by Ian MacDonald / NME
3rd December 1977
Paradoxes. There are lots of paradoxes in this week’s episode.
And dichotomies – plenty of them too.
To begin with, there’s the paradox of a private, retiring person who is also, quantitively at least, one of the world’s greatest talkers.
And, though I’ve called his utterances in these articles “monologues”, that’s not intended to convey the idea that Eno habitually hogs the conversation – more that yours truly had very little to say and was relieved that his subject had enough going on in his head to keep him talking for six hours with minimum prompting.
Engage Eno’s interest and he’ll converse with you, whoever you are, until the cows come home.
He answers all his fan-mail – eventually – and his replies will vary from courteous brevity (bores) to sometimes extravagantly lengthy missives (people he recognises as comrades in thought).
You stand a better chance of getting a full reply from Eno if you, like him, are interested in both the arts and the sciences. In fact, if you have your own pet theories about what we might term “the cybernetics of creativity” – which admittedly rules most of us out – you and he will get on like a house on fire.
Cybernetics, by the way, is the science of organisation and stands, in this capacity, next door to another of Eno’s specialities – synergetics, or the science of co-operation.
Behind both studies lies an assumption about life – and the truths about it available to mere men – which can best be expressed in the term Behaviourism.
A behaviourist is someone who believes that the human condition can be accounted for by more or less ignoring people’s intentions and concentrating instead on their apparent behaviour. (NB. I say “apparent” where a behaviourist would have said “actual” to indicate the objection to this doctrine raised by all non-behaviourists – which is that the notion is nothing more than an ingenious excuse to makes one’s own subjectivity sound impressively scientific and impartial.)
Eno is happy to be described as a behaviourist. This, amongst other things, allows him to make provocatively materialistic statements about realms of human activity which most people might hold to be mainly spiritual, eg, art.
Here, for example, from one of the aforementioned letters, is his distinctively quantitive definition of beauty: “Beauty is what you feel when your behavioural or perceptual expectations are exceeded.”
And yet this “intellectual rigorousness” is but one axis of yet another paradox, as witness his oft-asserted desire to escape into a drifting, uncertain world where definite knowledge has been lost and all is water, water everywhere…
Eno accounts for this in his personal theory of the Old Man and the Child which, he suggests, we all contain within ourselves:
“The child is full of delight and amazed by everything – he plays purposelessly, or apparently purposelessly. The old man, or critic, on the other hand, is a pretty sophisticated personality – he tends to say ‘So what’s new?’, and by doing this he often belittles or stifles the child’s activity.”
It’s nearly two years now since Another Green World. If Eno’s new album, Before And After Science, has taken an inordinately long time to coalesce, this not because its creator has been indulging in laziness. On the contrary, the amount of thought and counter-thought implicit in this record was equivalent to a full-scale intellectual crisis.
As intimated earlier, Eno is not greatly interested in intentions. This is understandable in his case since the work methods he uses are specifically designed to produce unforeseen results. It’s his view that the “reasons” (his quote-marks) for doing something are important only inasmuch as they overcome inertia and get one moving in a direction.
It follows that the direction itself is of little consequence providing it throws up “interesting” (my quote-marks) phenomena en route.
Eno made 120 tracks during these two years. Not all of them would be considered by him distinct and separate directions, of course – but the quantity alone gives you an idea of what can happen to you when you decide that no one compass is any better than another.
“I abandoned the album three times before I finished it. It really caused a lot of sweat – and heart-ache, I suppose.
“At one point I thought that I could never achieve anything more, musically. Not that I’d achieved everything, just that there was nowhere else for me to go, you know?
“It affected everything I did in the end. I found myself saying ‘You’re just a dilettante. You’re not doing anything with the kind of intensity that it deserves’. It was a crisis of confidence that went very deep.
“I still don’t know how pleased I am with what I’ve done. Robert Wyatt said to me once that you commit yourself to what you’re left with – you know that this is the only thing left that you can do.”
What does the title signify?
Well, I use the word ‘science’ to indicate techniques and rational knowledge. And what the title implies is that the condition ‘before science’ is similar to the condition ‘after’ it – that there’s a kind of circle thing and that science is the isolated one.
“It’s a McLuhan-type thing really, saying that the post-industria1 technology is quite similar to the pre-industrial era.”
The record, when it’s marketed, will contain four prints of water-colours by Eno’s colleague and guru Peter Schmidt. Why?
“Peter and I work very similarly. His way of working – and, to an extent, mine also – is the result of mastering the technicalities of the medium and then abandoning them. Fripp says you can’t abandon technique until you’ve mastered it – you can either work without it, or you can work with it and not care about it.
