This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Brian Eno, musician, artist, producer, thinker.
It is apparent that there’s no measure in contemporary culture to absolutely gauge Brian Eno.
His staggering command of several creative disciplines places him alongside traditional giants of each while his ability to amalgamate art and music has made him an icon of popular culture.
As with such fellow provocateurs as Kraftwerk, Can, Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield, and Jean-Michel Jarre who also provided the breakthrough of electronic music in the ‘70s, as well as with America’s musical iconoclast Frank Zappa, Eno is difficult to pinpoint.
He’s a painter, a sound artist, a light and video artist, a prolific writer, a fervent political activist, a theorist on culture—a figure regarded as synonymous with innovation since his emergence in the early ’70s playing synthesizer with Roxy Music.
Eno’s mammoth discography can leave you a bit dazzled.
After leaving Roxy Music, he recorded a number of ground-breaking solo albums, coining the term ambient music to describe such pivotal releases as “Another Green World” (1975), “Discreet Music” (1975), and “Music for “Airports” (1978).
He collaborated with such major acts as Robert Fripp, Cluster, Harold Budd, and David Bowie; and produced U2, Laurie Anderson, Jon Hassell, Talking Heads, Devo, John Cale, Grace Jones, Slowdive, Coldplay, James Blake, Damon Albarn, and countless others.
He was among the first to explore the artistic potential of immersive technologies, developed primarily for the video game industry.
Dating back to his time as an art student, Eno has also worked in various mediums, including audio-visual installations, marrying his videos and paintings with his music.
In his 2008 biography “Brian Eno–the ‘Father of Ambient Music,” David Sheppard compares Eno to a man in his garden shed, “sporadically emerging to show the world what he’s been building in there.”
Eno’s latest garden creation, “Music For Installations,” was released May 4th, 2018. It a collection of new, rare and previously unreleased recordings from his audio-visual installations, covering the period 1986 to the present. It is available as 6 CD, and 9 LP box sets. as well as a limited edition 6-CD set.
*NOTE: The interview with Brian Eno took place Monday, July 9th.
Quite a time in the UK this week with President Trump visiting, and hard-liner Brexiteers openly debating a non-confidence vote that could sweep Prime Minister Theresa May from power.
I just heard the news that Boris Johnson has resigned. You probably don’t know who…
I know exactly who he is. The British Foreign Secretary with the tousled hair. The former mayor of London, and the frontman for Britain’s campaign to leave the European Union. Ever since Theresa May bungled the 2017 election, losing a majority in Parliament, there has been speculation over how long she would continue leading the Conservatives.
So that is pretty serious. That is kind of the most major split in the government that has happened.
Well, only a few days earlier David Davis, the minister in charge of negotiating the country’s split from the bloc, also resigned. With Britain’s Parliament seemingly deadlocked over Brexit, the idea of another referendum might be back in play.
Yes, that’s right. So it’s all looking exciting.
(Following this interview, Guto Bebb, the British minister for defence procurement resigned July 16th in order to go against the government in a crunch vote on the Brexit Customs Bill in Parliament, after May accepted amendments by Brexiteers.)
I wasn’t going to start our interview with political questions, but with you being president of the Stop the War Coalition (since) 2017), it seems appropriate. You once argued that the mainstream media survives on alarm. Certainly, each time we turn on TV news or read news accounts online or in newspapers, there is something big going on.
Well, it’s a chaotic time. It really is. With an absolutely insecure (British) government arguing about a question that nobody including themselves understands properly, against a group of people who oppose it for reasons that they don’t understand either. It’s completely muddled up.
A 2017 article in The Guardian had a headline quote ascribed to you that read: “We’ve been in decline for 40 years—Trump is a chance to rethink.” Right now, the world is so chaotic, I can’t see how we can rethink anything.
That Guardian headline was a misquote that I got them to apologize for.
It didn’t sound right to me when I read it.
