From Future Music, Issue 38, December 1995, by Phil Ward.
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He's the godfather of ambient music, he's produced some of the most famous names on the planet and has used just about every piece of technology going. Brian Eno talks exclusively to Phil Ward about composition, what's bad about synths and why we need to unlock our preconceptions.
Brian Eno likes guitars. Yes, he's a keyboard 'n' computer user and his own music sounds like Christmas in Filterland, but if you had him down as a devotee of current music technology you'd be wrong. Just because he had great fun inventing ambient music, playing "devices" on albums by an obscene list of legends and going 'bleep' a lot in his first band, doesn't make him a boffin. This man does not get out at Tweak Central.
He prefers, instead, to pursue very high artistic goals with a minimum of technical fuss. It's just that he tends to have to get very scientific about being artistic, in a way which, admittedly, always used to be the province of the keyboard player. But nowadays, of course, you don't need keyboards. You don't even need fingers. And it's what keyboards make your fingers do that he has a problem with. Sort of. Er, you'd better explain it, Brian...
"The thing about the guitar is that it isn't a digital instrument," he begins. "Keyboards, which tend to dominate electronic music, are digital. They are digital in the sense that you have one note, and you have a different note next to it - they are cut up into discrete bits. Even though you have frets on a guitar, no guitarist just plays on the fret. Any player is always fluidly moving around the notes. Synthesizer players don't do that a lot."
Right, so despite mod wheels, pitch wheels, joysticks and portamento, your average keyboard player kind of plods up and down a bit. But for Eno, it's not just keyboards that have this limitation. Computers, too, invite a building-block approach to music making that may have given us great dance music - but it's only given us great dance music. It reminds Eno of Beethoven.
"One of the problems you have with this kind of equipment is that it has enforced a music that has all the worst aspects of classical music. It's very discrete. First of all, everything is locked in time, because that's the way that sequencers work. You tend to cut things on bars and move blocks around like that. So, this reinforces the idea of the music as a kind of thread that can chopped about as a horizontal band. But what's interesting is idea of music as a 'field' - like any live music, any music with musicians - and this is why I think that music with musicians will not only persist but flourish again. People will get fed up this chopped up thing. In any live music there's a feel, with a lot of things competing for attention and overlapping in different ways, and sometimes miraculously locking together. And it's the tension between those moments of lock and those moments of drift that I find most interesting about playing with real players."
FM would like to point out that it believes sequencer musicians are real, too, so please don't write to the Editor. That's not what Eno really means, anyway. As a producer he has always exploited the influence that technique and technology have over the shape of music, like the way materials influence the shape of buildings. It's just that, for him, current techniques are too precise.
"I have this word that I think about a lot which is 'unlocked' music," he continues. "Ambient - my kind of ambient music - is the most unlocked music possible. A lot of things drift separately from each other and you listen to the result. In fact, African music is basically like that, because you have two time signatures going on always, a three-beat and a four-beat, and they don't always lock. They are cycles of different length that don't overlay in precise numerical ways - or if they do they overlay in such long cycles that you are not conscious of that, necessarily. So, I'm always arguing for the unlocked. Some technology really encourages lock, so you have a problem with it being locked vertically. And if it's keyboard-based you have a problem with it being locked horizontally as well. The instruments play either this pitch or that pitch, they tend not to move fluidly between them. You may have a mod wheel, but it's not an expressive element.
"What I like to think about is a field, not a horizontal strip - a field where there are a lot of elements that float free from each other, that occasionally create wonderful moments as they cluster. I try to think of music in this sense - not as something that has direction, but as something that has a place in space. This is what I've been trying to do for some time."
Surely computer software could be designed along those lines, if you'll forgive the expression...
"Oh yeah, all things are possible - but they don't happen. They don't happen because design philosophies rarely start again. It's very easy to add more options to an existing design philosophy - to flesh it out a little bit more and add a few twiddles to it. It's very difficult to go back and say, actually, we should start again with a different idea. It just doesn't happen, generally because once the format gets entrenched it stays there. Technology should be chosen by a meritocracy - but it never is."
Maybe there's some light at the end of this tunnel. Recently Eno has been sufficiently impressed by a program called Koan Pro to put his name to a citation on the box. Working with the product's mentor Tim Cole of SSEYO, Eno has taken the software under his wing and may well use it for a specific album in the near future. Koan Pro (see review on page 42) is a kind of auto composer, using 150 specially-designed variable controls to influence and produce music. The values of these controllers determine the notes and melodies of a Koan piece. The user selects various options to produce the music in real time and results tend to be smooth, non-intuitive and natural. It's an ideal program for Eno, but it still won't stop him going on about guitars...
"Whatever you say about guitars, they are highly evolved instruments. So are most electro-acoustic instruments. Part of the reason that they are highly evolved is not because they are intrinsically, but because people have evolved a relationship with them.
"I use the DX7 because I understand it. I was quite ill for a while, and I filled the time by learning it. I think it's just as good as anything else. Sticking with this is choosing rapport over options. I know that there are theoretically better synths, but I don't know how to use them. I know how to use this. I have a relationship with it."
Attention all equipment designers. You can either retire now, or get yourself a pen and paper ready. And no giggling at the back from Yamaha.
