Brian Eno is a man of the new renaissance. At 47 years old, he holds a degree in fine arts, is the father of a genre of pop music (ambient), produces albums for rock stars, and regularly exhibits multimedia artwork in museums and galleries.
Underlying Eno's worldwide cultural prominence is a spectacularly unusual intelligence. He was recently named Honorary Doctor of Technology at the University of Plymouth and appointed Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art. As an artist he gracefully hacks the new media of LPs, TVs, PCs, CDs, MIDI, photos, and e-mail. He is as comfortable collaborating on albums with David Bowie, U2, or Laurie Anderson as he is giving a lecture on perfume (he's an expert), haircuts, or "The Studio as a Compositional Tool."
Eno exploits new technology without letting it ensnare him. He knows exactly where to hold a tool so that he can forget he is holding it. This combination of indifference to and intimacy with technology enables Eno to pioneer cross-technology arts. As an observer of modern life, his gift is debunking the conventional. He applies his irreverence equally to himself and others, describing his own 1992 solo album, Nerve Net, as "paella: a self-contradictory mess; off-balance, postcool, postroot, uncentered where-am-I? music."
Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired in the US, interviewed Eno over a period of months via face-to-face conversations in California, the phone, and e-mail. Like many of Eno's projects, it was remixed, reassembled, and tweaked to make it a self-contradictory mess, off-balance, postcool, and very much where-we-are.
Wired: Somewhere along the line, art seemed to lose its significance. No offence to you, but who cares about painting?
Eno: I'm acutely aware of being involved in something that ought to be making more of a difference than it is. But art has not ceased to affect us; it's just that the process we call art is happening elsewhere, in areas that might be called by other names. I always think of medieval heraldry: so intensely relevant for hundreds of years and now a total mystery to nearly all of us. The traditional sites for art activity seem to be losing their power, while new sites for art are becoming powerful. We have been looking for art in the wrong places.
Let's say I was to give you a return ticket to the past, when art really made a difference. Where would you go?
The intellectual Arab world at its height - somewhere between, say, the beginning of the 11th century and the middle of the 13th - would have been absolutely amazing to experience.
Why there and then? Why not the Renaissance a little later?
I've never been that thrilled by the Renaissance, to tell you the truth. I can imagine the excitement of having been there, but it seems to me that the Renaissance had a great deal to do with leaving things out of the picture. It was about ignoring part of our psyche - the part that's a bit messy and barbarian. There was also a sense of perfectibility, of the possibility of certainty - a sense that has become a real albatross to us.
But there are analogies between the height of the Arab world and today. At that time, there was a big shift from one type of consciousness to another. Old systems decayed and broke up, and, painfully, new ones were born. The equilibration between science and alchemy, and philosophy and religion, would have been thrilling to behold.
Now, am I allowed to move forward as well, into the future?
It's a different ticket, but I can grant that as well. How far into the future do you want to go?
Oh, only about 50 years.
Doesn't that seem like a waste of magic? Fifty years - you might get there yourself. You just can't wait, is that the problem?
Yeah, I can't wait. I want to know what happens to Africa.
Africa is everything that something like classical music isn't. Classical - perhaps I should say "orchestral" - music is so digital, so cut up, rhythmically, pitchwise and in terms of the roles of the musicians. It's all in little boxes. The reason you get child prodigies in chess, arithmetic and classical composition is that they are all worlds of discontinuous, parcelled-up possibilities. And the fact that orchestras play the same thing over and over bothers me. Classical music is music without Africa. It represents old-fashioned hierarchical structures, ranking, all the levels of control. Orchestral music represents everything I don't want from the Renaissance: extremely slow-feedback loops.
If you're a composer writing that kind of music, you don't get to hear what your work sounds like for several years. Thus, the orchestral composer is open to all the problems and conceits of the architect, liable to be trapped in a form that is inherently non-improvisational, non-empirical. I shouldn't be so absurdly doctrinaire, but I have to say that I wouldn't give a rat's ass if I never heard another piece of such music. It provides almost nothing useful for me.
