Scaramouche of the synthesizer

From Creem, July 1975, by Frank Rose - kindly typed and supplied by mij munyum.

Brian Peter George Eno (Eno is his last name), the scaramouche of the synthesizer - in Europe they may call him an artiste, but here in roughneck America anyone who looks like this is just another one of them glit twits. Can such a blanket characterization hold true? Beneath the pancake, beneath the eye shadow and the rouge and the lip gloss, might there lurk that spark of genius which separates the two?

With a flick of the tongue, Eno asserts that there does. With many flicks of the tongue, in fact. For the secret of art is that anyone with imagination and ambition has only to assert his status and - Voila! An artiste is born. And Eno asserts like nobody else. Some musicians might not like to talk about their work, but Eno doesn't share that problem.

He talks about his work as an artist. "The function of being an artist for me," he says, warming to the task, "is that it's an experimental area where I can test ways of thinking and operating and hopefully apply the results to real life. The advantage of testing them in an art context is that it doesn't really matter if you fail. You can afford to take risks that you wouldn't allow yourself in normal life. Having taken those risks and seen what freedoms they allow or what restrictions they impose, you are then free to extrapolate them into normal-life situation. That's what I think is the function of culture - to teach you new way of dealing with the world.

"For example, one important idea for me has been to deliberately put people who aren't qualified in any particular way into creative situations and say to them, 'look, you can do it. You are capable of operating creatively, you don't have to be skillful. It has to do with the way you use your brain not your hands'.

"I've been interested in seeing whether that is actually true. It's not true in conventional symphony orchestra" - the Portmouth Sinfonia proved that - "but it is true in certain other kinds of music. So the cultural lesson is finding out what it is that allows that kind of freedom, and whether the musical environment can be generalized to the external environment." Eno's entire musical career is just such an experiment, and he doesn't hesitate to talk about that either. "I want to define an area that isn't concerned with the technicalities of music," he says, "It seems to me that we don't need anybody to come and say, 'look I can play better than Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.' The development of craft is not the important issue, really."

He talks about the switch from art to music, which began while he was still in art school, before he joined Roxy Music in 1971. "It wasn't a big move from art to music because there is a strong link between them in that they both concentrate on systems- as far as I'm concerned, anyway. I had reached a stage in painting where I was actually making a score which I would then carry out in the same way that a musician might. I mean a score is only a behavior pattern. It says if you do this, this and this, you'll come out with a result of some kind. So it wasn't unnatural to make a transition into music."

What he's ended up with so far, on Here Come the Warm Jets & Taking Tiger Mountain (by strategy), are songs based on the repetition of a simple theme. When he talks about that, he likes to point out that repetition isn't as repetitious as it seems to be.

"A thing heard for the second time is different from the first time you heard it," he says, "simply because the brain has learned different ways of dealing with it by that time. There are purely physical reasons for this, in the same way as if you walk into a very bright room from a dark room your eyes adapt. The ear is even more sophisticated than that. Faced with a pattern that continually repeats, it starts to reject any part of the pattern that is constant and starts to hone in on the differences." Of course, there's also the possibility that the brain might reject the pattern entirely and move the hands to put on something nicer, like John Denver's Greatest Hits for instance. But that's part of the risk.

"We are no longer concerned with making horizontal music," Eno continues, "by which I mean music that starts at point A, develops through point B and ends at point C in a kind of logical or semi logical progression. What's more interesting is constructing music that is a solid block of interactions. This then leaves your brain free to make some of those interactions more important than others and to find which particular ones it wants to speak to."

"One thing about vertical music is that you can enter it at any point and leave it at any point. You don't have to be in at the beginning. If you can imagine a movie -" Like Andy Warhol's eight hour film of the Empire state building? "Exactly, you can take as much from it as you want."

"In fact, what really interests me is a combination of horizontal and vertical where it would be possible for both of them to exist at once, that's an experiment in progress, hopefully what happens is what my next record will sound like."

Eno's songwriting seems to follow a similar pattern. "It's fairly mechanical process. What happens is I record the basic structure of the song and then sing nonsense along with it. And when I've got a set of sounds that I think works musically in an interesting way, then I listen to those sounds and try to make them into words. It's a bit like automatic writing, the way you scribble until words start to appear. I sing until words start to appear. I suspect that quite a lot of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde was written that way. I might be completely wrong, But..."

He even talks about talking about it. "I'm interested quite much in just making music. But I'm also interested in talking about it. And one of the things about the traditional rockstar role is that you don't say anything. The best way to maintain your conceit is to keep your mouth shut, and I'm certainly not prepared to do that. I couldn't."