Interview with Brian Eno (Synapse – 1979)

In the january/february issue of Synapse, this interview with Brian Eno, created by Kurt Loder, was published. I have tried to scan the pages and make a readable text out of it. Which was quite a job. We include the original article and the OCR’d text, also we added some colourfull pictures that weren’t in the original article. Please note that all (c) are with the Magazine and the author.

The processed article.

Synapse has received more requests to publish an interview with Brian Eno than any other artist. It’s easy to understand when one considers that he has worked with David Bowie, John Cage, Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, Cluster, 801 Live, Devo, Talking Heads, Nico, John Cale, Kevin Ayers, and Mike Oldfield, among others. What kind ot a personality does it take to collaborate with such diversity? by Kurt Loder

Kun Loder: In your various recording pro1ec1s over /he pas/ live years with David Bowie. Robert Fripp, Phil Manzanera. John Cale. Ultravox John Cage and most recently,Talking Heads and Devi, you’ve raised the art of collaboration a whole new level of creative endeavor Whal particular qualties do you took for in a potential collaborator?

Brian Eno: Sometimes I think any collaboration is worthwiule , because if it isn’t a promising one, then I have to work all the harder to get something that interests me personally out of it This is how I work wnh ltlm scores If I’ve got the 1Ime. I’ll accept any film score, as long as the director ,sn’t a creep who I just don’t gel on wllh Ill accept any fllm JOb quite independent of what I feel about me film. because I’ve got an excuse 10 make some music. In a way, if I’m not sympathetic to the film it’s even more lnterestng. because Ive got a constraint that’s bound to push something new out of me So one theory ol collaboration is that I’ll do anything The other theory of collaboratio says, in fact, there are some people who are much more interesting to work with than others So these two things vie with each other. The collaborations I enjoy, in face the ones you mentioned and especially the recent two I’ve had with Talking Heads and Devo arise from a sense that the other party of the collaboration has a set of skills that, in combination with my set of skills, will produce something novel

Synapse: Whal was there  about the first Talking Heads LP that intrigued you enough to want to produce their second one?

Eno: Well, first of all I found it very, very atracttive material, full of potential. and certainly manlfesttng an lntelligence that stood behind the music. And it struck me that the music was all the product of some very active brains that were constructing mus,c ,n a k,nd of conceptual way It seemed lo me – and lhis was confirmed by later experience – 1ha1th ese people were making experiments They were thinking, “What would happen if we did this? And this? Oh, yeah. So what happens if we now do this with it?” And when I talked to David (Byrne)s subsequently, indeed this is what they do He says that some of their songs have arisen from a purely intelllectual basis And my own work arises from similar ideas. from really just tinking “This might be a good idea What would that sound like?” Rather than from the way people think songs are written. People think that you sit at home and you have a melody and the chord sequence in mind and then you think, “Well. what instruments would be good for this?” You know. that kind of idea of having a goal, which you then build towards I don’t think anyone works like that, or very rarely. Sometimes there will be a melody al the beginning. or a particular rhythmic configuration bul generally there’s a sense of, “Well I’m going to set this process in motion, on where will it lead me? And furthermore, do I like where it leads me” Because if you don’t, you abandon it, you start again.

Synapse: How long do you give an idea to work out?

Eno: That’s an interesting question. because It really depends on your confidence level al the time. There are some days when my confidence level ,s so high lhat I can make anything work There are other days when it just won’t work like that. It really depends sheerly on confidence and energy Parucularly if you work without a group. as I do you really need a fol ol energy to push something through those first stages. where it’s just a rhythm box going “bump-titta,” and a piano going “dum, dum, dum ” I mean. that doesn’t sound terribly interesting. So maintaining the conviction to keep going in the hope, or in the trust that it is going to turn into something, .d oes require a 101o f apphca11on And some days I jus1 don’t have that w,1h the Tatk,ng Heads. all 1he material on the album was pre-wnuen. but some of 119 01c hanged In the-s111dio Sorne of it gor changed quite a 101. Like ,n certain sec1,ons I would say, “Now, look, 1h1s secuon Is going 10 be ,meresung I can tell, why don t you extend 11n ow? If II doesn’t turn out to be Interes11ng. we can easily ed,t II back down again 8u1 leis make I1I011genr ow, let’s see I just get the leehng that some1h1ng·s go,ng 10 happen ~Q)ltlf here ” And we did that On other occasions a number !hat worked very well hve d1dn’1m ake 11in 1ha1fo rm ,n the s1udie Sow e would chop 11a bout, secl1ons would come out, the thing would be edlled 10 a much more compact form And ,n fact. one ot the differences. I lhrnk, between 1h1s and the last record ls that there’s a real conciseness about the ideas. and there’s a very high rate of ideas per m,nute, much higher than lhe other re• cord

