Prior to the interview, I spend close to an hour in a darkened room, on the first floor, (where Brian Eno’s installation The Ship is placed) surrounded by amplifiers and loudspeakers lit in pink and green lighting – changing into violet and blue as the piece evolves. Each loudspeaker is playing it’s own theme in it’s own time frame. Sound and music and vocals float in a sea of ambience – voices reciting what might have been diaries from the First World War, sirens singing, strings and bells and ambient noise, radar transmitters, the sounds of sea mammals and creaky parts of a sinking ship. I felt like I was in a spacecraft being transported into a deep state of surrender. Eno makes you think. Sometimes he makes you surprise yourself too. Towards the end the final release – The Fickle Sun (iii) Eno’s beautiful cover of I’m Set Free, the old Velvet Underground song, completes the piece perfectly.
I could have stayed there a good while longer, had I not had the great privilege of doing an interview with the man, the musician, the producer and the artist himself: Brian Eno – legendary, yet the most authentic and good humored person you could wish to meet. That came as no surprise to me, because in essence, his music reflects these qualities and more so, the humility of a person of great integrity and intelligence, but one who stays true to his principles.
Brian Eno is famously known as the principal innovator of ambient music, starting his career as a sound wizard and member of Roxy Music in 1971.
An impressively long list of creative projects – albums, productions, installations and apps (and some of my all time favorites) – has seen the light of day, released from his hand over a period of more than four decades interpreting the world around him through sound and music. And this tragic year began with the passing of the person with whom he made perhaps his most famous, and influential collaboration, David Bowie. Their ‘Berlin Trilogy’ – the albums Heroes, Low and Lodger – is not so much a milestone as a watershed in modern music.
Still Eno doesn’t like the idea of being seen as the center of his own music. “It isn’t about me, it never was – in fact I hate that idea.”
The Ship is Brian Eno’s first solo exhibition in Denmark since 1992. The work is a comprehensive sound and art installation that evolves over time and is designed specifically for each room it is displayed in, so that the experience for each place is unique.
I pressed the record-button and throughout the interview I was being assisted by the interviewed (Brian Eno): “Just checking – yes it’s still running. “
Do you have any creative destination in mind, when you make your compositions – and did you have one specifically for this piece?
Brian Eno: It’s more feelings of a climate, or a time of day, or type of light, or something like that. For instance, with this particular piece, it was quite early on, that I started to feel it was something to do with an ocean with big waves, and when I started singing, this word Roll kept coming up. So the images usually come out of the sound, rather than the other way around. I am fascinated with the sound, what can I do with it “okay I can make big waves with it”, or something like that. I don’t usually start with a plan or with a concept.
Did you think of the Titanic when you composed The Ship?
Brian Eno: I knew the piece was set at sea of some kind. And I knew it was a dangerous place to be. It wasn’t pastoral – it wasn’t happy. There was something menacing about it. And of course, I’ve been reading a lot, because of the year that we are in. I have been reading a lot about the origins of the First World War, and I was very involved in the anti Iraq war demonstrations in England. And it occurred to me, that the catastrophe of the Titanic was exactly the same kind of catastrophe, as the beginning of the First World War. It was the same hubris of, “we are now so powerful – nothing can go wrong”- and it did. And as the First World War, it was the same feeling; “we got these amazing armies now – nobody can stop us – the war will be over by Christmas”. This was the phrase. And the inability to comprehend, that it wasn’t going to happen, exactly parallels the inability, that of the American and the British, to understand the same thing about Iraq.
Eno then mentioned neocon Ken Adelman’s famously wrong prediction of a “cakewalk” in the second Iraq war, in a Washington Post article on 13 Feb, 2002, (which Eno had cut out and kept): “…and I thought ‘Jesus, were you ever wrong’. Anyway, so I was thinking about those kinds of things. Of course, there were several collapses that we’ve experienced in this century, apart from the Twin Towers, that was one kind of collapse, then there was the Iraq War – that was a huge failure and still is, and then of course there was the financial collapse, again it’s the same thing; “now we got the system down – we got it running so perfectly- nothing can go wrong.” This is something that happens periodically in human history, we reach this point of thinking; “now we got it – we understand it- we know how to do it”, that’s exactly the point where it collapses.
How would you describe this piece – besides an installation – An ambient piece of music – A song? Or something different to what you have done before?
Brian Eno: Well I think it turns out like something new, in a sense that, I have really never brought together these three different fields that I have been engaged in; ambient music, installations and songs. Those 3 tracks of my career, have always been parallel, but pretty separate, and this, particularly the song part, is the first time I actually have found a way of using my voice in these things, and that’s a real big door opening for me. Of course I love singing, but until this, I couldn’t really use that interest in this kind of work. To me that was an amazing discovery, that you could still have something that felt like a song, without these other ingredients, that usually goes into songs. So I started thinking of it as a sort of a sculptural form really. It was such fun to be able to put a speaker right up in the corner and have this one theme happen from this one speaker. And I started then developing more and more complicated ideas about it, which I haven’t actually done yet. I did a version of the show in Geneva, and one of the loudspeakers, was actually me telling the story of how the show was, and it was very quiet with me talking all the time saying; “I started the show in 2014 ..” so you had to come quite close to hear it. But it also struck me, it would be really interesting, to make a piece of music, in this three-dimensional form, that had all of its own history, somewhere in the music.
Have you felt tempted to add a voice to a sound installation before this one?