“The middle condition is the difficult one where you’ve just got it and it kind of blinds you, forms a kind of grid which you can’t escape from”.
And is this what happened to you?
“I use processes – which we’ll discuss later – to generate the structures of my music. With this new album, I found that I had to work very very hard to get the results I wanted – the process didn’t automatically generate them any more, whereas it used to.
“I used to be led by the work. Something would happen and I’d just follow it. This time it wasn’t as easy as that. Things seemed to be going in directions which weren’t interesting to me any more – I found myself trying to use a technique which was bound to give a particular class of outputs to give a different class. So I was working against the technique, to some extent.
“I suspect that I’ve come to the end of a way of working with this record. It’s a loss of confidence and I think that comes through – something more like humanity than whimsicality, you know? Not so much tentativeness as reasonable doubt.
“It’s less brash than other things I’ve done.”
Tell me about the processes.
“Well, there are four groups of them: technological, personal, social, and one to do with compositional mathematics or something like that.
“Technological ones would be particular things I found in the studio. That if you put this and this together you’d have a sound that no-one had heard before – and this would become the basis of a piece.
“A social technique would be using musicians who didn’t normally work together, or using somebody on a track who was a very unlikely choice for that track.
“A personal technique – well, Oblique Strategies is the perfect example of that. And mathematical . . . that would be deciding whether the song would be symmetrical or enantio-morphic. That means self-reflecting, by the way. (Oh. Ta. – Ed.)
“They were ways of getting started. Using some system that allows you to organise sound in some way and which gives you a lift-off so that you can sit back and see which way it’s going.
“But what happened this time was that I’d try out one of these techniques and, sure enough, something would happen. But it seemed quite arbitrary to me – not as interesting as before. The systems weren’t taking me into unknown territory any more.
“I wrote a thing about Peter once where I said ‘He uses systems to occupy his conscious mind sufficiently for intuition to operate’. The system is for satisfying one’s need to know what’s going on, while the real work is done by some other part of you.
“It’s a way of allaying one’s natural doubts about what one is doing. Only this time it didn’t allay the doubts. I was thinking ‘Why this system rather than any other one? This is quite arbitrary. It could be anything.'”
“I think a lot of this was to do with the fact that I was very tired for the last year as well. I’ve been in quite bad health as a result of working too much, I think. I didn’t have that energy of enthusiasm to pull me through.”
As things progressed, the album began to behave as if it had a will of its own – appearing in one place, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, and then fading… only to start materialising again in an entirely different location.
Eno found himself trapped in a kind of M. C. Escher nightmare where up, down and sideways spontaneously and arbitrarily swapped functions. Time after time he took a metaphorical breath, marshalled his thoughts, and began to attempt to take control of the growing monster in Studio One.
“I normally work from object to content, as it were. This time I created a whole lot of objects and then selected a sub-set of them which seemed to have some common content about them. So I followed those.
“This seemed promising because I was being much more deliberate about what I felt the album to be about. This step-by-step method had always worked before – but, for some reason, it didn’t seem to work on this one and I began to become bewildered.
“Some of the tracks went through so many changes. I’d start with a bit of instrumental three minutes long. Then I’d copy it and edit it together so that it was eight minutes long. Then I’d put on a bit of song at the end and stick a whole load of instruments on.
“Then I’d listen to it and decide that that was all wrong and I’d strip all the instruments off again and remix it and decide that what it needed was a bit of song at the beginning…
“I was going mad.
“In the end, having bust three deadlines, I just had to get it out. It had grown so enormous – I just had to burst the balloon.
“I don’t care if people don’t like it. If they slam it or don’t buy it or however else they express their disapproval, that’ll be sufficient provocation to get on and do something else.
“In a way, disapproval might be more useful to me at the moment. It would make me go somewhere new – which is what you need to change your behaviour.”
Now that we’re back at behaviourism, I throw in another quote from an Eno letter – a statement made in response to a request for a definition of the “social function or responsibility” of an artist.
It goes like this: “I think that one of the functions of Art (both for the artist and for the perceiver, though not necessarily in the same way) is to furnish a false world which is an analogue of at least some of the aspects of the real world and to explore within that new behaviour patterns that might yet be too dangerous or imponderable in a real-life context.” (Eno’s italics.)
What, I wondered, were these dangerous and imponderable behaviour patterns which he, in the safety of the recording studio, was so carefully rehearsing? “Well, when you make a piece of work, you suggest a set of laws and relationships that can offer more or less probable results. I’m reading a book by William Empson called Seven Types of Ambiguity and he says that what we call ‘banal’ is that which chooses the most probable course to the most probable result and what we call ‘interesting’ is something that doesn’t quite do that – no, it’s Leonard Mayer, not William Empson.