No, completely. It’s one of those things where the editor summarizes something that I said and then gives the completely wrong impression. What I had said was that that the arrival of Trump made people suddenly aware that things were in a very bad way; and it revives, completely revives, the various left-wing movements in America that had been happily sleeping for the past 20 years as they fiddled about with the internet.
The left-wing in America had a bit of a re-set under President George W. Bush but almost quickly went back under the covers following the election of President Barack Obama thinking, “Everything’s okay now. We have finally elected an Afro-American president.”
Yeah, that was very unlucky. I’m glad that he was the president, but it really was a security blanket for everybody on the left.
Stop The War is an engaging organizational name. Man has never stopped warring. It can be argued that war is a permanent part of the human condition. That war is inevitable because war is innate. Also, there are so many factors leading up to war including mainstream media pushing alarm buttons in order to sell newspapers and TV time; the profiting of weapon sales; and politicians continually stroking fears of war in order to keep people unconcerned about other issues like poverty.
With the crisis in Gaza, the rise of Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria and the international stand-off ongoing in Ukraine, it feels like the whole world is at war. Almost every society we can name has had a war of some sort. As well continuing global unrest suggests that there is unlikely to be a reversal. How do you stop war?
Well, not every society does have war, and societies seem to do that (have war) during a particular phase in their history for the kind of reasons that you are talking about. For example, I would think that there are two things that could unify a society. One of them is fear which is what we generally use these days. From 9/11 onwards, it’s all been about fear and the idea that we are under threat. So we have to be strong, and we have to fight back and have to hit before we’re hit, and so on. But the other thing that can unify societies, and hold them together is hope. For quite a long awhile America existed on that idea. It didn’t mean that it didn’t fight any wars, but it didn’t habitually get involved in wars. It got involved in the idea that by motivating people to the idea of a better society that things could work out. And it worked for awhile.
During the 1930s, the combination of the tragic losses in World War I and the impact of the Great Depression pushed America to embrace for decades a belief of non-involvement in European and Asian conflicts and non-entanglement in international politics.
Yes, and that wasn’t a bad idea. Why should America have decided that it was the policeman for the world? It just did somehow decide that, and then it got all of the benefits and the problems of that. The benefits being a huge industrial weapons base which every government loves because—I have made this argument in the past—defense is an ideal industry for a capitalist government because it allows you to do things in secret with a limitless budget, and with kind of unquestionable social justification. “It’s for your good.” That sort of idea that we are under threat all of the time. It is always easy to manufacture threats. Since the Second World War actually, America has lived with this understanding that there is a real threat, and we have to be involved in making preparations for war all of the time.
(During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson made a case for U.S. intervention in order to maintain a peaceful world order. However, the American experience in that war served to bolster the arguments of isolationists; they argued that marginal U.S. interests in that conflict did not justify the number of American casualties.)
Well, that attitude was then enshrined in the West as the Cold War in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. However, sometimes nations have to act as policemen to stop genocide as in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Rwanda though America steered clear of the mass slaughter in Rwanda against the Tutsi. Sometimes nations do have to step in.
Well, you could do it as the UN (United Nations) for example which we have done many times, and that’s been a good idea I think when it’s been an international recognition of a problem. But what has happened often with America and England, I’m afraid to say, and their closest allies is the idea that we have to preempt things. That we have to be there because we are the policemen.
Well, not only does Britain act as a policeman but it is the fourth large arms dealer in the world.
Yes, I’m aware of that. Yes. In fact, we are really good at that.
Israel also has had a long history of supplying weapons, technology, and military training to regimes including of late in Myanmar (formerly Burma), and South Sudan in order to boost the Israeli economy.
And how to deal with crowds and so on.
Military and police in Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico. as well as apartheid-era South Africa were said to be trained by Israelis consultants.
Yes, I have heard this as well. I know that in America right now that there are some police departments having training from the Israelis in crowd control. Crowd control, of course, is one of those phrases that covers a multitude of sins. Crowd control is basically how to keep your population subdued.