But what is tremendously exciting to me is the collision of vernacular Western music with African music. So much that I love about music comes from that collision. African music underlies practically everything I do - even ambient, since it arose directly out of wanting to see what happened if you "unlocked" the sounds in a piece of music, gave them their freedom and didn't tie them all to the same clock. That kind of free float - these peculiar mixtures of independence and interdependence, and the oscillation between them - is a characteristic of West African drumming patterns. I want to go into the future to see this sensibility I find in African culture, to see it freed from the catastrophic situation that Africa's in at the moment. I don't know how they're going to get freed from that, but I desperately want to see this next stage when African culture begins once again to strongly impact ours.
Do you have any guesses about what that reunited culture would look like?
Yes. Do you know what I hate about computers? The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them. This is why I can't use them for very long. Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her. I know this sounds sort of inversely racist to say, but I think the African connection is so important. You know why music was the centre of our lives for such a long time? Because it was a way of allowing Africa in. In 50 years, it might not be Africa; it might be Brazil. But I want so desperately for that sensibility to flood into these other areas, like computers.
So, how does one Africanise, or Brazilianise, or otherwise liberate a computer?
Get mad with it. I ask myself, What is pissing me off about this thing? What's pissing me off is that it uses so little of my body. You're just sitting there, and it's quite boring. You've got this stupid little mouse that requires one hand, and your eyes. That's it. What about the rest of you? No African would stand for a computer like that. It's imprisoning.
If I could give you a black box that could do anything, what would you have it do?
I would love to have a box onto which I could offload choice making. A thing that makes choices about its outputs and says to itself: this is a good output, reinforce that, or replay it, or feed it back in. I would love to have this machine stand for me. I could program this box to be my particular taste and interest in things.
Why do you want to do that? You have you.
Yes, I have me. But I want to be able to sell systems for making my music as well as selling pieces of music. In the future, you won't buy artists' works; you'll buy software that makes original pieces of "their" works, or that recreates their way of looking at things. You could buy a Shostakovich box, or you could buy a Brahms box. You might want some Shostakovich slow-movement-like music to be generated. So then you use that box. Or you could buy a Brian Eno box. So then I would need to put in this box a device that represents my taste for choosing pieces.
I guess the only thing weirder than hearing your own music being broadcast on the radios of strangers is hearing music that you might have written being broadcast!
Yes, music that I might have written but didn't!
Will you still like the idea of these surrogate Brian Enos when they start generating your best work?
Sure! Naturally, it's a modifiable box, you know. Say you like Brahms and Brian Eno. You could get the two of them to collaborate on something, see what happens if you allow them to hybridise. The possibilities for this are fabulous.
What's left for us to do then?
Cheat. And lie.
Some people listening to your music might think that it is already being written by one of your black boxes.
For years, I have been using rules to write music, but without computers. For instance, I've used systems of multiple tape loops that are allowed to reconfigure in various ways, while all I do is supply the original musical sounds or elements and then the system keeps throwing out new patterns of them. It is a kaleidoscopic music machine that keeps making new variations and new clumps.
My rules were designed to try to make a kind of music I couldn't predict. That's to say, I wanted to construct "machines" (in a purely conceptual sense - not physical things) that would make music for me. The whole idea was summarised in the famous saying (which I must have shouted from the ramparts a thousand times): "Process not product!" The task of artists was to "imitate nature in its manner of operation", as John Cage put it - to think of ways of dealing with sound that were guided by an instinct for beautiful "processes" rather than by a taste for nice music.
By the early '70s, I had made and experienced a great deal of systems music, as all this had come to be known. I wanted to make music that was not only systemically interesting, but also that I felt like hearing again. So, increasingly, my attention went into the sonic material that I was feeding into my "repatterning machines." This became my area: I extended the composing act into the act of constructing sound itself.
This wasn't an idea by any means original to me - I picked it up from people like Phil Spector and Shadow Morton and Jimi Hendrix. They were all people from the world of pop, a world that had hardly penetrated the relatively insular landscape of "systems music", which still regarded the palette available to a composer as a series of little disconnected islands of discrete and describable sounds - "viola", "clarinet", "tam-tam" - rather than as a place where you faced the compositional problem that every rock musician was used to dealing with: what sound should I invent?
Can you imagine what music will be like 20 years from now?
