Wind Back Wednesday bows before Brian Eno in 2010 when the ostensible reason for the chat was a new album, Small Craft On A Milk Sea, but really I had been waiting to talk to Brian Eno since about 1978 and any excuse would do.
ON LIMITATIONS AND INFINITE POSSIBILITIES
Brian Eno, a man widely considered, not least by himself, to have one of the larger brains in contemporary music and to be the nabob of new technology, is having a hard time with said technology as our interview begins.
In London he’s struggling with the phone headset, clunking and banging initially as he talks, grumbling lightly that "I've got the smallest ears in the world I think".
Ah, but at least he’s put those little things to good use in four decades of making music, producing music, creating art, curating last year’s Vivid Live festival at the Opera House and provocatively posing questions.
Questions such as can you make music which moves so little that it is almost like aural wallpaper but still have it fascinate? Or, can you turn uptight New Yorkers into Afro-funk giants or earnest Irish rockers into creators of atmospheric and then electronic music? Or, does a computer limit art or actually expand every possibility?
The latter question is particularly relevant on the eve of a new album from Eno and collaborators Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams called Small Craft On A Milk Sea.
In this mostly improvised album, which canvasses both the ambient music which Eno helped invent in the mid ‘70s and more rhythmic and almost pop moments, technology is, as ever, a boon companion because “you can do a lot more with numbers than you can with pieces of wood and string,” as he puts it.
“The interesting thing about digital [technology] is what you are playing with are not atoms, which is what you are using when you are playing real instruments, or transistors. You are playing with information and as such you can do anything you can do with any other form of information, for instance, with a word processor where you cut and paste and in turn things around and change typeface and that sort of thing,” says Eno.
“Something strange will happen, something you didn't expect."
The technology may have changed but this is a principle that has always applied in Eno's career: manipulating and changing the path of sound and technology to present him, and us, with the unexpected.
"My whole entry into music comes from that set of possibilities that were presented by electronics,” he says. “I couldn't have been a musician 100 years ago, there wasn't a way of being a musician in the way that I am now."
Eno, who appeared in his first musical venture with Roxy Music as something of a new age tape operator, even resisted the term musician for many years. He says he wanted to make a distinction between the traditions and the manipulations he was attempting, though now it all is subsumed under the title of music and he has reluctantly accepted that. For now.
Does that difference apply to audiences too? We engage with music differently now to how we did even 10 years ago, and certainly compared with when he began making music in the late 1960s.
Are we still listeners or are we something else now?
"That’s a very interesting point and it's something that we probably won't know for a few more years. Music always changes to occupy the niches that are provided for it,” says Eno.
“It doesn't mean that anybody has to stop doing what they are doing: you can still have heavy metal bands and string quartets and so on. But there will be new forms of music that evolve specifically in relation to these possibilities of listening.”
And he’s confident there’ll be an audience ready for it, citing the broader, much more accepting musical palates that technology has enabled.
But as positive as that sounds, it may also make it harder for a musician like Eno who says “one of the main fuels from my early career as a musician was to discover what I rejected. A lot of what I was doing was deliberately not something, anti-something”.
A loved-up audience for music means artists like him won’t have that wall of “acceptable” thinking to fight against, won’t have as much capacity to be an irritant.
"I think it's a little bit like the difficulty that artists in the Eastern bloc had when Communism disappeared, because so much of their work had been addressed against the State, as it were,” Eno says.
“A lot of artists thought, oh my god what am I going to do pictures about. I sort of get that feeling a little bit sometimes with music as well, that there's a sense of ‘oh, you can do anything you like?’ It's rather bewildering that sort of freedom."
The solution? Reduce the choice, create limitations, make it harder for yourself.
"One of the responsible decisions of a composer,” Eno says, “is saying there’s a lot of things I'm not going to use today. So I'm quite happy to take arbitrary ways of limiting it, which is what artists in all media do."