At times like this, it is important to distinguish between the hostility to or prejudice against Jews on the one hand and legitimate critiques of Israeli policies on the other. The sharp increase in violence in the Gaza Strip in recent months may have been a tipping point of world reaction to what is going on in Israel…
Yes, yes. Attacking the protestors on the Gaza border. Nobody thought that was a good idea even though the Israelis tried to spin it as it was the Israelis were under attack rather than the Palestinians.
(Since our interview the violence in the Gaza Strip has further escalated, culminating last weekend (July 14-15) when over 200 rockets and mortars were launched into Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces dropped over 50 tons of explosives on targets within the coastal enclave. Starting on July 16th Israel began to limit the movement of goods into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom Crossing, stopping the transfer of fuel and gas supplies but allowing essential medicines and food to pass. The fishing zone in the Gaza Strip was also reduced from a range of six to three nautical miles. Israel has threatened further action if the incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza into Israel do not stop.)
Settlements are one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You might recall that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon decided to unilaterally remove Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005, but the following year he suffered a stroke, and never regained consciousness. Settlement growth in the West Bank–that the Palestinians seek for an independent state–has exploded under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I think a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all but dead. The Israeli government intends to have one state, Israel.
Yeah, I think that is what they have wanted to do for several years now. Certainly, Netanyahu has always had that intention to basically subdue the Arabs completely or get rid of them. Preferably the latter.
(Brian Eno is a longtime supporter of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a movement against Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and disputed parts of Israel. He has also added his name to Artists’ Pledge for Palestine, which asks those working in arts and culture to decline funding from any organization connected to the Israeli government. In 2006, Eno was one of more than 100 artists and writers who signed a letter calling for an international boycott of Israeli political and cultural institutions. In 2014, he protested publicly against the military operation of Israel into Gaza. He was also a co-signatory to a letter that called for an embargo on Israel, similar to that imposed on South Africa during apartheid.)
(On July 19th, Israel’s Parliament enacted a law that enshrines the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people” — not all citizens. The legislation, a “basic law” — giving it the weight of a constitutional amendment promotes the development of Jewish communities, downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with a “special status.”)
Given what you have said about Israel over the years, I was surprised you were able to get into the country in May to attend the Palestinian Music Expo (April 11-13) in Ramallah in the West Bank. While you have been in Israel several times previously, were you nervous about entering Israel; that you’d be turned away at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv?
I wasn’t nervous exactly, but I was quite prepared to not get in. I thought that they wouldn’t let me in. But if they didn’t, that would be a story. I was prepared to do it (go there) for that reason. My daughter Irial, who was 26 at the time, was refused entry to Israel and banned for 10 years about two years ago. She was a medical student, and in her last year–You know you do these things called electives where you choose a hospital to go and work in?–She had been to Palestine twice before so she decided to go and work in the Arab hospital in Jerusalem. Everything was sorted out between her university and the (Israeli) government. All of the papers were in order. She went and they questioned her for a long time and sent her home, and told her that she wouldn’t be allowed into Israel for 10 years. I think that may have been because when she was at university she was chairman of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.
What was your reason for attending PMX, which is an annual showcase for Palestinian musicians, where Western music industry professionals can come to see and sign local talent?
There had been an event in February called “Creative Retreat at The Walled Off Hotel” in Banksy’s Hotel in Bethlehem. I was invited to that, but it was widely assumed that I would not get in and that if I went they might close down the whole thing. So I didn’t go to it, but I participated on Skype.
(As a mark of solidarity in activism against the Israeli West Bank barrier, a handful of artists and collaborators were invited by London artists Block9 to take part in the “Creative Retreat at The Walled Off Hotel.” Among those invited were Eno, Brixton’s EBS, Beirut’s Mashrou Leila, American underground DJ/Producer The Black Madonna, producer FRED, singer/songwriter/producer Roisin Murphy, and Palestinians Samir Joubran (of Trio Joubran), and violinist Akram Abdulfattah.
An album was recorded when most of the artists involved were staying at Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem. Eno and Leila worked remotely via Skype. The retreat’s remarkable contributions can be heard at: https://soundcloud.com/user-512771969/sets/block9-creative-retreat)
That’s the music you presented at PMX?