“I think that when you start making a piece of music, the first bar of the thing offers you what key it’s in, what the tempo is, what kind of rhythm is being used – and, as soon as that’s stipulated, you’ve suggested a context that allows you more or less dangerous movements inside it.
“When I use the word ‘dangerous’ I’m talking about risk in an intellectual way, not physical danger.
“So you set up a context where you say to the perceiver ‘You can now make some guesses about what’s going to happen next’ – and, as an artist, you can also make those guesses and make something that appears as if it’s going to do something and then doesn’t – like reggae which appears as if it’s going to have a beat ‘there’ but doesn’t, kind of thing.
“Well – it strikes me that in real life you’re doing much the same sort of thing. You’re continually engaging in, and partly making, contexts – and you’re faced with either taking the path of least resistance through it, which might be alright sometimes, or you can choose to make a less probable move.”
Can you give me an example?
“Yes, a social one. I get people into the studio who might never have worked together before and I give them a very sketchy idea of what I envisage and they do it. And it can be very successful or it can be disastrous.
“Now, imagine asking that same group of people to build a house – or something the results of which could be tested and judged by functional criteria. You would then be taking much more of a kind of risk because you might end up with a house which was absolutely useless or unlivable in.”
You certainly might.
“Or imagine forming a government the same way. Although that’s probably how governments are formed actually – and why they don’t work too well.
“But the reason for doing the experiment in music is to establish how much I have to tell them and how much they have to adjust. The point is, you can think to yourself ‘Alright, I’ll do this‘ and it might be something that has a very slim chance of working, but you can afford to take the risk because it doesn’t really matter.”
It occurs to me that dangerous behaviour is almost always that resulting from the assumption that what you do doesn’t really matter.
In this connection Eno’s dichotomy between the “false” and the “real” world is symptomatic.
“A lot of people object to my use of the term “false world” because they like to think that art is a real struggle of the passions and so on.
“But it is a false world and, no matter how emotionally involved in it you get, you don’t really suffer physical damage from it. And, as long as you’re working in a world of affairs that are mainly conceptual, you’re free to withdraw.”
I refer the reader to the definition of behaviourism at the beginning of this article. Certainly the experience of art – or anything else – will modify an individual’s behaviour; what I fail to understand is how a scientist can hope to measure, for example, what Eno might term the rate of change in the human heart – or the flowering of love, as non-behaviourists would refer to it.
“Let me try to give you a measurable example of behavioural change, if not induced, then at least paralleled by an evolution in the world of art. Classical or traditional art is narrative and climactic…”
Eno draws a rising line on a graph in his notebook.
“…Whereas modern music – Steve Reich for example – is generally more smooth and continuous. All modern artefacts have that uniform, even contour. Likewise, modern paintings are multi-focal.”
And anti-authoritarian thereby?
“Exactly. Focus in traditional music and art says ‘This thing is important and these things are less important’. It’s didactic and based implicitly on hierarchical thought.
“But rock is democratic. Most rock songs are like a segment from a postulated continuum which might have ups-and-downs – which might have hooks and choruses that present high-spots, as it were – but, generally speaking, there isn’t this upward movement.
“If you think of most big rock singles, they’re a slice of something which could have started much earlier and gone on much longer. It strikes me that this is analogous to a change in general behaviour. Whereas a traditional, or nostalgic, view would hold that one works step-by-step to attain an envisaged goal, what tends to happen now is that people tend to orient themselves in the present rather than in terms of an anticipated future.
“People don’t tend to see their lives as an upward progress through a series of stages until they reach some happy condition. I don’t anyway – and I think that most other youngish people don’t.”
I guess most oldish people would readily acknowledge that. But the bit about hierarchies and authority is curious – it seems to creep in without declaring its real intent, as it were.
“Yes, I’ve begun to think rather differently about hierarchies and don’t reject them out of hand like I used to. But I think that, instead of being arranged one on top of the other…”
He draws a series of parallel lines in his notebook.
“… that they are, in fact, recursive and contain one another like Chinese boxes. The cybernetician Stafford Beer says that there are five distinct levels in the organisation of the human nervous system and they’re arranged in a hierarchical way.
“So, instead of the top level dictating every order to the bottom level – as in a traditional army – the lower levels deal with what they can and pass up problems that are beyond their capacity to deal with to the higher levels.”
At this point the impetus of thought is artificially halted by my desire for a cup of tea.
Both our mouths are dry, so we sit for a while and listen back to the tape from the definition of banality all the way through to the assault on traditional methods of human co-operation.