What people are going to be selling more of in the future is not pieces of music, but systems by which people can customise listening experiences for themselves. Change some of the parameters and see what you get. So, in that sense, musicians would be offering unfinished pieces of music - pieces of raw material, but highly evolved raw material, that has a strong flavour to it already. I can also feel something evolving on the cusp between "music", "game", and "demonstration" - I imagine a musical experience equivalent to watching John Conway's computer game of Life or playing SimEarth, for example, in which you are at once thrilled by the patterns and the knowledge of how they are made and the metaphorical resonances of such a system. Such an experience falls in a nice new place - between art and science and playing. This is where I expect artists to be working more and more in the future.
Could we call this new style "interactive music"?
In a blinding flash of inspiration, the other day I realised that "interactive" anything is the wrong word. Interactive makes you imagine people sitting with their hands on controls, some kind of gamelike thing. The right word is "unfinished". Think of cultural products, or art works, or the people who use them even, as being unfinished. Permanently unfinished. Finishing implies interactive: your job is to complete something for that moment in time. A very clear example of this is hypertext. It's not pleasant to use - because it happens on computer screens - but it is a far-reaching revolution in thinking. The transition from the idea of text as a line to the idea of text as a web is just about as big a change of consciousness as we are capable of. I can imagine the hypertext consciousness spreading to things we take in, not only things we read. I am very keen on this unfinished idea because it co-opts things like screen savers and games and models and even archives, which are basically unfinished pieces of work.
So a screen saver would be the visual equivalent of an Eno music machine?
I've been working on my own mutations of an After Dark screen saver called Stained Glass. If you set up the initial conditions slightly differently, you see a completely different sequence of events. All your interaction with the program is right at the beginning, when you set it up. But I think this should certainly be called interactive, as the whole process of what then happens depends on what you've set up at the beginning.
Besides being in an unfinished state, do you have any other notions of what music will be like in 20 years?
In the last 15 years, music has ceased to be the centre of people's cultural life. We both come from a generation in which music was where it all got acted out. The other arts were somewhat in the rear. Music has had its day. A lot of music now doesn't really have an independent existence separate from the places it's played in. For instance, a lot of rave music and ambient and trance and so on has very much to do with clubs and lots of people being together and so on. It's very context-linked. And quite often in recordings it sounds rather dull. I read recently that a survey revealed that the average CD was listened to two and a quarter times.
So, where has the culture recentred itself? Where is it getting acted out?
Not in any one place in particular; it's going to be in a variety of places. Theme parks are a relatively new cultural form that is going to become more and more a place for artists to look. A theme park, of course, is a multimedia experience wherein you can use any sense you like.
My guess is that the cultural centre might settle onto MUDs. They are online theme parks. Not-quite-virtual realities that can be done on a screen, without goggles and gloves. They will have all the richness and emotional power and generational identity that music gave us. A vast visual MUD - where you can explore a world that you can also partly make, if you care to - will become the centre for a new youth culture.
I absolutely agree. I think that prediction's right on. And I'll make another one as well: More Court TV! Court TV gets dismissed as mere voyeurism, but voyeurism is never mere: you're only voyeuristic about things that you are very interested in. You're not voyeuristic about things that bore you. I think what Court TV indicates is that people are fascinated by these new moral problems that are coming up.
Each one of those big trials - William Kennedy Smith, the Menendez brothers, Lorena Bobbitt, and now O J Simpson - represents critical moral issues. What are the relationships between people at the moment? Are moral relationships the same as legal ones? Or do they overlap? Or are they different? I think people are fascinated by these problems, and I'm glad they are. That's another big future as well. Today, gossip is philosophy.
What kind of advice would you give to a musician now starting off, figuring that she or he may come to a peak in 10 years?
Oddly enough, I rarely talk to young musicians, but I talk to many young painters, because I teach in art schools. I ask them: Why do you think that what you do ends at the edges of this canvas? Think of the frame. What frame are you working in? Not just that bit of wood round the edge, but the room you're in, the light you're in, the time and place you're in. How can you redesign it? I would say that to musicians, too. I see them spending a lot of time working on the internal details of what they're doing and far less time working on the ways of positioning it in the world. By "positioning it" I don't only mean thinking of ways of getting it to a record company, but thinking of where it could go and where it fits in the cultural picture - what else does it relate to?