That’s right. Well, no sorry. That came out of that creative collaboration. As a result of that participation, I met up with the Trio Joubran and a couple of other people, and then we made that piece in my studio. So I went to PMX partly to present that because that was always part of the Creative Retreat, that whatever happened there would be presented at the PMX. So that was partly it. But also because I had really wanted to go last year, but I couldn’t make it. So this year was my chance. And everybody assumed, me including, that I wouldn’t get in.
Where is your studio based in London?
Notting Hill in West London.
How does work come to you? Do you have an agent seeking out projects or do people just find their way to your door?
That’s sort of what happens really. I go out as little as possible from my studio, but I keep doing this.
How do you create your music?
There are two different ways. One is the serious way that people like to hear about where I imagine a piece of music. I imagine a musical idea of some kind, and I start going about making it. That, however, is not the way that most of my music starts. That is the way the successful pieces that reach conclusions start. But most of the time what I am doing is that I am looking at the equipment I’ve got, and the techniques that are available to me, and so on, and I’m thinking, “I wonder what would happen if you did this with this. Or if you put this through that.” So mostly I’m making what you might call technical experiments of some kind. But, of course, they sometimes get interesting, and they turn into something more than that. I then think, “Oh, this is starting to become something.” Then I start thinking, “Okay, where could I go with this?”
Always tinkering. Once a piece has been recorded how do you retain it?
What I do is that I put it all into my iTunes’ archive. I have a great big, many-terabyte hard disc hard drive, and I store everything on that. I have it all backed up as well. So the pieces stay in two forms. One is the working form which is usually in Logic (a digital audio workstation and MIDI sequencer software application for the Mac OS platform). I work in Logic much of the time. Whenever I’m working on anything, even if I spent five minutes on it, if I am putting it away, I always do a quick rough mix of it. Just so that I can remember that the piece exists and what it is; otherwise, if I don’t do that, it just gets lost in the computer forever. I always bring everything to a little conclusion when I am working on it. That’s a good practice because when you think that something isn’t finished, and you do a quick mix of it, you listen to that mix a few months later, and you think, “Hey, that’s really got something. That is kind of finished, actually.” The big tendency with computers is to, as you say, is to tinker far too much.
Over the years, your music has been used in countless film soundtracks. The first time I was aware of your music being used was the “Jubilee” film in 1978 that used existing music (“Slow Water” from the 1978 album “Music for Films”) in which Queen Elizabeth I of England was transported forward in time to a wasteland ruled by her 20th Century namesake.
(“Jubilee,” which featured punk groups, and such notable artists as Wayne County, Toyah Willcox, and Adam and the Ants, has been described as “Britain’s only decent punk film.”)
I did one film before “Jubilee” for the same director, Derek Jarman, called “Sebastiane.” I scored the whole of that soundtrack. That was a film that came out in ’76. It was quite an interesting film because it was the first openly gay film really in England, as far as I know. It is actually a beautiful film. I really enjoyed doing the music for that. It was such fun. Then I did bits in a couple of other films.
(“Sebastiane,” a 1976 Latin-language British historical thriller film written and directed by Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress, portrays the events of the life of Saint Sebastian. The film was aimed at a very specialized homosexual audience.)
Is it true that you sent out “Music for Films” to film directors when it was first released as a limited edition of 500 copies?
Yes. That was the idea of it originally. It was intended to be like a library album so people would hear it and use it and pay me something. I was looking to making a living at the time.
“Music for Films” is a loose compilation of short tracks composed from 1975 to 1978. All of the leading major publishers then, as today, had instrumental libraries that were being used in film, TV, and commercials. Much of what was then available was pretty horrible.
Horrible horrible stuff. They really were. So I thought that there must be a lot of people making films and I’m making a lot of this kind of music so why can’t I just put the two together? And it worked actually. Some of the pieces on that original “Music for Films” album have been used so many times. Like 50, 60 or 70 times some of them.
You have 51 film credits apparently.
How did you find that out?