Stirring my tea, I venture that somehow this all seems a little superficial – though l can’t quite put my finger on it.
“I know what you mean. l sometimes get this voice at the back of my mind saying ‘Ah, but there’s much more to it than that though’.”
Maybe it’s to do with the limitations of behaviourism? You know – the bit about quantifying feelings.
“The thing that worries me is that you can’t make concise statements about feelings the way you can about observations.”
Paradoxically, I feel the opposite to be true. It’s no accident that all this talk based on impartial observation seems to require a technical jargon that proliferates with every extrapolation you make.
Eno broods on this.
“Did you see that thing that Peter wrote for my press-kit? There was a list of paired terms like ‘exotic reasonableness’ and things like that.
“I thought they were interesting because they got close to talking about feelings in a very interesting and strange way, I thought.
“There was something being said there that I liked – the fact that it was about me aside for the moment – it was a way of talking about what you feel about what you’re working on that seemed to go a step below what I was talking about…”
What moves you, Brian?
“Let me think. Oh yes – sunsets. I’ve been observing them for about three years now. There’s something about them that makes me feel happy and melancholy at the same time.
“Because every sunset is different, that’s why.
“You’re conscious of this endless succession of sunsets and every one is a little bit different, there’s never one that’s the same. And I like this feeling of being reminded of…
“It’s as if the self vanishes and you become a pure receiver…
It seems appropriate at this juncture to talk about David Bowie.
What was it like working with the Ringmaster of the Self?
“That time was really confused. It was much harder working on ‘Heroes’ than on Low. For a start I was in on ‘Heroes’ from the beginning, whereas for Low I arrived after the band had done their work and did it all with overdubs.
“It was all overnight, so I was in a kind of daze a lot of the time. Days drifting into one another, you know? And then there was David’s way of working, which is quite a lot different to mine. In fact it’s a mystery to me – I couldn’t work that way.”
“Well, the whole thing – except ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’, which was written beforehand – was evolved on the spot in the studio. Not only that, everything on the album is a first take! I mean, we did second takes but they weren’t nearly as good.
“It was all done in a very casual kind of way. We’d sort of say ‘Let’s do this then’ – and we’d do it, and then someone would say ‘Stop’ and that would be it, the length of the piece. It seemed completely arbitrary to me.”
What about “Heroes” itself?
“I was only involved in that track up to doing the backing-track. He wrote the lyrics and the melody after I’d left – as he did for all the other tracks.
“And, when I left, I already had a feeling about that track – it sounded grand and heroic. In fact, I had that very word in mind.
“And then David brought the finished album round to my place and that track came up and it said ‘We can be heroes’ and I was absolutely… It was such a strange feeling, you know. I just shivered with… When you shiver, it’s a fear reaction, isn’t it?”
How did the rest of the finished album strike you?
“I never really listen to lyrics. I just hear bits and pieces. Like in ‘Joe The Lion’ where he says ‘It’s Monday’. That’s a real stunner.
“But I probably won’t listen to the lyrics for a few months yet. You know that Joni Mitchell album Court And Spark? I’ve had that for two years now and I play it a lot – but I’m only just getting to the point where I’m bothering to work out what she’s going on about in the lyrics.”
Describe the activity in the studio.
‘Well, we had all these backing-tracks very suddenly – it seemed in about two days. And remember: this came after labouring for months and months on my record. And I thought ‘Shit, it can’t be this easy. ‘
“I was very inclined to distrust it at first. But gradually it began to hang together.
“Fripp did everything he did in about six hours – and that was straight off the plane from New York too! He arrived at the studio at about 11pm and walked in and we said ‘Do you fancy doing anything?’ and he said ‘Might as well hear what you’ve been doing.’
“And while we were setting up the tapes, he got out his guitar and said ‘Might as well try a few things.’ So I plugged him into the synthesiser for treatments and we just played virtually everything we’d done at him – and he’d just start up without even knowing the chord sequences.
“It was a very extraordinary performance.
“By the next day, he’d finished, packed up, and gone home. All first takes again. Incredible.
“Another person who deserves mention is Carlos Alomar. All of those little melody parts are his – and he thinks them out at lightning speed.
“We’d all go out into the studio and David would say ‘Okay, it’s that, that, twice as long on that, and then that – and we do this a couple of times and then back to that again.’
”And after that very brief instruction, we’d start playing – and, in that tiny space of time Carlos would have worked out this lovely line. He’s quite remarkable. He gives those pieces a lot of character.”
What about Bowie?
“He gets into a very peculiar state when he’s working. He doesn’t eat. It used to strike me as very paradoxical that two comparatively well-known people would be staggering home at six in the morning, and he’d break a raw egg into his mouth and that was his food for the day virtually.