Synapse: Did you utilize the studio more? Is tnere more synthetic percussion, for example? Eno: In fact, 1heres not synthetic percussion as such, but there are quite a few cases where the drums are treated and. “electronified, if you like. Because the way I was set up was such that I had my synthesizer direclty linked with the control desk (mixingboard), so that as 1heyw ere play,ng the basic tracks. I could feed any Instrument – or all ,instrument if I wanted to, but I never did that through my sys1em, and start playing with the sound on it. And on some tracks, this was quite decisive II really gave a character lo the track which then modified how they worked on ,1 So there was a real interaction in that sense Other tracks I tell preuy much alone, because as far as f was concerned they’d already extended the things quite a long way

Synapse: What kind of synthesizer setup do you use in the studio?

Eno: if you work In different studios, you find that they all have a few bits and pieces around And I always find it much more interesting to be confronted with their bits and pieces, which are probably not what I would have chosen, than to keep carrying my own stack of things. I’m not interested in developing a body ol technique that works. So I carry just one thing with me. which is this little synthesizer that fits into a suitcase, which is a very idiosynchratic machine made by EMS I’va had it for a long time, and I’ve never had it serviced, so it’s quite quirky It’s rather unpredictable, and it does very interesting things. So I take that around, because it still surprises me.

Synapse: What was your approach to Devo? Aren’t they almost entirely the opposite of a group like Talking Heads?

Eno: They’re another polarity to Talking Heads on one continuum. But In another sense they’re very close to one another And that sense Is, again. this experimental feeling of “What would happen if … ?” I get the feeling with both of them that there·s a kind of intellectual rigor about what they’re doing. When you are working on a piece of music. you an~ constantly presented with easy ways out. ways you could get it finished easily, just get it out of the way Put some strings on, you know, that kind of thing. That’s the most hackneyed approach to the problem, but there are more sophisticated easy ways out. Now. it strikes me that both of those bands generally don’t take them. They both have an idea and extend it as far ar as it’ll go, until it collapses. If it somehow still stays intact after the quite rigorous attack they give n. irs a wo11hwhile idea. I see the roots of Talking Heads being primarily- drawn from funk and that kind of music. which they’ve added a layer to: so you still have this kind of slow bouncing thing underneath. but on the lop you have these rhythm guitars that are very. very choppy and precise and accurate. That particular mixtures something new, I think. With Devo. you have something that makes your body move in a new way II really does. If you listen to Devo’s music, you suddenly find you·re doing this (he leaps about roboticalty). It’s really . . it has this stiffening effect on you

Synapse: In their  case. it seems to be a complete lifestyle

Eno: Yes. well in fact all the best approaches are lifestyles. actually. That’s what you find. With Devo, Talkuing Heads and with me. what all of us do is to work with the way we are; the way we live and how we behave socially and so on: what our politics are.

Synapse: Speaking of politics, weren’t you heavily influenced by Cornelius Cardew, the British avant-garde composer who became a Maoist?