I read an online overview of your work in film.
Oh, really? I think that there are only a couple of times, two or three times that I have actually done (scored) a film. Most of what I do is that I say, “I am happy to provide music for film,” but I don’t score to film, generally. I don’t like it very much.
Scoring is an enormous amount of work.
It’s a lot of work and it’s kind of very fiddly anal work that I don’t enjoy.
You like playing in the sandbox?
Completely. Yeah. It’s all a big sandbox around here.
You have been working on music for a film about German industrial designer Dieter Rams who is closely associated with Braun consumer products.
Yes, that’s nearly finished now.
Working with Gary Huswit who directed the 2007 independent feature-length documentary film “Helevetica” about typography and graphic design, centered on the typeface of the same name.
Yes, you are right. That’s the man.
An appropriate project for you considering that Dieter Rams’ design disciplines, including the care and accuracy in the design process, also speak to the core of your own projects. Less, but better.
Yes, that’s right. I think that it was a very good fit actually. I started off as I always do by looking through my huge archive of experiments that I have made over the years. I have, maybe, a few thousand unreleased pieces. Some of them are just demonstrations of a sound or a new type instrument that I’ve made or something of that sort. So I just started looking through the unreleased pieces, and I came across some things that I thought, “This really sounds like Dieter Rams.” I sent them to the director who was as enthusiastic as I was. So it was a thoroughly enjoyable contract.
Also, you have been working on the soundtrack of the Portuguese-language film, “O Nome Da Norte,” directed by Henrique Goldman.
That’s a fiction film. What do they call that? A movie, I guess. I finished on that one. That was finished about over a year ago. I don’t think that it has had a general release yet. It was in the São Paulo International Film Festival. It’s about a Brazilian contract killer. I think it’s what they call a mockumentary.
You reached into your hard drive and thought, “Do I have some music here that reminds me of a Brazilian contract killer?” A professional murderer responsible for 492 deaths.
(Laughing) I have music that reminds me of everything, really.
Talking about what’s on your hard drive. Are we ever going to hear the unused 83 pieces of music you devised for the Windows 95 startup chime? One of the most instantly recognizable pieces of music ever.
That would be quite a boring experience I will tell you.
Ironically, you used a Mac computer to create the piece, admitting to BBC Radio 4 in 2009 that, “I’ve never used a PC in my life; I don’t like them.” A Mac?
Of course. Who wouldn’t?
Your installations, twinning your abstract videos and paintings with your music, were born out of a personal struggle of whether to do music or art. You eventually decided you didn’t have to do one or the other. You could do both. Was your first Installation “Two Fifth Avenue” or “White Fence” in 1979 in the Kitchen Centre the first installation that you did?
Yes, it was. It was the first one that I did out of art school. I had done some of that at art school prior to that. I finished art school in 1969. So then there was a long gap and I started doing music. There actually were other things, yes. I taught for a little bit at Watford College of Art in the early ‘70s, and I did some installation work with some of the students there during that time. But the first public installation under my name was, yes, “White Fence” or “Two Fifth Avenue.” I can’t quite remember which one came first.
Were you then living in New York City?
Yes, it was just after I arrived there.
I love the fact you living near one of the busiest intersections in New York City when you created “Ambient 4: On Land” in 1982. It is a very, very quiet recording. It sounds like an outdoors rural landscape. Two years earlier, you had told Melody Maker’s Richard Williams, “New York is so energetic and self-contained that it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world exists.”
Well, I think that one of the reasons one makes music or any kind of art is to create the world that you’d like to be in or the world that you would like to try. You would like to find out what that world is like. I lived, as you say, in one of the noisiest points in the earth the cross, the intersection of Broome Street and Broadway which is two huge traffic streams with all of the associated honking of horns and screeching of brakes and everything that goes with that. My retreat really, the place where I could find some peace, and I was making music like that. On the other hand, when I moved back to England, I lived out in the countryside a little bit for about two or three years, and I started making quite noisy albums again.
