backwater" is trivial--I'm curious as to why I would do it; I was listening to my first album again the other day, to "Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch," and thinking, 'What a dumb idea that was.' It's too one-dimensional or something, I don't know quite what it is. I like things which have a surface pattern and look like one thing but have a resonance which is much larger underneath them. And I suppose that's what I judge as being successful, when the resonance is bigger than the thing itself. Like all those Velvet Underground things: beyond the fact that they're rock songs there's a whole cultural ring to them, which they communicate or indicate somehow. Some of those trivial things don't have that for me; that's why I call them trivial, because they are just what they are, and stop at being that."
There may be a bit of disingenuousness here, and then again maybe not. Eno's favorite Velvet Underground album is their third, in which the lyrics are all-important, but when I pointed out to him the contradiction between this and his declared disinterest in lyrics he seemed to have no idea that Lou Reed's lyrics there were about sin, guilt and redemption. In fact, he praised them for their "emotional ambiguity," and liked them, he said, precisely because he thought nobody would be able to figure out why a band with such a "degenerate" reputation would be singing a song about Jesus.
As to the social and psychological implications of what Eno is doing, what one critic even went so far as to call "the germ of a new social order," I'm still not sure whether he realizes either how much time is on his side and the future really is his real estate, or how frightening some of the potential implications might be. On the one hand, it's very nice to contemplate the possibility of wiping out the distinctions between artist and audience; on the other hand, he seems distinctly to be begging the question when he says things (often) like: "Art never threatens me because it's never real life. That belongs to the hypothesis that says, 'This music is the embodiment of a passion of some kind, a real living passion.' It doesn't have to be that. The way I see it is that it's the extension of a possibility. And frequently that going even further leads you into progressively more barren territory rather than more fruitful territory. But nonetheless it's still just art, you know, it's not real life. And it's still just an experiment."
There is something just a little too comforting about this insistence that this stuff takes place totally outside of the world's arena. Music stirs people, in one way or another; it can be used for evil purposes, it can make evil things happen. One thinks of the stories of Jews in World War II who reported finding themselves excited by Nazi songs even as they knew there were the anthems of their own destruction. Rock is a form of music, let it be admitted, particularly susceptible to the creation of mass states of pointless rage and destructiveness, although Eno's music, if it ultimately has any social consequences at all, points in the opposite direction: towards pacification. His stance makes you sometimes wonder if he couldn't go merrily along creating his pleasant little ambient tapes under the most totalitarian regime, which leads you to further speculate that it might have been amoral in the first place.
Furthermore, one wonders just how comfortable one ought to be with his buddybuddy attitude towards all these machines. Certainly it is ignorant and superstitious to regard technology as evil in and of itself, but when an alien otherness has crept into all the popular arts (as it has here, now), and when those arts seem in some cases specifically designed to kill what emotions might remain within individual human breasts in the audience, then Eno's position in regard to such matters might seem at least a form of appeasement. Here is his response to a comment on the relationship between disco music and technological depersonalization, and disco's tendency to bring out the more robot-like qualities in both its performers and audience: "It might be something else as well: a tendency on the part of people not just to become more robotic but more insect-like, part of the hive, you know, part of the termite's nest, where the entity is still organic, still probabilistic in a sense that a robot isn't. You know, it's not a deterministic entity, it slots perfectly into a larger system. However, the larger system not being defined by the traditional hierarchies (which don't operate very well anymore) is still undefined, and I can see all these things as fumbling attempts to be accommodative, to start to accommodate the idea."
"You don't think the idea of human life as an insect hive is sort of frightening?"
"I'm not sure what I think of it. I think in some ways I find it an attractive idea, actually, and yet there's another part of me that says, 'Come on, now, you can't be serious!'"
This, of course, is where the art-for-art's sake business stops and we have to ask some hard questions. In his attitude towards women, Eno is definitely an Englishman, and in his lyrics he's really good with landscapes, the elements, science and the blue August Moon--but what about his attitudes toward the human race, individually or collectively, and the consequences of their actions?
Personally, he is a very warm and seemingly open man, yet one wonders how possible it would be for anyone to really get to know him. I asked him once if he sometimes felt lonely and he said he had no memory of ever feeling that way. As for relationships--friendship, love, etc.-- as he himself will tell you, he is very much an out of sight, out of mind person.
His music, of course, is sort of depersonalized, and does seem to raise certain issues having to do with just exactly who's in the driver's seat, or who or what you're prepared to surrender it to. Yes, we entrust ourselves to technology every waking and sleeping minute, but with so much of what we experience today so pathetically diluted it seems strangely profligate to actually work to dilute it further. And when he is communing with his mechanical bride, who or what is communing back? There is no more reason to suppose that the voice rising from the feedback belongs to the pure and just than there is to consign these tools to demonology. Satan is of course not in the whirling belly of that gadget, but if there is a consciousness there, a knowing with a will, we at least deserve a glimpse of its eye which we are at least theoretically up against. Eno could be Alphaville's PR man reporting back to us with a smile and a shoeshine, or just a technoscout, at play in the fields of the lord, riding sunbeams and atoms. It is certain that there is an otherness at work in his music, but one often suspects it to be the hollow mysticism of the trackless microcosm of technology, rather than the Eastern Light apprehended in a radar blip. What we do look into when we come fact to fact with that which is spiritual and not human?
On the other hand, perhaps this all will ultimately amount to still waters that don't necessarily run deep; perhaps he has mistaken the buzzing of a TV test pattern for OMMMMMM. He first became obsessed with ambience after a brush with death via automobile accident, and if the art that he and so many of his peers are creating seems kind of weatherless, it could be because neither they nor the public want to recognize the raw edges and deeper flames; it could be that they associate any kind of intense feeling with death. In which case, Eno's work might be the ultimate sonic sartorial for the depersonalized, narcissistic sophisticate of the present and immediate future. But this refusal-- or inability-- to ultimately commit to anything in particular may well be what could ultimately prevent it from being great art. There are value systems beyond that which is merely "interesting" or useful for further experiments in the work of people like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Iannis Xenakis, George Crumb--everybody, really, who ever finally mattered-- and they all had specific humanistic social applications. We live at the first time in human history when the basic humanity of a given piece of art might be considered suspect, but maybe all that means is that ultimately no one will care about such works.
An alternative conclusion in Eno's case might be that his work embodies a sort of Zen approach to music, but even accepting that means that one must allow Eastern philosophy and technocracy into the same bed. The trouble with technocracy, of course, is that even if Eno is right and machines left to their own devices do tend to do the right thing, it seems an unfortunate fact of life in the present that the more human beings are confronted by the endless rightness of machines, the more inclined they become to surrender the reins entirely. In which case technology effectively becomes evil by sheer default, and Eno collaborates or at least flirts with his own oppression by the workings of those very systems which he embraced to avoid death by action: I've wondered many times if things like "Discreet Music" might not be leading down a path of passivity which ultimately would mean creative entropy. Meanwhile, he says that Music For Airports was seriously designed "to resign the listener to the possibility of death" in flight, and replies to the inevitable questions about potentialities for mind and crowd control with, "I've never thought of that actually as a possibility, because to me it's fun you see, actually, and I've never thought that anything that's fun could be used for crowd control."
Maybe not. And maybe he will ultimately help us all to make a more complete (and uncompromised) peace with all these machines which he perceives as machines of loving grace, as perhaps anyone as individualistic as himself would have to be repulsed by life in the hive. In a strange way, his music raises these issues in spite of itself; in the final analysis, not only Brian Eno's whole career but what might even be his real contribution to the human future could prove to be one huge happy accident.
See Part 4 of 4 of
"Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville"
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