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Eno, Brian Essay, Research Paper


Brian Eno, born 1948, is a British experimental

musician and multimedia artist, producer and digital-age philosopher/aesthetician.

Eno is known for his range of innovations as

an artist, producer, and thinker. He has experimented with a wide variety

of musical and multimedia forms and technologies, and has collaborated

with and produced other ground-breaking artists like David

Bowie, David

Byrne, and Laurie Anderson. Eno is also

known for inspiring controversy and altering perspectives with his musings

on creativity, technology, art, culture, and the social change that new

aesthetic experiences could catalyze.

Eno’s Range: Devotion to


Eno is best known for his public debut with Roxy

Music in the early 1970s and for the recordings and musical collaborations,

ranging from new age "ambient" music to what has been called

"assaultive" rock, that he has generated since. However, he

has also experimented with makeup and costume design, composed soundtrack

material featured on film, television and interactive multimedia, and

developed gallery video installations. In the late ‘70s Eno established

the Obscure record label to promote experimental music. He has served

as producer for music projects that run the gamut from the New York punk

scene to the avant garde artists to a hammer dulcimer player to Edikanfo,

a pop group from Ghana.

Eno’s mission is, in part, to defy categorization and embrace paradox.

Some of his work, for example, blends elemental tribal rhythms with postmodern

fragments sampled from pop culture. Despite recognizing that most of his

work relies utterly on contemporary recording studio technologies, he

often expresses contempt for any uncritical celebration of new media technologies,

claiming that "only neo-vegetables enjoy using computers the way

they are at the moment." As a musician, he calls himself a non-musician

and associates his artistic identity with a non-musician’s perspective:

"Retaining my lack of proficiency," he says, "allows me

to make interesting mistakes." A motto of his art school days in

the ‘60s, "process not product," sustains him — Eno gives

most of his focus and importance to the next experiment on the horizon,

always mindful of remaking his own creative strategies.

When some serious fans put together an Eno

site on the World Wide Web, Eno thanked them for making him "gratefully

connected to (his) own culture," but declined to participate in the

project. He expressed some "guilt for ‘deserting my audience,’"

but "I’d rather not feel this guilt… so I avoid finding

out about situations that cause it." He feels that "admirers

can be a tremendous force for conservatism," generating a "strong

pressure … to do more of the thing we all liked so much," instead

of "just following my nose wherever it wants to go." Eno feels

that "Discovering things is clumsy and sporadic, and the results

don’t at first compare with the lauded works of the past." The

future’s potential for experimentation and spontaneity notwithstanding,

Eno’s finished products of the past testify to an artist with a well-developed

system of accumulated aesthetic and philosophical signatures that influence

each new project.

Eno in the Studio: Painting With


Eno says his "real instruments" are the tape recorder and the

recording studio. In his lecture "The Studio as Compositional Tool,"

Eno points out that the advent of recording marked a revolutionary change

in the nature of music. Before recording, music "disappeared when

it was finished, so that it was something that only existed in time."

Recording, on the other hand, "takes music out of the time dimension

and puts it into the space dimension." The audience can listen to

a performance again and again, becoming familiar with details and nuances,

so "the composer can think in terms of supplying material that would

actually be too subtle for a first listening."

Eric Tamm, a musicologist who turned his doctoral dissertation into the

popular press book Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound,

characterizes Eno’s use of the studio in terms of:

sustaining an open mind and childlike curiosity about the infinite

range of musical possibility; taking command of technology’s

array of music-making equipment, from tape recorders to synthesizers

to mixing consoles; generally working within a relatively narrow range

of expressive possibilities for any given piece; and accepting happy

accidents at any stage of the process.

Eno says he works with sound the same way he works with light in his

video installations. The ability to record each instrument and voice on

a separate track allows Eno to execute a "painterly" approach

to the creation of sounds. As Tamm puts it, "magnetic tape is his

canvas, and he applies his sound substances to that canvas, mixes them,

blends them, determines their shape… (with) enough instrumental technique

to give him his ‘pigments’…"

After all tracks are on tape, the mixing process specifically addresses

the spatial components of music. Eno identifies the mixer as "really

the central part of the studio." The pan, for example, locates the

sound within the stereo spectrum of space, and the echo determines what

Eno calls the "artificial acoustic space" of the sound. The

studio adds new criteria on which an audience evaluates music: "many

different rock records," in Eno’s opinion, "are predicated

not on a structure, or a melodic line, or a rhythm, but on a sound; this

is why studios and producers keep putting their names on records…"

Eno’s Ambient Music: A Sense

of Place

Eno pioneered what he calls "ambient" music, a heavy influence

on both the Techno grooves that drive Rave crowds and the New Age music

that smoothes the way toward inner calm for Birkenstock Buddhists and

other stress dodgers. For Eno, ambient music is a way of expanding his

exploration of the spatial aspects of music. It draws on the avant garde

experiments of John Cage,

which sought ways of receiving ordinary sounds from various environmental

contexts as art, and followed the maxim "everything we do is music."