Eno: Yes. I am an admirer. but not of his recent work. My personal opinion is that the Maoist thing for him Is a very big mistake. and it significantly reduced his music. I lhink it nearly always does. because when you become political. what you allempl to do is codify a set o1 perceptions Into easily handleable chunks. mainly language. Now, nearly always the most interesting things thal an artisl does are not defensible on that level When you work, you find you’re suddenly in a position where you’re exposed: you can’t defend what you’re doing. You just have to say, “For some reason this is interesting to me, I don’t know why. Maybe I will in a year’s time.” And usually, sometime later. you do know why that was interesting. But at the time, you’ve extended yourself beyond the territory that the intellect can account for. Now, normally. when people become politically conscious in the way that Cardew did, they toroid themselves that activity They say. “The job of an artist is to radicalize society.” for example, and they say. “How do you do that?” And so then they start thinking. “Well. you do it by this and this and this” – and suddenly, the music becomes hke an advertisement for a doctrine. Furthermore. a doctrine nearly always lags behind the real implications of the music that they were doing previously. Cardew is a very Interesting case in point, He wrote a piece called “The Great Learning,” which was seven separate pieces. and one of them – they’re called “Paragraphs” – one ol them was called “Paragraph 7,” and for me it’s really one of the most interesting pieces of modern music ever written. It’s for singers with any degree of training I’ve staged a few performances of it, and f wro1e a long essay about the piece in Studio International. His score is extremely simple, there·s no notation. and there are very few instructions. Somehow or other, this piece always comes out sounding very beautiful. and very similar from one performance 10 the next. And I started thinking, how can this be? He hasn’t specified anything. and yet the piece always comes out the same – When I say the same, I mean the overall effect of it is identical in each performance. The constraints are very few: it’s not hard to lorm. You can almost say you do what you like, but you don’t quite. I started lrylng lo 1n\/estigale why this piece worked as it did, because there are many other pieces ol modern music that try 10 cto the same lhing and lail. The performances are all totally dilferent. and some of them are shit, and people don’t enjoy them and people don’t enjoy listening 10 them. The thing about this Cardew piece 1s that It’s beautiful to do and lovely lo hsten to. So I 1hought, what is it? How has he constructed this thing so that It regulates itself in this way? Because basically that’s what ii does: there’s a whole system of automatic regulators that come lnlo being during a performance or this piece. They’re not chosen, they jusl happen For example. it has a paragraph from Confuc, ous, and the paragraph is divided Into 18 lines, I believe. Some of them are just one word long. and some of them are two or three words long Beside each line is a little instruction that says, “Sing 8F3.” for example. Thal instruction means, sing this line eight times; any three of those tirnes. sing it loud. The ancillary instructions say. “Sing any note that you can hear ” So that means when you move to a new line. your choice of notes is governed by the available notes in the environment, the notes other people are singing So you choose a note that you can hear Well, typically, there are a lot of them. so you’ve got a very wide choice. And it also says. “Sing the line each time for the length of a breath “So if the word is just ‘if’ you go, “iiiiiiif,” right? Eight limes. and three of them loud. That’s all lhe instructions and somehow or other. this piece always sounds the same. When you hear three or four performances. you start to get real puzzled by this. There are a large number ol reasons lor this. and cybernetics and systems theory are actually the mechanisms by which you can explain this piece Because ii has very strong parallels with f”1lgh biological systems. which again aren’t governed by external controls How do systems like this keep themselves in fact how do they respond to interference, and how do !hey m,1intain their idenli1y? In fact, all systems of that nature are whai’s called autopoelic. which means they serve to maintain 1he,r own identity. With the Ca1dew p,ece. just take the Instruc110n, “Sing any note you can hear” Now. a number ol things can happen given Jhat lnslruc• lion. First of all, ,t’s normally perlormed with a lot of people. therefore ,rs ,n a large space. In any large space. you always get an acoustic resonance building up. You know how in your bathroom you’ll !ind one note. if you’re singing Is very. very loud? That’s the resonant frequency of that room. Now, ,n any large space there’ll be a resoriatil frequency. and ii you have a, lot people singing. the probability is lhal any note hilling that frequency w,II be slighlly louder than all the other notes. So the probability ,s reinforced that. given the instruc• ~l)l)rl lion “Sing any note that you can hear,” the chances are slightly ,n lavor of your singing that one So what happens when this p,ece begins ,s, 11 very qu,ckly settles down ’round a drone. and the drone is the resonant trequency of the room So that’s one thing that happens. It’s no1 specified in the score. Cardew probably didn’t even know that It was going 10 happen. The second thing that happens is that, typically. it’s done with singers of all different types of skill~; that means you sometimes have people who are tone deaf When they get tne instructions 10, “Sing any note you can hear. “try as theym,ght. lhey fail So they ,nttoduce new noles mlo the piece. If the singers were all perfect. the piece could only di• min,sh In terms of the number of notes thal were available as logical. They would all finish t11ellri nes at different limes. So, say there are 20 singers. Number 19 finishes. He’s got a choice of 19 notes to sing from. so he chooses one of them. Then number 18 finsihes; he’s got a choice of only 18 notes ,l’s bound lo get smaller but by the factor that people don’t always sing the right note. or they sometimes sing an octave too high. or a fifth too high, or something like that or they adjust to their own register – again. new notes are introduced. So the piece has a kind of vacillating range and number of notes.