“It was really slummy. We’d sit around the kitchen table at dawn feeling tired and a bit fed up – me with a bowl of some crummy German cereal and him with albumen from the egg running down his shirt.”
Do you have much in common in terms of approach?
“We used Oblique Strategies a lot – ‘Sense Of Doubt’ was done almost entirely using the cards – and we did talk about work-methods, but no I don’t think we have that much in common. But that’s fine, so long as there’s give and take.”
How does his approach differ from yours?
“Well, for example, we stayed late one evening and did that piece called ‘Neuköln’. I liked that very, very much. I was very impressed by that.
“And I was trying to think what it was like in painting. There was a German school in Berlin at the beginning of the century called Die Brucke (The Bridge) – an expressionist school. Very rough, tough strokes – and they all have a mood of melancholy about them or nostalgia, as if they were painting something that was just disappearing.
“And all of that – the boldness of attack, the unplanned evolutionary quality of the images, and the over-all mood – remind me of the way David works.
“Another piece was the one called ‘Moss Garden’.
“David wanted to do a piece which was very descriptive, something I don’t normally do inasmuch as I usually start something and then say ‘Oh that’s what it is’ and then follow that direction. But this was quite studied.
“David told me about this place in Kyoto called the Moss Garden and then we just started to work. And, again, there was this very sloppy sort of technique – like, I was just playing around with this chord-sequence on the Yamaha synthesiser and I said ‘Give us a shout when you think it’s long enough’, you know, and sort of carried on. And then David looked at the clock and said ‘Yeah, that’ll probably do’, and we stopped.
“And, on the record, that’s exactly where the piece ends. I find this very, very curious. It’s so random somehow.”
For those who haven’t grasped the subtle element of control in Eno’s method, his complaint about randomness will sound like the pot calling the kettle black.
“Well, all systems have their peculiar orientation and direction. The whole problem is one of ‘How much drift do I want and how much direction do I want?
“Another Green World is like space-travel in the sense of aimed exploration. Before And After Science is sea-travel in the sense of putting oneself into a current and allowing oneself to drift.
“This has a connection with cybernetics and reminds me of a passage in Stafford Beer’s Brain Of The Firm where he’s describing the programming of complex systems – a passage which has heavily influenced me in general, by the way.
“He says that instead of organising your system in full detail, you organise it only somewhat. ‘You then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go.’ Which is equivalent to a kind of aimed drift, if you see what I mean.
“The tracks on Side 2 of Before And After Science have an emotional meaning for me which is, once again, melancholy. They’re sort of post-atomic tracks.
“They’re all about the sea, in fact. They’re to do with either drifting away or getting lost or being part of the flow of things.
“And what they’re drifting away from is the condition where everything is clear-cut and knowable and everything is in its place and easy to see.
“Which is a cause partly for celebration and partly for melancholy. It’s both exciting and unnerving.”
“In other words, that Davis knew the putting certain players together would create an over-all context automatically – it wouldn’t have to be thought up in advance or in isolation from the people who were scheduled to fulfil it.
“Most music is designed in terms of aural sensations. What I decided to do was to design it in terms of social events or structural events which would give rise to aural outcomes – to move back a stage.
“The 801 was supposed to have been like that, but it didn’t really happen in the end. We never really thrashed out our approach. Those concerts were too strongly anchored in sanity for my liking.
“But the original idea – to have an organisation devoted entirely to experiments in approach – is still strong with me.”
As we were packing up, I asked Eno where he’d place himself on the “political spectrum”. He drew me a diagram.
He claims he’s an anarchist, but his ideas about intermediary levels of communication between government and the man-in-the-street sound like bureaucracy run riot to me.
I suppose he and I are quite similar, actually. We’re both losing our hair and we both like David Bowie.
A last word from him:
“I’ve just remembered another thing that moved me. I went to see that Woody Allen film Annie Hall and I cried in that. It had a very strong effect on me.
It’s about Woody Allen’s relationship with Diane Keaton and it’s about the relationship being born, flourishing for a while, and gradually falling apart. And it falls apart not in any catastrophic way – they don’t have a big row or anything – they just drift away from each other.
“And the last scene shows them meeting by chance on a street and you can’t hear what they’re saying – it’s shot through a cafe window or something like that – and you see this rather embarrassed, fumbling bit of conversation between them.
“And there was something so touching about that scene because you could see that these two people had kind of come together, but now they’d gone past each other and were still trying to look at each other over their shoulders and still keep in touch, but it just wasn’t happening anymore.
“It was a beautifully-stated little cameo, that thing.”