The only way to fully shut out the world is to visit a gallery, a church or to climb a hilltop. It’s difficult to shut this world off today.
Yes, it is. And if you take a phone with you, you don’t shut it off even then.
It was only three years ago that my wife and I got Wi-Fi at our cottage north of Toronto.
Yeah, yeah. I still have a place out in Norfolk, and I still don’t have Wi-Fi there, but I have discovered that I have something called a personal hotspot on my (cell) phone so now, unfortunately, I’m kind of enslaved again.
You are credited as one of the inventors of ambient music which I don’t think you quite are because there were certainly others exploring sound and music around the same time or earlier. You most certainly coined the genre ambient music, and then popularized it with your 1978 album “Ambient 1: Music for Airports,” and with projects afterward. We’ve since seen the rise of industrial ambient, dark ambient, ambient house and so on.
Mmmmm…Yes, when I first came up with that word ambient as an idea you are quite right. Quite a few people were starting to get into that area of making music that was longer and slower and more homogenous if you like. Not like programmatic–, that’s to say, sequential, teleological– narrative pop music or classical music, but something that was sort of steady state. I think that came from (avant-garde) people like La Monte Young, and Terry Riley. It came from that side of the world.
Pierre Schaeffer and the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, starting in the late the ‘50s, had laid the groundwork for the concept that music is not only made of notes, but made of sound, and that the difference between noise and music is at the hand of the musician.
Yeah and also the interesting drone-based music, like Indian music. Pieces that were very long, and that went on in pretty much the same world for a long time. There was a big movement of people listening to that. Nobody had actually given it a name before so I gave it a name. Then, of course, as these things always do it opened up and turned into all sorts of other things that had nothing at all to do with me; but which quite reasonably can be called ambient music if somebody wants to call them that. I’m always coming up with new names, really.
You aren’t exclusively a musician. You are a musician/artist. Both art and music are part of your creative palette.
Yes, so I suppose that I am somebody who thinks of things that you can do in a medium which is slightly different from….I’m thinking of ways that you could make music given the possibilities that now exist. That’s a very real job because the possibilities keep multiplying, like exponentially, they are multiplying. So suddenly that act of making music has all of these sorts of new possibilities that nobody has really explored. I’ve always been interested in that. Just seeing what can you now do that you could never do before. What can you now think of that you could never think of before.
Music has traditionally been regarded as linear applied to a narrative timeline.
Yes, and if you think about it there really should be a new name for what we are doing now because there’s so little resemblance to that classical conception of music except that it comes in through your ears. That is about the only common thing. But, if you think about traditional music or if you ask somebody what does music mean, they will give you this definition: It involves a group of people playing together in a space. Thus music disappears as soon as they (musicians) play it. It goes away. It’s lost. And you go to them to hear it being played. It involves skill and the ability to read charts and to understand what they are doing and to duplicate it to do it more than once.
But everything I’ve said, that doesn’t need to be true of contemporary music.
You can make music like you make a painting. You can go into the studio, put down one piece, take a break, and then put down another piece. Get rid of the first piece or stretch it or change it. Then what you finally end up making exists forever. It is not ephemeral. It is portable. It can be played anywhere. It is not location-based. And the listener, of course, can listen to it as many times as they want in whatever situation they want. So really, it is a whole new art form. I often think of the analogy of the transition from theatre to film to television. Nobody confuses those three things. People know that film is different from theatre. In film you can do things you couldn’t do in theatre. You gain some possibilities. You lose some possibilities. We have a different name for it, and similarly, we have a different name for TV. We really need to have a different name for this new thing that we still call music.
Against a backdrop of considerable new advances in recording technology in the ‘60s, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was one of the first to approach recording not to reproduce a live performance—in fact, he stopped performing on the concert circuit–rather it was to create a new, unique work, one that could only have been born in the studio.
He was living in Toronto when I was working with Dan (Lanois).
Yes. He was able to control every aspect of his musical performance by the use of repeated takes, and splicing in order to assemble the perfect record. He produced a whole work from the aggregation of different takes. The final edits were done by an engineer in New York.