Ambient music could be thought of as Eno’s response to Erik Satie’s

call for "music which is like furniture—a music, that is, which

will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration."

Eno cites "two major meanings" for ambient music:

One is the idea of music that allows you any listening position in

relation to it….music that can be background or foreground or


Most music chooses its own position in terms of your listening to

it. Muzak wants to be back there. Punk wants to be up front. Classical

wants to be another place. I wanted to make something you could slip

in and out of. You could pay attention or you could choose not to

be distracted by it if you wanted to do something while it was on….Ambient

music allows many different types of attention.

The other meaning is … creating an ambiance, a sense of place

that complements and alters your environment.

Ambient music exemplifies Eno’s use of electronic recording tools

to discover whole systems of artistic expression, and he is more interested

in how the system will evolve on its own than in the particular artifacts

he can sign his name to. "I usually don’t want to slavishly

make something in detail," he says, "I want to produce the conditions

from which it and many its could come into existence…. Making a record

for me is inventing a new way of making music."

Eno the Catalyst: Oblique Strategies

Eric Tamm sums up "Eno’s approach to music (as) … inventing

systems and setting them in motion." This aptly describes Eno’s

approach to producing and collaborating with other recording artists as

well. Musicians seek Eno out, knowing that when he’s thrown into

the mix they’ll be asked to discard old assumptions and approaches

and expected to play with new ones. Eno has been called one of the "archetypal

Art Floozies of the pop music world," never hesitating to plunge

into a casual encounter with a new concept.

Eno describes his collaborative strategy as trying to make "an experience

instead of music." When he worked with David Bowie, Eno wrote individual

"roles" and "scenarios" for the musicians and kept

them from knowing what roles any of the others played. One scenario, for

example, tells the musician:

It is 1999, the eve of the millennium. The world is holding its breath

and things are tense internationally. You are playing atonal ice-like

sheets of sound that hang limpid in the air….When you are featured,

you cascade through glacial arpeggios.…Between these cascades,

you fire out short staccato bursts of knotty tonality….

A system Eno used with Laurie Anderson involved "making the sound

of a landscape":

we would spend a lot of our listening time staring out of the window

over the water, watching huge boats drift noiselessly into the harbor.

For a few days, we followed a rule that everything we made had to

make sense with that view. It was liberating in that it allowed us

to accept some quite "unmusical" things—because they

worked with the view.

In the early ‘70s Eno and his painter friend Peter Schmidt discovered

they each had separately been jotting down precepts that described the

"principles underlying" their approaches to various projects

and served as ways of moving through creative blocks. Eno and Schmidt

collaborated on a deck of cards, each containing one of more than one

hundred "Oblique

Strategies," which they also referred to as "worthwhile

dilemmas." Eno would often draw a card at random and, in the spirit

of tossing I-Ching

coins, associate the corresponding written aphorism with a current need

for a shift in perspective. Some examples:

Disciplined self-indulgence

Emphasize the flaws

Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics

Mechanicalize something idiosyncratic

Ask your body

Honor thy error as a hidden intention

Three versions of the decks were released for sale in limited editions

between 1975 and 1979.

Eno’s three-album stint as a producer for the Talking

Heads, as well as his collaboration with Heads’ front man David

Byrne on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, drew heavily on the perspective-questioning

approach of the Oblique Strategies.

In Talking Heads: The Band and Their Music, David

Gans credits Eno with helping the Heads "to embrace instinct

and spontaneity and the virtue of randomness." Gans describes the

Oblique Strategies deck as

arrogant, the enemy of logic and control, reflecting contempt of

tradition and propriety—and in dealing with the Talking Heads,

it was the right tool for the job. It must have been Eno who pried

the fingers loose and set Talking Heads free, like a sometimes cruel

big brother yanking a kid’s hands from the handlebars, to show

(once the terror and panic subside) the joy of riding with no hands.