One of the ways of rethinking the frame is to evolve art. I have in mind an exhibit I saw of Karl Sims's genetically evolved computer graphic images. They were stunning! One after another, they would come up, grown by his machine. And you would see pictures that neither you nor nature could have imagined. A really good music machine could do the same thing.
That's exactly what I hope for. Interestingly, systems and rules in music allow you to come up with things that your sense of taste would never have allowed you to do. But then your sense of taste expands to accommodate them! For instance, I'm sitting here now looking at something that my Stained Glass machine just made on my monitor. It has colour combinations in it that are so weird. I would never dream of putting these things together. But soon they start to look pretty good, and then they start to look really good.
My theory is that almost anything that can be evolved will seem beautiful.
Absolutely right. This is the reason that that damn Stained Glass screen saver thing works so beautifully. Because it's the only one that has any evolutionary qualities to it. Most attempts to mechanically manufacture music fail because they are modelled to create sameness, whereas what interests us is difference. I'm quite keen on the idea of evolutionary music because it doesn't attempt to base itself on some sort of absolute theory about what makes good music. We can still say we don't really know what makes music nice, but we know when we like it. So we'll feed some into a processor and see if it can sort of breed new versions of it that we haven't heard before.
I have discovered three uses for artificial evolution as a tool. One is to bring you to somewhere you would not have thought of - to evolve a pattern, or an organism you couldn't dream of. The second use is to generate the details that you would not ordinarily have time to even conceive doing - to mutate out a pattern in ways that you just do not have time to do alone. And the third, and most powerful, is to create new spaces to explore.
If I could suggest a reason for wanting to make music machines, the reason would be to do these things. Not to replicate music, but to invent new experiences completely.
You've seen the software Photoshop, right? It not only gives you tools that bridge painting and photography, it also contains a program that lets you mutate and evolve textures. It's like the invention of oil paint and horticulture combined! But so far there is no-one, not even bad artists, attempting to create major art with it.
I've become rather engrossed with Photoshop in my own work. My first reaction is the same as yours: "My god - with these tools, the whole look of design should have changed. Why hasn't it?" The answer is generally that, as with all computer-based things, the technology filters out most of the interesting people, and forces them to wait.
You seem to have a fondness for engineering. Why aren't you afraid of machines?
I'm lazy; that's why I like machines. They do things I would not have thought of. 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. I usually don't want to slavishly make something in detail. I want to produce the conditions from which it and many its could come into existence. I think of myself as a machine builder in a way. Making a record for me is inventing a way of making music. And once I've tried it a few times, I want to invent another way. The thrill for me is to think of new ways of doing it, and new places to do it, and new sites in which music might happen, and new ingredients that might be used in it, and so on. So, machines are very much part of what I do.
Do you think of yourself as a machine?
I try to, but I'm not very successful at it!
Has computer science influenced you?
Cybernetician Stafford Beer had a great phrase that I lived by for years: Instead of trying to specify the system in full detail, specify it only somewhat. You then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go. He was talking about heuristics, as opposed to algorithms. Algorithms are a precise set of instructions, such as take the first on the left, walk 121 yards, take the second on the right, da da da da. A heuristic, on the other hand, is a general and vague set of instructions. What I'm looking for is to make heuristic machines that you can ride on.
Doesn't that make things out of control?
People tend to think that it's total control or no control. But the interesting place is in the middle of that.
Right. We have no word for that state of in-between control. We have some words like "management", or "herding", or "husbandry". All these are words for co-control.
I call it "surfing". When you surf, there is a powerful complicated system, but you're riding on it, you're going somewhere on it, and you can make some choices about it.
I think I know what you mean. Artificial-life researchers talk about surfing the wave of increasing complexity. A very complex system gets close to a certain edge between rigid control and utter chaos - that's when the whole thing can surf to the next level of complexity. They see this in evolutionary systems. Some go as far as to say that's what life does: surf on entropy.
I like that. Metaphors involving the sea are very powerful to me. You have this interesting conflict - a sense of direction, a need to get somewhere, but in a medium that has its own, probably different, sense of direction. You can use the piggyback power of that medium, but you have to keep paying attention, making your own adjustments. Unless you really do want to go with the flow.