Wow. I know that he did editing. Did he do a lot of editing? Do you mean that he was using a MIDI piano?
No. Later in his career he recorded at Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium, where he made his professional debut at age 14. and sent the tapes to CBS in New York with instructions of what to edit. Then he and an engineer would go back-and-forth until Gould was satisfied with the master tape.
So were they editing tape or MIDI files?
No, they were editing tape.
At one point Glenn brought a party of technicians, musicians and lay people into the recording studio because he wanted to know if a non-musician could spot his edits. To see what the correlation was between the detection of edits, and the actual edits. The only ones that had any correlation were the technicians. Neither the musicians nor lay people had a meaningful correlation to the actual edits.
The enduring myth that Glenn was a recluse isn’t true. I worked in the studio next to him at the old CBC-Radio building in Toronto, and I found him very sociable. He certainly had mental and emotional difficulties, but he may have had focal dystonia, which is a repetitive motion injury as well as Asperger’s syndrome.
I kind of believe that from the little bits and pieces that I have seen of him, yeah.
I see a direct line from your ambient projects and recordings to your 2017 album “Reflection.” The intention with your ambient works was to simulate an endless music experience; music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. You also wanted music to unfold differently all the time. Nevertheless, recordings are limited in length and replay identically each time you listen to them. With “Reflection” which is accompanied by a deluxe generative app version that runs on iPhone, iPad and Apple TV; the music is playing infinitely and changing throughout the day and the year.
Yes. Not many people have commented on it, but I think that it is kind of interesting to make a piece of music that is time sensitive and season sensitive. I think that people will pick up on it sooner or later. A few people have said to me, “You know what? It sounds different now from when I first go it.” And I say, “Yes and when did you first get it?” They say, “February.” And, I’ll say, “Well, wait until next September, and it will sound similar again.”
You worked on “Reflection” with your frequent collaborator, the musician and software designer Peter Chilvers. He came to work with you on the Spore computer game–developed by Maxis and designed by Will Wright, and released for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X–a decade ago, and he never quite left.
Originally, we met when I was doing a talk in London about the idea of generative music, and Peter was in the front row. When question time came, it turned into a conversation between the two of us. He had been thinking about these things quite a bit himself. His background in interesting. When he was 7, his mother taught him how to program. His mother was one of the first code writers in England. So she taught Peter about code writing. They had a company together to produce educational software when he was very young. So he was very much into this world. Then he joined the company that made games, and he was one of the programmers for that. He was also a musician. So he got interested, apart from other things, in the music side of games. He kind arrived at the position of thinking that game music was very boring normally. Then he, I gather, heard about my idea of generative music, and he thought, “Okay, this is what we need for games. We want music that keeps changing. That keeps evolving as we are playing. Not just loops that keep going around so every time that you are in place A you get music A playing exactly the same each time.” So then the Spore project came up, as you said, and recollecting the conversation we had together, I said, “Do you want to come and help me work on it?” because it wasn’t just a musical issue it was also an issue of could we technically make this idea work of a kind of self-generating soundtrack rather than a pre-recorded soundtrack. So that’s how we started working together.
Peter’s job has repeatedly morphed and yielded a number of bizarre credits working with you including as digital archeologist, sonic archivist, and as musical assistant to Brian Eno. On “Reflections,” he’s down as providing “mutation software.”
Well, it’s difficult to know how to describe to people this kind of role. It is certainly more, much more than a technical job. The fact that he is himself a musician is very important I think because it means that he can tell me about possibilities that he knows that I will be interested in. Anyone who is working with software is dealing with millions of possible futures of the software. You can do this. You can do that. You can do all of the other things. He is very good at saying, “Here’s something that you might be interested in. You could do this.” Then I think, “Oh, yeah. That would be good, and you could do that with this feature involved as well.” So it is a very good collaboration. We work together well I think.
After completing Spore, you and Peter co-created the smartphone app Bloom, running in Flash using a Wacom tablet, that generated bubbles and tones when the phone’s screen was pressed. You followed Bloom a year later with Trope, then Bloom HD for the iPad, and Scape in 2013.