The long list of top recording artists Eno has produced or collaborated

with, which includes U2, Devo, John Cale and Robert Fripp, testifies to

his gift for reaching the core of an artist’s talent and bringing

it to the surface. As David Byrne puts it:

Eno gave me confidence in the studio, that method of not going in

with anything prepared….He has a real interesting ear for what

other people are doing. He doesn’t come up with a lot of what

you might call original ideas….But a lot of times…hears

somebody else making a weird little sound, jumps on it, and says,

"Hey that’s great—save that."

Eno the Thinker: Artistic Systems

To recognize and build contexts for good snippets of other people’s

work is, for Eno, the essence of contemporary art. Eno thinks of the digital-age

artist’s role as being much like that of a museum curator:

An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person

who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention,

and says, What I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence

of things.

…To create meanings – or perhaps "new readings," which

is what curators try to do – is to create. Period.

… cultural objects have no notable identity outside of that

which we confer upon them. …Their value is entirely a product of

the interaction that we have with them. Things become artworks not

because they contain value, but because we’re prepared to see them

as artworks, to allow ourselves to have art experiences from them,

before them, to frame them in contexts that confer value on them.

Eno is one of the first artists to embrace what artificial intelligence

pioneers have contributed to the composition process: digital technologies

that can implement choice-making systems that aesthetic experimenters

like Eno design. "I’m lazy," Eno explains, "that’s

why I like machines… I can put things into them, and then I can see

something happen there beyond what I would have had the time, the taste,

or the endurance to have produced myself." He foresees a time when

fixed versions of commercial recordings will be eclipsed by "systems

by which people can customize listening experiences for themselves….musicians

would be offering unfinished pieces of music—pieces of raw material,

but highly evolved raw material, that already has a strong flavor to it…"

For Eno, the artistic process is not so much an assertion of the self

as a way of receiving and perpetuating the evolving systems of culture.

An artist gets to work with an "incredibly broad" palette—"the

whole history of art." Art becomes, then, a way of simply allowing

universal creative forces to express themselves. Eno sometimes refers

to this process as tapping his "idiot energy," a reservoir of

awareness and revelation that he keeps returning to:

All the musical experiences that have had an important effect on

me have prompted the same feeling, of being faced with this strange

connection of familiarity and mystery embodied in the same source,

as if a door has unlocked into a whole universe of feeling that exists

somewhere deep inside. It’s the feeling of being awake, rather

than automatic. You get hooked on that feeling; everybody who has

once felt it wants it for the rest of their lives.

Essential Sources

The two best ways to take a deeper dive into Brian Eno

are 1) visit the unofficial

Eno web site and just start surfing and 2) to read Eric Tamm’s

book: Brian Eno and the Vertical Color of Sound. Either of these

can lead you to extensive discographies, bibliographies, best moments

from interesting interviews, and quirky Eno accoutrements like the Oblique

Strategies cards.

Eno, Brian "Pro Session: The Studio as Compositional

Tool," in two parts, Down Beat 50 (July 1983), pp. 56-57,

and Down Beat (Aug. 1983), pp. 50-52

Gans, David Talking Heads: The Band and Their Music

(New York: Avon Books) 1985

Kelly, Kevin "Gossip is Philosophy," interview

with Brian Eno, Wired 1995

Tamm, Eric Brian Eno and the Vertical Color of Sound

(updated edition)(New York: De Capo Press) 1995

Selected Bibliography

Eno, Brian and Mills, Russell with commentaries by Rick

Poynor "More Dark Than Shark" (Faber and Faber) 1986 (lyrics,

paintings, essays)

Loder, Kurt "Eno" Synapse Vol 3 No 1,

Jan/Feb 1979, (interview with Eno)

Rose, Cynthia "Into the Spirit World – Brian Eno

– The White Man’s Grave Look to Africa" NME, 26 July 26, 1980,

20 – 22

McKenna, Kristine "Voyages in Time & Perception"

Musician: No 48 Oct 1982

Tannenbaum, Rob "A Meeting of Sound Minds / John

Cage + Brain Eno" Musician: No 83, Sep 85) (interview with

Cage and Eno)

Prendergast, Mark "Brian Eno: Thoughts Words Music

and Art" in two parts: Sound on Sound January 1989, Sound

on Sound February 1989

Doershuck, Robert L. "One vision beyond music"

Keyboard, June 89 (interview with Eno)

Oldfield, Paul "Eno: A Patter of Life and Death"

Melody Maker, October 13 1990 (interview with Eno)

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