What do you call yourself these days, a producer? What is your job?
[Laughs.] I have often wondered! As a producer, I'm not just saying, Oh, let's get a good bass drum sound. I'm saying, OK, look, this thing you're doing now is hinting at a certain universe of things that I believe are connected. A frame maker is another way of describing my role: "OK, let's put a descriptive frame around this, look at everything that we've included inside our frame, and see how those things relate to one another. And what if we extend the frame to include all these other possibilities?" Of course, at the time you do it, it looks like you're including more marginal things in it. For example, when I first started making records, it was unusual for someone to come into the studio without a prewritten piece of music, to sit there, as I did, and make it up with whatever was there. Now it's how nearly everybody works.
Would the frame-identifying role be relevant to all types of artists?
Yes. An artist is now a 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 say: what I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things. If you read art history up until 25 or 30 years ago, you'd find there was this supposition of succession: from Verrocchio, through Giotto, Primaticcio, Titian, and so on, as if a crown passes down through the generations. But in the 20th century, instead of that straight kingly line, there's suddenly a broad field of things that get called art, including vernacular things, things from other cultures, things using new technologies like photo and film. It's difficult to make any simple linear connection through them. Thus there is no longer such a thing as "art history" but there are multiple "art stories".
Do you worry about everybody being a curator and nobody creating anything?
To create meanings - or perhaps "new readings", which is what curators try to do - is to create. Period. Making something new does not necessarily involve bringing something physical into existence - it can be something mental such as a metaphor or a theory. More and more curatorship becomes inseparable from the so-called art part. Since there's no longer a golden line through the fine arts, you are acting curatorially all the time by just making a choice to be in one particular place in the field rather than another.
In the traditional classical view, art objects are containers of some kind of aesthetic value. This value was put into them by the artist, who got it from God or from the Muse or from the universal unconscious, and then it radiated back out to those who beheld it. It was thus that missionaries played gramophone records of Bach to Africans in the expectation that it would civilise them, as though they would somehow be enriched by the flood of goodness washing over them. We now see the arrogance of this assumption, but I think few people understand what is really wrong about it, aside from its political incorrectness. What's wrong about it is that cultural objects have no notable identity outside that which we confer upon them. This is a controversial and volatile statement. Their value is entirely a product of the interaction that we have with them. Duchamp's urinal was an exercise in this. Things become artworks not because they contain value, but because we're prepared to see them as artworks.
Sometimes I get the sense that you could just as easily have been a scientist. What do you think artists are doing that is different from science?
Interesting question. I think that art is not dangerous.
You say art is not dangerous?
The whole point of art, as far as I'm concerned, is that art doesn't make any difference. And that's why it's important. Take film: you can have quite extreme emotional experiences watching a movie, but they stop as soon as you walk out of the cinema. You can see people being hurt, but even though you feel those things strongly, you know they're not real. You know they've been put on for you. And you know that you've agreed to participate in them. Artists deal in this rather nebulous area I call "the rehearsal of empathy." You're rehearsing a repertoire of feelings that you might have about things, of ways of reacting to things, of how it would feel to be in this situation. How it would feel to be in that person's place? What would I have done? Such questions are the most essential human questions because they deal with how we negotiate as mental beings through a complicated universe. A lot of what's learned is quite uncodifiable because it isn't the same for everyone.
How is technology changing music?
It's making it a lot easier to leave out the tracks I don't like! Before we had the record, music was an entirely ephemeral art. You were lucky if in your lifetime you heard a piece of music, especially a concert piece of music, more than half a dozen times. It would be an enormous thing for someone to hear, say, Beethoven's Fifth six times in a lifetime. So, what happened with recording is that suddenly you could hear exactly the same piece of music a thousand times, anywhere you chose to listen to it. And this of course gave rise to a whole lot of new possibilities within music. I think the growth of jazz, especially improvised jazz, was entirely due to recordings, because you can make sense of something on several hearings - even things that sound extremely weird and random on first hearing. I did an experiment myself last year in which I recorded a short piece of traffic noise on a street. It's about three and a half minutes long. I just kept listening to it to see if I could come to hear it as a piece of music. So, after listening to this recording many times, I'd say, Oh yes, there's that car to the right, and there's that door slamming to the left, and I would hear that person whistling, and there's that baby coming by in the pram. After several weeks, I found I loved it like a piece of music.