Brian Eno: Yes I have felt tempted, but I didn’t know how to do it. It’s a very interesting phenomenon that you find in painting, if you have a landscape, with no figures in it. If you watch what the eye does, looking at that painting. It scans and it keeps bouncing to the edge and to the frame and back to the elements in the picture. As soon as you put a figure in the painting, even if that figure is tiny, the eye will keep coming back to the figure. As soon as you put a human into a piece of work, it becomes the center. You can’t avoid it, we’re interested in humans – and we can’t help it. We want to know how everything relates to that. I think the same thing is true with a singer. As soon as you put a singer in there, it is very difficult for it not to become the center of the music.
Well, a few years ago, something happened and I started singing a bit differently. Partly it was due to my voice getting older and lower and also I found a way of singing that seemed to me, to have less personality, which I like better. And it was really based on listening to Italian crooners, like Dean Martin and people like that. (Eno is now demonstrating by singing the sentence in a crooner voice): ”That way of singing like a man” – instead of singing like an adolescent. Rock music is really based around people singing like they’re teenagers. Well I suddenly realized, when I was about 64, that I wasn’t a teenager. It came as a terrible shock. It was a bad day. (Laughter) Anyway, as soon as I kind of “lost” that personality – that couldn’t fit in – with the kind of music I wanted to make – and I became this other person, this neutral voice, that’s the way I see it. I don’t see the voice being me, it’s just a voice.
So the voice could be anybody’s voice really?
Brian Eno: Well yes, I hope that’s true – I don’t want to it to be about me. I never wanted music to be about me. I’ve never thought of music as a way of me presenting myself to the world, in fact I hate the idea of that.
Do you see yourself as a “channel” where your art is being transported?
Brian Eno: I like making things that come from the kind of future I would like to live in. So I am often imagining what kind of world would I like to be in – and of course I can’t build that world, but I can build some of the things that could be in that world. So really, from very early on, when I started doing “Discreet Music”, in the 70’s for example, it was an idea of trying to make the music, in a world I would like to live in. So it’s only about me, in a kind of an obscure way. It’s about a theory about futures, you know, how things could be. This is why, when I was talking about Denmark out there, (referring to what he said in his opening speech prior to the interview, “that Danes mostly start out telling him about the things they don’t like about Denmark”) – I wasn’t just flattering you – I think there’s a lot of future in Denmark – a lot of parts of the future I would like to be in. There are some bits missing as well – but you know…. You remember that famous thing that William Gibson said; “The future is already here – it’s just not distributed equally.
How do you see the role of music in modern society and what would you like it to be?
Brian Eno: To me it is completely fundamental. This is a subject I have been developing a lot in England, because, you know we have a conservative government here, which is completely enslaved by a sort of an ideology, that really should have died out 15 or 20 years ago. And part of that ideology is that – the really important thing, that kids should learn, are the productive things, what we here in England call the “STEM subjects”; Science – technology – engineering – mathematics. I am very clear, that they are all important things to understand, I am not saying they aren’t important, but the arts in that picture are regarded as a kind of luxuries, that we don’t really need to bother about. Once they have got their science, mathematics, technology down, then they can do a bit of art. I just cannot understand that picture at all because I think what’s really so…
I will take a long way round, to answer this question, excuse me. One of the things that fascinate me is that human brains have been getting smaller, for at least 20,000 years, most people don’t know this, because our picture of the future is of people, walking round with no hands or no arms, but enormous heads. We always thought, that the brain will keep getting bigger, but actually, it hasn’t been getting bigger – it’s about 15 % smaller now – than it was 20,000 years ago. So I say to myself – why would that be? Well, we know the brain is the most expensive part of the body, in terms of energy consumption. So obviously if evolution can shrink the brain – that’s a big advantage. But what’s happening – why can we make due with a smaller brain? I think the answer is because we’re all now specialists in some way. We’re not generalist, we used to have to be generalists. We used to be able to catch food, to prepare food, to make places to live, to know to avoid wild animals, all those things. Now you can just be a writer, I can just make music, we can all do just one thing. I’m completely useless, aside from this one thing I do. I couldn’t live for 4 days properly, if I didn’t make use of the great breakthrough that humans have made. We don’t have one mind, we share thousand of millions of minds. You know. My brain is smaller, than it would have been 20,000 years ago, but my access to brainpower is enormous, way beyond anything we even think we have.
We take this thing here, (referring to my iPhone- recording the interview) – just checking if it’s still running, still going, – this thing is a product of hundreds of thousands of brains, actually hundreds of thousands. There are so many converging trains of technology and theory and philosophy actually, even in this, that you can’t even estimate, how many other brains that has been involved in the making of this thing that you use. So okay, this is the first part, the second part of that is, we are all totally co-dependent. We depend on each other. We are less independent than we have ever been. That means we have to have ways of synchronizing with each other, of holding the whole thing together. We have to have ways of reaching understandings with people we have never met and will never meet again. People, we perhaps don’t speak the same language with, all sorts of complicated reasons, for not being able to get on. And this in my opinion, is what a conversation of culture is about. Culture is a continuous conversation we keep having, in order that we can talk to each other and in order that we can share things with each other. So if we even spend two and a half minute, talking about – I don’t know – Frank Stella or Jimi Hendrix, we would know quite a lot about each other through that, so this is why I think STEM isn’t enough. STEM is very good at making worlds you know – that’s how we make things, but art is how we understand them, I think. Art is how we begin to figure out how we feel about them. You know it’s not enough to keep inventing things, you got to come to some relationship with them. So yes, this is what I have been trying to argue”.
Interview and images by Ann Charlotte Vengsgaard.
The Ship is exhibited as a result of the collaboration with Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Chart Art Fair and Heartland Festival.
June 10-11 2016 at Heartland Festival.
June 12 – August 7 at Kunsthal Charlottenborg.
August 26-28 during CHART ART FAIR – at Kunsthal Charlottenborg.