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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
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
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
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:
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
…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.
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
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
Eno, Brian and Mills, Russell with commentaries by Rick
Poynor "More Dark Than Shark" (Faber and Faber) 1986 (lyrics,
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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