Synapse: Sounds llke the choral montage eifects of composers like Pendereck, and Ugeri – allhough they’re of course composing toward their effects.

Eno: The old method of composing is exactly that – you specify the result you want. and then you present a number of exact instructions 10 get 10 there Which Is like any old social system where, by systems of Jawsa nd constraints. you a11emptlo specify behavior Now the Cardew piece, for me, is a radrcal thmg socially. because he doesn’t do ail that, and yet it happens. The behavior remains governed. I think political systems are alt domg what the old composers were doing  They’re all saying, “Whal kind of society do we want?” If you give the most generous interpretation, they·re saying that Then they say. “Alright. so let’s constrain this behavior he1e and lei’s encourage this here and blah, blah, blah … And they’re all trying lo govern by rote a highly complex system. You don·, need to do that. that’s the th,ng The Cardew piece. for me, proved that. under the right circumstances. you can set the system up so that it goes lhere itself In fact. Stattord Beer, the cybernetician, has a very good sentence ,n one of his books. He says, instead of trying to specify In full detail, you specify only somewhat. you then ride on the dynamics ol Jhe system In the direction you want 10 go. There are certain organ,c regulators, you don·1 have to come up with I hem. you just have 10 let them operate Alt of lhe curren1 pohllcat systems seem obsessed with this old idea that the job of government is to constrain the natural course of events. Now. I can see quite the opposite – the job of government being to take advantage of the natural course of events. For example, if you look at two ways of generating energy, one way ls where you rip holes in the earth and pull coal out and leave a great big mess and make a lot of srnoke: and the other way is 10 find a waterfalf and stick a waler wheel on ii. So all you do is, in lact, interrupt an entropic process – there ii is, It’s carrying on. it’ll still carry on. You haven’t taken anything from anything. All you’ve done is intervene In a procedure lhat’s already happening, and tapped something off.

Synapse: Of course, water wheels are hardly the solution to our energy problems on a national scale, are they?

Eno: The scale is cerlamly the biggest consideration in this. I suppose the main reason I m In- interested in cybernetics is it that does deal in terms of those very complex situations. Cybernetics under some definitions, is the science of complex systems. So it deals with systems that are probabilistic rather than deterministic. It says that this is every complex system alwie now is that its likely to give this class of results disc class of results not this particular one nou in dat sence is een exact Science en IT is the first real Science that is inexact that actually can do something is far as i am concerned those other ones like sociology and psychology are very inexact and they really don’t seem to work in Brian mcculloch ‘s book Embodiments of mind he says a very interesting thing eases at the end of a series of psychological Sessions the psychologist will say the treatment is finished and McCulloch sas i never actually heard one of them say the patient is cured.

The thing is we count accuracy product one of the Central ideas of cybernetics is that the system itself will in every table produce ascertain class of results that ‘s why dogs that ‘s in the nature of the system and one of the mature results is that it will prolong its own existence so two things are operating first of all the system is seeking to prolong its own existence and secondly the system is the generating it always is information is always passing out we getting older approaches of decay is always at work zo doos things are happening again most of the political Systems don’t recognise this they say that this institution that ‘s this and when something different is required this huge effort to maneuver that institution to the new thing but won’t is in the nature of Systems to do one thing and not something els the structure of the system governance it behaviour that ‘s how simple ideas for me and if you want to change this behaviour you have to change the structure wie boft share fast Civil service you Rocky that hasn’t realized this Point and which is highly auto poetic i mean most of his behaviour is an attempt to prolong its own identity and to produce more of itself i don’t know which country has it the worst its certainly bad in England

Synapse: Can these systems bo changed then? Are you interested in trymg to change them?