In February, the event “Bloom: Open Space,” situated inside an enormous warehouse in Amsterdam in the Westergasfabriek, a city park and cultural complex was once a gas factory, took place. Over five days, participants were able to step into a central zone surrounded by screens, where they can physically experience Bloom – tapping the air around them to create elaborate patterns and unique melodies with the simplest of gestures.
You were a bit apprehensive about the prospects of “Bloom: Open Space” were you not?
Well, I was at first because I thought they were talking about virtual reality, and I have never enjoyed that experience.
Why is that?
I don’t like wearing headsets. I don’t like being stuck inside that thing. It is just physically so uncomfortable, and I can’t overlook that. it turned out that it wasn’t that. They were talking about augmented reality which, I think at the moment, is a much better experience. When you are doing augmented reality you are still aware of the physical space you are in, but you have something superimposed on it. That sounds nice to me. That’s a good idea.
Live music is only now starting to explore immersive tools with the use of Oculus VR, and other virtual reality technology today. Live events do seem to be moving beyond staging at the front of house to further breaking down the 4th wall between performers and the audience. Looking straight ahead at something for two hours is not as successful as selling out the whole space. Why aren’t artists and designers using more of a theatre?
Partly there are technical reasons for that. If somebody is doing a tour…
I understand that if festivals and arenas are involved, but I’m talking about theatre shows. In the ‘60s era, the Living Theater and others were developing productions involving audience immersion in some way or another often in non-traditional venues such as streets and prisons.
Have you seen David Byrne’s new show? It’s really good. It is really really good. It’s a very interesting new approach to how to use a stage. I won’t tell you too much about it because you should see it.
(David Byrne is currently touring his first solo album in 14 years, “American Utopia,” released in March. The live staging features Byrne and his musicians in an empty space bounded by three metal chain walls, playing wireless, portable instruments, each person with sensors that trigger their own lighting.)
In March, you and other artists unveiled an immersive work with the ISM Hexadome in the atrium of the Martin Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin. This mobile structure is slated to tour Europe and the United States throughout 2019.
Working alongside other artists had to be challenging.
It really wasn’t like that. It was a series of artists…..
(Among the artists featured are Thom Yorke, Tarik Barri, Ben Frost; the visual artist MFO; and the sound artists Holly Herndon and Peter van Hoesen.)
Even with a series of artists, you’d be conscious of what the others were creating.
Except I wasn’t. I was the first in the series so I didn’t know what anybody else was going to do. In fact, I haven’t heard yet what anybody else did do. All that was offered in that case was a particular technical set-up which was 6 big screens, 6 big projectors and the screens all arranged around a space that the audience is inside of. It was just a three-dimensional version of one of my shows really. Very interesting, and I think that it worked okay. I don’t know what the other people did though.
You turned 70 in May. Can you hear the door knocking in that there’s only so much time in your life left, and that there’s so much more that you want to do?
Yeah, of course, yeah; including having some time off. That’s also one of the things that I would like to do.
Being circus people, it’s hard to run away from the circus.
Well, I think so but I am starting to think that I will be able to do it soon.
I don’t know what that would mean really. Retire. The things that I’m interested in doing I keep doing. I never felt like I was working, really. I can’t say that retiring is an option.
Surely, it doesn’t mean returning to the recording studio to produce bands.
No, I don’t think so.
Those days are over?
I don’t know but at the moment it feels like that.
It’s a big chunk of your life recording an album.
Yeah, I don’t want to do projects like that anymore. Not as exclusive as that. That length of time.
My wife Anya Wilson also worked closely with David Bowie as his radio tracker in the UK before she came to Canada. You worked with David on his late ’70s “Berlin Trilogy”– the albums “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger.” I imagine that you miss him as she does.
Yes, sometimes I think he’d like this or I want to send him a joke or something that I’ve heard.
He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
Yeah, he was very funny. That’s the part of him that people don’t usually know about.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.