Music has moved from being something you heard occasionally to something that has infiltrated every waking moment of our lives. We get it on the news, in cars and elevators, at sports games and in stores, where we work, and on our bedroom clock radios. What will happen when music becomes ubiquitous 24 hours a day?
Of course, it may sacrifice some emotional power, but I sometimes imagine it may start to gain a kind of linguistic power - universality, specificity. As it becomes ubiquitous, people will want music purpose-designed much more. Just as you choose to arrange things and colours in your house in a particular way, I think you will choose music like that. Imagine that you order an evening of music over the Net. You say, "We're having a dinner, people should be able to talk over the music, I'm fond of Pachelbel's Canon and Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis. Can you put together three hours for me?" Whereupon the brain of the system looks through its ever-evolving "taste-clumps" - the product of continuous customer research - and says, "Someone who likes those things is quite likely to also enjoy some of the quieter moments of Hector Zazou, Jane Siberry, and Jon Hassell." It will compile a combination of all those. This is an autocurator. You could even tell it how experimental you wanted it to be: "Really surprise me - pull out a few long shots."
The total number of hours that people are listening to game music probably exceeds all hours spent listening to classical music, so it's very important that there be some kind of mechanical music worth listening to. I see a place for machine music as somewhere between the handcrafted music sold on albums, and pure, canned, inane, repetitious stuff. Ideally, what we want in a videogame or an interactive experience is automatic music that's adjusting in real time to what we're doing. The music is changing depending on what's happening on the screen.
Automatic music becomes interesting when it does something we didn't expect. Yet mere "didn't expect" isn't good enough - we have to already have a framework of expectations against which to be surprised. That framework can be simple - such as one's sense of wonder when the tape loops in Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain" mysteriously recombine to produce something apparently quite different from what they are. That's a surprise of synergy. Another kind of surprise is that of extension - such as when Dorothy Love Coates collapses down to that beautiful, heartbreaking low note in "Lord Don't Forget about Me" just when you thought she could never go any lower. That kind of surprise is difficult to get from a machine, because it depends so much on our empathy with another human, and on our belief that this music represents some feeling that a human is having or could have.
Of course, a lot of the remixing of musical tracks - which is so fashionable now - has an automatic music feel about it: spin a few samples and see what they do together.
The other thing about all this remixing is, who keeps track of the intellectual pro-perty rights as bits of music are passed from studio to studio?
Intellectual rights is the hottest area going, and certainly not only in music. There are so many uniquely new problems. For example, I think of producing as the act of creating a sonic and conceptual overview of the record. And this type of creation is a whole new category for which there is no current copyright arrangement. When you're using sophisticated tools with very strong personalities, is the designer of the tools in some sense responsible for what finally comes out? Should that designer benefit? When a new tool or technology comes into existence, and suddenly 50 people at the same time see the same obvious idea, is it right that the one who gets to the publisher or patent office first should get all the material benefits of that idea? If not, how else do we share it?
I'm curious about the economic motives of artists in these technological times. At the first hearing, ambient music sounds like music that was made because it could be made. When you were first making ambient music, did you expect anybody to buy it?
Yes! As with everything I do, I expected it to be tremendously successful. [Laughs.]
What led you to believe anybody else wanted to listen to that kind of music, as it was so mechanical and not fashionable?
I'll tell you what it was. It was based on an observation that my tastes aren't that different from other people's. I always know that if I like something now, enough other people are going to like it soon enough. For instance, when I got into female body builders, every guy I knew was saying, Oh god! It's gross! I said, Oh yeah, this is just the last wall of resistance before they finally admit that they think these women are enormously sexy. Sure enough, they do now. I just admit to my tastes sooner. I don't have any embarrassment about what I like. It doesn't threaten what I've liked before even when it appears completely inconsistent with it. I don't mind the tension, and I don't think I have to compromise my whole theory of life to accept this thing. If I'm attracted to something, I immediately surrender to it. I offer no resistance to being seduced. Because I offer no resistance, I think that I sometimes touch things more quickly than other people do.