Eno: I am not approach delete iser or an evangelist or any kind because I don’t think that’s how change happens I think that serious political change is always personal all that could happen is that you might happen to say something to someone just at the point where they are read ready to change that’s fine you might be the person who says that to them for that change to be real and to be properly realised they must have reached that point you might just crystallise it for them you might clinch it but for me the idea of actually convincing someone doesn’t work if the necessity for a change isn’t already within them they won’t change it next the necessity for change isn’t there that means they don’t see the same world issue and so the procedure of introducing them to the world is quite different from evangelise ING about it and it’s one of the results which you can’t predict that might come out with the system much better than yours actually or quite different for me this kind European peace was a radical lesson in how little society could be organised a micro society or how it organises itself a free contribution was valuable the contribution of the tone deaf singer the system was constructed to use that as well I really don’t know another piece of music that is so extraordinary as paragraph seven in those senses it really is a unique piece I only wish that he’d gone on with doing more of that

Synapse:  how did your collaborations with bowie come about?

Eno: what was happening to him what happens to everyone was that a chain of ideas was turn running out when that happens you can easily keep going on rehashing them if you want to or else you can be brave enough to say look they’re just not doing anymore for me I’ve got to start doing something you now for him I think that’s quite a risky thing to do it’s not for me because I’ve sort of set myself up as someone who does that kind of thing it’s all most expected and I’ve been careful to guard that position in away maintaining my mobility but I think two things were happening first of all a chain of working approaches for running out for him and he was beginning to sense that another one might be starting he liked another green world a lot he saw in that an approach that he liked I guess similarly i heard station to station i thought that was a great album and i thought in the same way there’s ideas in that i’m gonna nick and so their coming together were fairly natural mutually interesting

Synapse:  so bowie influenced you in certain ways?

Eno: Yes he did.

Synapse:  some of the songs on before and after science especially on the first sight sound a lot more progressive than your usual material much in the manner of bowie’s young Americans and station to station.

Eno: I had a very interesting selection of music I lived in a little little town insert folk which was within 5 miles of two fairy fairy large American air bases and there were lots of cafes in the town which all carried American records as well as English ones even quite obscure American records then the way the px stores my sister used to be a yankee basher insert folk that mean demand she went out with one or two americans which was terribly frowned upon by locals but it meant that she also used to go to the px there and come back with all these really feel very interesting records that you never heard in England otherwise they never wear on the radio so I grew up with very transatlantic background in music and I was interested in music very early we had a player piano one of those things that you pedal and i used to absolutely love that i played it all the time and I played it all the time all we had were like old hymns like Jerusalem and so on which I thought were beautiful and I think that the kind of magma langlee quality of those is something that’s actually persisted in anything I’ve done since the thing about all this American stuff was that I had no idea what is antecedents were it was just mystery music to me I’d hear like chicken necks by Dom and due on or get a job by the silhouettes and I think this is just weird music nothing at all in England was like that so it was like space music and I found that I was very excited by the music that was a strange as that be cause you must remember English music at that time was really boring Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele and just a lot of very poor imitations of the larger American stars. the other thing was that I had an uncle he wasn’t really an uncle he was just someone that we called an uncle and he was reeling in really into big band jazz Jack tea garden and that kind of thing at one time he didn’t have anywhere to live and dumped a huge pile of albums on us my parents didn’t like them at all but I used to get up early in the morning and listen to these records which again were totally mysterious to me and I did it and selfconsciously I wasn’t thinking this is the music i listen to i was just interested in it for some reason i didn’t know where it came from

Synapse: what first got you interested in music as art?

