PRODUCER, artist, music theorist, writer and anagram fan Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno first came to prominence in the early Seventies as a member of Roxy Music.
Using an early VCS3 synth and a Revox reel-to-reel, Eno warped Roxy’s already novel sound into even more unfamiliar, inventive and futuristic shapes, while providing an anarchic, androgynous and slightly unnerving visual counterpoint to Bryan Ferry’s studied, movie-star cool. His friend and future collaborator David Bowie described him at the time as “a very glamorous young man”.
Embarking on a solo career with Here Come The Warm Jets, the self-confessed non-musician quickly became an in-demand producer, and in an enormously influential subsequent career has worked with everyone from Michael Nyman, Suede and the Yellow Magic Orchestra to Nico, Depeche Mode and Bob Calvert from Hawkwind, as well as producing such seminal albums as Low, Heroes and Lodger by Bowie and Remain in Light and Fear Of Music by Talking Heads.
He’s also worked with U2 but nobody’s perfect.
Along the way, he inadvertently invented chill-out music with ‘ambient’ albums like Discreet Music and Music For Airports, popularised the use of sampling and found music with his 1981 collaboration with David Byrne, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and created the start up sound for Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system.
The very definition of the modern renaissance man, Eno has never limited himself to music.
A prolific painter and writer, as early as 1975 he produced, with Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies (100 Worthwhile Dilemmas), a set of cards with strategies for breaking deadlock in artistic situations. He began to work with videotape in the late Seventies, producing work which, like his earlier paintings and music production, was based around “mixing colours and layers of colours”.
In 1996, Eno established the Long Now Foundation in order to provide a counterpoint to the “faster/cheaper” mindset, instead promoting “slower/better” thinking. Its main project is the 10,000 Year Clock, “a mechanism and a myth” to allow people to take the long view (part of a mountain in Nevada was purchased in 1999 as a site for the enormous final iconic timepiece). A library project is also underway to archive content for the context provided by the clock.
Eno’s interest in generative music – that is, self-generating musical systems where algorithms dictate the progression from one note to the next – finds him increasingly applying the same notions to his art in the form of visual music, combining his various interests and ideas as in his installation, Constellations.
I did an email interview with Eno ahead of the opening of Constellations at BALTIC in Gateshead for Flux magazine towards the end of 2006.
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CONSTELLATIONS (77 Million Paintings) seems to emphasise and celebrate the uniqueness of the individual’s response to art. Why is that particularly important to you?
“Rather than celebrating the uniqueness of the individual’s response, I think 77 Million Paintings concerns itself with the uniqueness of their experience. The software playing on the screens is a system of shuffling and overlaying slides which merge in such a way that there is unlikely to ever be a repetition (at least in an average watching lifetime).
“The fact I am using a combination of screens increases this unlikelyhood. For this reason, the movement of people through the BALTIC show will experience unique combinations which the people who come before and after them will never see.”
On a purely practical level, how do you know when to stop adding to a piece which, to all in intents and purposes, is a continual work in progress?
“On a purely practical level, release dates means there is a deadline to observe so the adding is forced to stop. On an artistic level, the selection process is one of the most important parts of creating something like this and can take a surprisingly long time. There are some slides which always work, whatever they are sitting with.
“Conversely there are slides which consistently don’t work in context and are taken out of the mix. It required a year of living with the piece and noting where it is and is not working. Eventually the need to edit became less and less until I arrived at the finished piece.”
Do you ever feel that any of your work is finished as such, or rather is it something you’ve merely stopped working on? Do you still discover new things in Constellations yourself?
“I am constantly fascinated by the combinations in this piece and it is always throwing up surprises. My constant exclamation is, ‘I haven’t seen that slide before‘. One of the things which strongly draws me to generative art is the idea that the thing is so big, in that there are so many variations, that not even the artist can see all the possibilities.
“In that sense 77 Million Paintings is an unfinishable piece although it is a fully completed project. This is an interesting distinction and true of almost all generative art.
“I think of my other work, both visual, written and musical, as being finished as separate units but each of those units are part of a process and lines of artistic enquiry which is on-going.”
How much do you recycle your work? For example, have any of the 300 paintings which make up the basis of the piece appeared, or will appear, in another context at another time? And are the audio elements unique to Constellations?
“77 Million Painting and therefore Constellations uses images and music I have been using in my installations for many years as well as some specially generated ones specifically for this piece. In this sense it is as much a retrospective but turned into something quite new.”
Constellations has previously been seen at the Big Chill in Herefordshire and Selfridges in central London before BALTIC. Do you feel it’s important that your work makes sense in a variety of environments?
“Absolutely, it is a piece which translates well in very different kinds of environment. Context is important to all of the current shows I am doing. Although the painting at the core of the piece is always 77 Million, the way we exhibit it is a direct response to the environment it will appear in. Each show is quite different from the others.”
What are the pros and cons of placing Constellations within a traditional gallery context?
“That is a difficult question as every space brings with it different design considerations which are specific to that space whether they be practical or conceptual. I think it suits a more traditional gallery space – not that I think the BALTIC falls into this category. It has had a life long before becoming a gallery and this is reflected in a fresh approach to the work they show and the way in which they show it.”
You’ve always appeared to delight in the idea that one doesn’t have to fit into any boxes, that you can do different things at different times, but (in the UK, at least) society seems bent on returning to that Fifties’ orthodoxy of conformity to assigned, well-defined roles. Do you have any advice for young creatives setting out their stall in this kind of atmosphere?
“Cross-fertilization of artistic areas by the individual is something which is regarded with some suspicion, especially in the UK. If you are a musician, you can’t be taken seriously as a visual artist and vice versa. It is an odd prejudice and very alien to me as I have always worked visually and musically. Neither my visual nor my musical directions would have taken the shape they did without each other.
“I make no distinction between the development of my visual and musical output as the two have been growing together, feeding and informing the other.
“This is becoming a much commoner stance now and more and more artists are concerning themselves with ‘multi-media’ pieces. In the old days, if you wanted to make music, you had to learn a guitar chord or the layout of a keyboard and if you wanted to produce visual pieces, you needed to brandish a pencil or chisel. The techniques were very different and mutually intimidating.
“Now, broadly speaking everyone is using the same tool: a computer. Even the interface design of audio and visual software works in a similar way so artists and musicians are not intimidated by alien tools. It is producing a climate in which the emphasis is taken from virtuosity towards compositional sense and the disciplinary boundaries are blurring.”
Not exactly one for resting on his lauels, since this interview was written, Eno has – with musician and softwear designer Chris Chilvers – put together a ‘procedural music’ soundtrack for The Sims and SimCity creator Will Wright’s Spore metaverse, and developed the Bloom iPhone application, which allows users to listen to an interactive regnerative composition and create their own music, in real time. It is described as “part instrument, part composition, part artwork”.
Oblique Strategies has also been updated for the digital age as an iPhone application too.
As well as producing Coldplay’s last long player, he recently worked with David Byrne again and released an album, Everything That Will Happen Today Will Happen, with its own easy-to-embed media player which allowed the blogsophere to stream the entire album for free – as well as coming in variety of innovative and collectable formats and packages, both physical and digital, for those prepared to pay cash money.
And somewhere along the way, Nick Clegg made him the Liberal Democrat advisor on youth issues. At the age of 60.
As ever, it’s going to be interesting to see what Eno gets up to next.