"I'm always saying to synthesizer people why don't you make a synth that makes just six great sounds, has a couple of tone controls, but has lots of ways of articulating? Why don't you build them with switchable degrees of reliability, so instead of using 2% tolerance gold resistors, you make them with 2%, 5% and 15% circuits that you can switch between. So that if you want a a completely linear response, 2% is what you use. If you want there to be a degree of chaos, like a string orchestra for instance - that's what makes a string orchestra interesting, they are not all playing the same thing, and the fascination is all those quixotic harmonic accidents - well then you switch to 15%. That would be such an easy thing for the manufacturers to do. The goal of ultimate reliability is not the way to go.
"It's the same as the problem with acoustics designers. I'm saying to them, 'well, actually I don't want a neutral environment thank you very much'. I'd rather have something that has its own colour. It would be so easy. I have to do it to my own synths."
But wouldn't it undermine a manufacturer's sales pitch to effectively offer unreliable technology?
"They shouldn't call it unreliable, they should call it 'enriched'. I'd be happy to write the copy for them."
For all that, Eno has a neat home setup revolving around a computer-based sequencer and his trusty DX7, with sundry classic synths and signal-processing modules all racked up and on wheels like a sonic Filofax. It has its uses.
"I use it to remember things. I use it as a recorder, basically. I just sit and play - usually without a metronome or bar lines or anything like that. I can then listen through and actually work on the sound of the performance, rather than the notes of it. I'm not a keyboard player, and I could never repeat a performance of anything twice, so I improvise. I get the freshness of an improvisation, but I do the more analytical work of getting the right sound for that piece of music after the event."
Are you just sequencing or do you have some kind of digital recording as well?
"I have a DAT. I usually intend to get whatever I am doing finished in one sitting. With the sequencer I'll only work for a day on one thing afterwards."
Do you keep tapes of everything?
"Not always. And if it's very complicated I don't even bother keeping the data, because I know I'm not going to go back to it. It's too tedious to set up. I think, fuck, I'm never going to bother to set all this up again, so what's the point of remembering any of it? It's all a package."
Is it your own solo material that you're working on here, or ideas that you take into a studio when producing another act?
"I always regard it as my own, but often that does happen. It gets incorporated into something else. What I'm more and more inclined to do is to limit options. One of the reasons for destroying programs is so that there isn't the choice of going back to them. What you've got is the DAT - you've got that or nothing."
Actually, Eno's electronic improvisations and general economy of method aligns him perfectly with today's hi-tech musician. Although cynical of many aspects of modern equipment design, he shares that cynicism with most of the cutting-edge combos knocking around. It's probably this attitude which keeps him a towering influence over current music making, a figure more than any other deserving of the phrase 'ahead of his time.' And sod guitars - he really likes DJs...
"I admire people like Howie B," he concludes, "who just turn up with their record collections and they don't bring a single instrument with them. They just patch together other bits of music. This is so intelligent. You get all the complexity of one sound, all its cultural resonances, and then you stick it with all the complexity and cultural resonances of another.
"I really admire economy more than anything else: elegant ways of making big things happen - which is the opposite of what normally happens in a studio, where you have clumsy ways of making small things happen."
When faced with the opportunity to release a real soundtrack album, Eno perversely declines. Instead, his typically ethereal binks and bongs, recorded for a Derek Jarman film a couple of years ago, are given over to bass bloke Jah Wobble - the man who makes the East End as ethnically cool as Morocco - for the dub treatment Spinner, out on All Saints Records, grafts Wobble's dark loops onto the abstract DX tapestry, deliberately timecode-free by the sound of things and gelled instead by an encompassing ring modulation.
Some tracks are barely touched by the remixer's hand, and represent genuine new Eno solo tracks. Others are plumb in the centre of fashionable ambient dub. As a correspondence course, the album finds remand pupil Wobble paying extraordinary respect to his professor, who for his part retains a cool detachment from the whole business, right down to the sleeve notes: Wobble "did what he does", Eno comments. But the collaboration makes sense, and with an output as prolific as his, you can bet your algorithms there are countless more bedfellows for Eno in the wonderful world of tape recording.
Eno has not merely produced U2's latest album, released on Island Records earlier this month. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jnr and Brian Eno are actually the line-up of a new 'band', called Passengers, and the album is certainly a more experimental, instrumental, soundtrack-ish affair than you might expect from a bunch of Irish rockers. In fact, it's called Original Soundtracks 1, ha ha. And just to add to the 'all hands on deck' vibe, there are further contributions from Japanese singer Holi, Mo'Wax's Howie B (to whom Eno pays 'nuff respec' in FM's interview, of course), and even opera-bloke-from-the-World-Cup himself, Pavarotti.
The basic tracks were laid down at Westside Studios in London in just two weeks, followed by five weeks of refining at U2's new place on the waterfront in Dublin. "We wanted to make the record in six weeks," says Bono. Well, one week over budget isn't bad. Spontaneity seems to have been combined with a sense of letting off pent up steam, as Adam Clayton suggests. "For us, it's an opportunity to get all this stuff out that there isn't really room for on our own records," he says, confirming that Original Soundtracks 1 is not to be perceived as one of U2's "own" records.
The music confirms Eno's mercurial ability to stretch the basic vocabulary of almost anyone's style into something new, and something well suited to just about any background, ambient, or movie-soundtrack situation. Word is, by the way, that only some of the 'soundtracks' on the album are inspired by real movies, and others are set to imaginary films that the guys would just love to direct, given half a chance. You decide which is which.