Eno: at the age of 11 I had this uncle a real uncle this time who’s like the eccentric of the family very nice man and he had spent some years in India so we had these kind of strange Indian ideas about things he’s quite eccentric very strange always trying out weird experiments at home building ways of distilling liquor and stuff like that and taming the strangest animals like rooks he was very important to me because he represented the other half the sort of strange side of life and he was to me like all that music was as well and I would think where is he coming from as they would say now I used to go and visit him regularly once or twice a week and used to talk and introduce me to ideas one day he showed me this tiny book over at productions of Piet mondrian and I thought God these are beautiful they really were the best things I have ever seen and again it was the same thing as with Jess off suddenly jumping in with no concept at all of what the incidents to that where i hadn’t really been that interesting in painting before in fact i really can’t remember looking at pictures much before that thought though i been so good at art in school which meant just copying things really. But this Piet mondrian I thought boy this is really exciting and at that moment in fact I decided I’m going to be a painter that’s what I’m going to do on my next birthday I got a set of oil paints and I started painting.

I had also met the other important decision that I was never going to have a job which I made a bit earlier than the age of 11 because my father had have very hard job and I could see just see that his life was totally his job and that effectively it was killing him. He would just come home fall into a chair and go to sleep and then he’d get up and go to work again he was so tired he couldn’t eat sometimes and i thought i’m never going to do that.

So with these twin ideas I’m never going to get a job and I’m going to be an artist I finally left grammar school aren’t for the outside world and by an extraordinary coincidence I happened to get into a very good art school it was very good for exactly the two years I was there be cause for those two years a group of extremely liberator teachers took their art school over and set it up as a kind of experimental teaching unit they were really brilliant man of course they were sacked at the end of the two years when their contracts expired because the education committee was horrified literally by what had been going on there.

The first term was a deliberate disorientation process which we were untold at the time projects were set up which were extremely difficult and we all had all gone to art school with our little boxes of paints thinking that we’d get there an start painting nice pictures well a typical project the first one we did was discuss officialised differences between your hot water tap and a phoenician blind and we all looked what do you do you know and that was the easiest one the others didn’t even involve making pictures they involve building games method of testing people’s behaviour fairy fairy interesting stuff I think three people had nervous breakdowns during the first term and left and a number of other people left because it just wasn’t what they had hoped for but those who stayed were fairly committed to this art school it wasn’t big there were only 40 people maybe in this time it was very revolutionary they were deliberately setting up situations that they knew would give rise to expectations or predictions about what would happen next and then not letting those things happen changing it the whole first term was based on a kind of discover your rules organise yourselves don’t look too to us for answering kinds of questions but in a way we can also help that’s a very different teaching proposition.

 it was really at that art school that i started thinking about music and relizing that there was a way that i couldn’t be involved in music without technical skills the tape recorder was the first thing the art school had got a tape recorder becaused they figured somebody was going to start making music and the thing about tape that I realised very quickly in that it turns sound into a plastic art literally by putting it onto plastic tape it becomes a malleable medium so suddenly you can disregard all the rules about real time if you want to you can do it over period of days an edited altogether and get it that way or else you can stretch it or slow it down or speed it up or you can extend it by doing things to the frequencies involved you can remove bit from it tape suddenly makes all the difference is and as soon as I realised that tape mates sound malleable it became something that you could treat like you would treat a piece of stone if you were making a sculpture or even better a piece of clay or a painting or anything something you could build on

It started as almost a diligently think then gradually it started to assume more important because I started finding that when I was getting the most surprises was from the music not from the painting there were not any instruments the only thing that was there was this wrecked out old out of tune piano which I used to use but mainly I use my voice as the source and I used to build a blaze of fanatic focal things not really singing but just voices noises build up one of my other favourite sound sources washed his big metal lampshade and it made a beautiful bone and so by recording that at different speeds I could get notes it was a pretty slow business.

I used to perform with them the tapes at the art school because the other thing that i was into then was phonetic poetry which was big at that time: the pure sound type poetry Kurt schwitters was one of my big heroes then.

Synapse: a fragment of schwitters ur Sonata turns up and “Kurt’s rejoinder” on before and after science how did that come about?

Eno: death recording was made in 1930 I think it’s the only existing recording as far as I know of schwitters he’s that that’s his voice but this just crapped out of that recording somebody is going soo me one day for that I think because in fact BBC owned the recording I expect someday it’ll coupon come up in court I was listening to the radio and it was a programme about the data exists and I had this piece of schwitters and they also had this other guy called Hausmann who I used to like  allot who was in a similar vein with a much rougher voice than schwitters and in fact the track started out with Haussman on it but Schwitters suited the track.