Brian Eno on Improvisation, Computers and Music

by Thomas Brett

One of the reasons why musician and producer Brian Eno’s words are worth reading is that he often has timely things to say about music and says them in a way that makes sense and makes you pause and think.  In a recent Pitchfork interview (my second Pitchfork-related post in a week), Eno discusses strategies for improvisation and the impact of computers on music making.  Below are some excerpts from the interview.

Eno describes various strategies he used to constrain and compel group improvisations for his recent release, Small Craft On A Milk Sea (Warp 2010):

“And some of the other structuring ideas are completely conceptual in the sense that I might say, ‘Imagine it’s the year 2064 and all digital music has been destroyed in a huge digital accident, an
electromagnetic pulse or something like that.  So, all we know about the music between 2010 or 2030 is hearsay. There don’t exist any recordings.  We’ve read about a kind of music that existed in the suburbs of Shanghai in 2015 to 2018, and this music was played on’–then you specify a group of instruments– ‘was played on, say, industrial tools, such as steel hammers, and augmented with samplers and various electronic versions of some Chinese instruments.  And it was intensely repetitive and played at ear-splitting volume,’ for example. So, we then…try to imagine what that music would be like, and we try to make it.”

And here Eno discusses making music with computers and the potential of new musical controllers:

“I think we’re sort of deep in the grid period of making music– well, we’re probably emerging from it a little bit now, I would say.  You know how eras always have a sound to them and you don’t realize it
until the era has gone?…You can hear the profile of a sound, in retrospect, so much more clearly than you did at the time.  And I think one of the things that’s going to be nauseatingly characteristic about so much music of now is its glossy production values and its griddedness, the tightness of the way everything is locked together.”

“It’s very interesting, to me, to be reminded… that there was a time when things were not that tight.  And we’re going through this super-uptight era, which I think comes entirely from literacy, actually.  It’s the result of machines that were designed as word processors being used for making music.  Because that’s what we’re doing, after all.  All the programs we’re using started their lives, really, as word processing programs and the concepts that typify word processing, like ‘cut and paste,’ ‘change typeface’…”

“The idea that the computer is a completely neutral device that doesn’t have a personality of its own and just liberates you to do anything you want–it’s complete cock.  You just make different music on a computer.  And you can make wonderful music on a computer, but don’t pretend that the machinery is transparent.  It makes as much difference to what you’re doing as it does if you play an acoustic
guitar as opposed to a kettledrum.  You’re not going to make the same music.”

“In terms of what has been happening recently, there have been, I think, some really interesting new instruments that have come out that sort of show me the direction of the future.  Korg has…a whole series now of these things called Kaoss Pads. They’re wonderful because they do get your muscles working again.  And what DJs do, of course, with their DJ turntables now, the CD turntables, which have pitch change and speed change and everything else.  They’re doing something that I think is interestingly physical.  Then…there’s another Korg instrument called the Wavedrum, which is a great, great instrument.”

“So, there is a sort of convergence starting to happen between the computer and musical instruments, but it’s still quite a long way off.  Basically, you’re still sitting there using just the muscles of your
hand, really.  Of one hand, actually.  It’s another example of the transfer of literacy to making music because the assumption is that everything important is happening in your head; the muscles are there
simply to serve the head.  But that isn’t how traditional players work at all; musicians know that their muscles have a lot of stuff going on as well.  They’re using their whole body to make music, in fact.
Whereas it’s quite clear that if the interface between you and a computer is a mouse, then everything of interest that happens must be happening in your head.  It’s a big step backwards, I think.  It’s back
to the biggest problem with classical music, which is [that] it’s head music. It doesn’t emanate from anything below the shoulders, basically.”

“We’ve had [years] of evolution to develop this incredibly fine set of muscles, which can do the most extraordinary, delicate things and which have their own memories and so on.  And then we fucking well discard it all; it seems completely stupid to me.  And also, I think, if you spend a day or– as many people do– a life working only with that aspect of your being, the cerebrum connected to a finger, I feel
that the rest of you atrophies, essentially.  It’s all wasted, and it feels wasted.  You feel dead.  You feel as if you’re not living a full life.  Which, of course, is why–it’s my theory about why so many people who are heavily into computers are also into extreme sports…It’s because their bodies are crying out for some kind of action.”

You can read the full interview here.

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