A queue begins to form at the entrance to the British Library a good two hours before the guest of the evening, Brian Eno, is due to begin his lecture. The audience already have their tickets, but they are here extra-early to enjoy the music that is promised before the lecture begins.
Once inside, we are treated to some floaty, trance-like, mostly mellifluous background sound over the PA as we order drinks over the bar. No one is paying particular attention to Eno’s music. It is just there. But a mood develops. A sense of relaxed anticipation.
Eno is introduced (“musician, artist, thinker”), sets up his laptop, and delivers a polished and good-humoured analysis of his life-long relationship with sound and vision, with some fruity philosophical detours along the way. He is here, as part of the BL’s “Season of Sound”, to talk about a new six-CD compilation of his “Music for Installations”, a collection of his ambient pieces.
Eno is a unique figure in British cultural life, bursting into prominence as a pop star, helping to make, with his Roxy Music bandmates in 1972, one of the most accomplished, radical and accessible debut albums of the pop era, and then abruptly leaving that particular scene as quickly as he had entered it. His subsequent mission, he tells us simply, has been to investigate “how simplicity can produce complexity”, which is not something he had in common with his fellow glam-rockers of the early 1970s.
After the lecture, the music returns, but not so that you would notice. The ambience feels just fine.
Three weeks later, sitting with him in his Notting Hill home, I ask Eno how it felt to be regarded as something like the godfather of a type of music that had become extremely fashionable — think Ibiza chill-out bars, spa soundtracks, the delicate grooves of minimalist hotel lobbies — but that nobody really paid very much attention to.
“When I first came up with the idea of utilitarian music, it was very, very unpopular,” he concedes. “It meant muzak. It was music reduced, stripped of its fundamental cultural importance. And that was my biggest hurdle. Artists were supposed to want people’s 100 per cent attention.” What interested him instead was, “what was the least that I could do with music; how much could I leave out? What if I made music that was just like an atmosphere?”
He took his cue from the lighting in his Maida Vale flat. “It was quite a dark flat, and I was amazed by the difference the lights made, whether you had violet lights on the floor, or orange lights on the ceiling.” Light creates mood. “But nobody looks at the bloody bulb. And that is what has been happening in music. We’ve been looking at the bulb.”
Eno’s ambient pieces and installations have been at the heart of his work ever since, as he left the pop world behind, although he continued to be a key figure in the recording studio, most famously in his work with David Bowie. He says he quickly lost interest in narrative music-making altogether, not least the limited relationship dramas of most rock music.
“I decided very early on [when writing] that if I missed out the words “I”, “you” and “love”, I would automatically be in new territory.”
He would not return. Eno remains aloof from rock nostalgia, finding today’s prevalence of comeback tours “grotesque”.
I ask him to explain the remark about producing complexity from simplicity, and he draws a pyramid on a piece of paper, and points to the top. “This is God, or the Pope, or the orchestra conductor. And information flows this way only,” he draws lines from top-to-bottom. “There is no feedback, other than something dramatic like a revolution.”
The traditional model of music operated like this, he says. “The symphony: it is inspired by the divine; it enters the composer’s head; he writes it down and passes it to the conductor, and then the leaders of the orchestra, then the section principals, and then down to the rank and file. There is this idea that the music is already in existence, in the mind of God or the composer, and it is our purpose to realise it.
“Now, as a working musician, I know it doesn’t happen like that. I have seen a lot of music come into existence. It is a mess. It is a lot of complex things bouncing off each other, until suddenly something beautiful and intricate exists. It wasn’t in anybody’s mind. Nobody had conceived it up to that point.”
He calls his approach organic, or Darwinian, finding joy in “all these noises that keep juxtaposing in different ways, constantly generating new entities: here is a new creature, here is another one, and another one. It is more like gardening than architecture.”
I ask if traditional classical music irritates him. “I find it difficult to listen to,” he admits. “I can’t help but hear this structure of subservience. All those sour faces, looking like they have had a poker stuck up their . . . ” he fades out. “I just feel this sense of superiority, that they are doing the “right” music. I agree with John Cage, that art is philosophy embodied, and the philosophy I hear is not one I like very much.”
So Eno the highly influential record producer (U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay) did not conform to that hierarchical model? “No. Not at all. I ask things like, what if that guy in the corner were to become leader for a little while? With Coldplay, I wanted to work with them for a couple of weeks without Chris [Martin, the group’s singer and principal songwriter] just to see what the band would come up with.” He doesn’t tell me what happened. “If people want to work with me, they know what they are going to get,” he says.
Eno’s installations, twinning his abstract videos and paintings with his ambient music, were the result of an early epiphany. “I had this real struggle inside me, on whether to do music or art. I worried about it a lot. And then one day, I decided I didn’t have to do one or the other, I could do both. I glimpsed the possibility of making each one more like the other, a sort of fusing together.”
He finds the current art scene disturbing in its voracious focus on acquisition. “It is not so different from bitcoin. Art is the ultimate cryptocurrency. What the art world is doing is engineering the consensual value of something, very quickly. It only needs two people, a buyer and a seller.”
He has similarly trenchant views on a host of social issues, speaking out against Israel’s stance on the Palestinian question, and lobbying in favour of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He is far from downhearted by the shockwaves produced by the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit result, however.
“But now there is engagement with politics. I have so many American friends, they were so apolitical. Politics was something you never admitted to doing, like masturbation. But that has changed now. We all thought these [Trump and Brexit supporters] were this little bubble of weirdos. But we discovered that we were the ones in the little bubble.”
‘Music for Installations’ is released on May 4
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