A Conversation with Brian Eno

Brian Eno is commonly thought of as one of the greatest current composers and music producers, popularly known for his work with U2 and Coldplay, but perhaps most significantly with David Bowie and the Talking Heads.

He started his career in 1971, at the age of twenty-two, as a participant of the Roxy Music crew, then left to make music independently, such as on albums Another Green World, Music for Airports, and (with David Byrne) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which is an essential work in the development of sampling.

His intrigue in the world of musical engineering and creative systems drove him to make the Koan algorithmic music maker famous, and, in collaboration with Peter Schmidt, to shape the “Oblique Strategies” deck of cards, an alteration of the artistic process.

Unbeknownst to many, his music is heard by millions each day: he formulated the introduction noise of the Microsoft Windows 95 operating system.

He is a founding member of the Long Now Foundation, which aspires to teach the public to contemplate the far off future. His most recent album is entitled “Drums Between the Bells”.

David Mitchell, born in 1969, is a highly celebrated and award-winning author of five novels: Ghostwritten (1999), Number9Dream (2001), Cloud Atlas (2004), Black Swan Green (2006), and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). 

He has been acknowledged by Granta magazine as one of the best young British novelists and was also named one of Time magazine’s one hundred most influential people in the world, being credited for having “created the 21st century novel”. M

Mitchell was brought up in the UK, spent many years teaching and writing in Japan, and now resides in Ireland with his wife and two kids.

It was only natural for Mitchell and Eno to be admirers of each other, and the concept for their conversation came about in an email exchange for the Believer. Mitchell initiated the conversation by asking questions, which were answered by Eno.


Question:Do you hold the view that no new musical genres are created, but rather a combination of existing elements? According to Wikipedia, it was you who coined the term ‘ambient music’. If this is accurate, from which types of music was this style hybridised?

BRIAN ENO: Indeed, nothing is born from nothing. My interpretation of ambient was a combination of multiple sources.

Among the musical ones, I was inspired by Satie, but also by the early experiments of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and the other minimalists from the 1960s, who saw music as an enduring state rather than a narrative.

I must also mention that I was especially drawn to the slower movements of classical pieces, where there was less activity.

My interest was sparked by the new ways of recording music and producers like Phil Spector, Joe Meek, and George Martin.

As a trained painter, I found it exciting that music was being created in much the same way as a painting is, with the addition and subtraction of colours, built up over time instead of performed all at once.

The recorded sound was now something that could be manipulated, like a painter’s clay or brush. This process was creating music that was less linear and more captivating, like you were living in it.

My area of expertise lies in the manipulation of technologies, which continues to expand rapidly on a weekly basis. As a result, I often find myself experimenting with new technology to explore what functions are achievable that weren’t possible before.

Doctor Pangloss’s opinion on the human race’s focus on inventing gadgets such as the iPad instead of preparing for a future with limited oil resources is of particular interest to the speaker.

This could be a problem for the speaker’s daughter, as conservative estimates predict that the world will have run out of oil by the time she reaches her late twenties.

The expectation is that some of these devices will become the means through which we can get ready. It is a concern: Are we amusing ourselves to the point of annihilation, or are we actually acquiring new ways of addressing the situation? Only the future will disclose the answer.

I have a fond definition of time, which is that it prevents every action from occurring simultaneously. I ponder if music is what keeps a cacophony of sound from taking place all at one time?

I find that many of your albums, such as Music for Airports, Apollo, Discreet Music, and The Pearl provide the perfect ambience for writing.

They can help motivate you to stay focused and, if your mind happens to drift away, the music can draw you back without being too intrusive.

I’m curious to know if there is a spectrum on which you can place all music, with something like Ian Dury at one end, which makes it too hard to work to, and much of your work towards the other end?

Answer:In an early review of one of my ambient records, someone commented negatively, saying something along the lines of “No song, no beat, no melody, no movement”.

However, I believe they were accurate since this type of music is more about texture and sonic sensuality than those other aspects. When the first abstract paintings were shown, I’m sure people also said “No figure, no structure”, etc.

What melody, beat, and lyric have in common is that they are all designed to capture the audience’s attention. I wanted to create music that could create an atmosphere that would have an effect on the listener but still permit them to direct their attention as they wished.

To accomplish this, I focused on what I wanted from music in my own life. I wanted intense, exclusive music like the Velvet Underground and Shostakovich, but I also wanted something that would simply “tint” the air around me.

Unfortunately, there was little of this type of music available, and what was available had some flaws from my point of view – classical was too rigid and jazz had too much personality, while Muzak was overly saccharine.

Back in the early 1970s, a number of us used to swap cassette tapes which were songs from our individual record collections. These collections were set together to create and maintain a specific emotion or atmosphere for a long period of time.

At the time, records were put together on the premise that it would be impossible for anyone to want to experience the same feeling for more than four minutes, so the tracks would consist of a fast song, a ballad and then a dance number.

Classical music was also generally structured in this way, with allegro, andante and largo movements.

All of this was based on the belief that music was just a fleeting form, which it was prior to the invention of recording technology. So, it was seen as an experience to be enjoyed, like a story.

The advent of recording altered the perception of music in general, with many composers feeling concerned about its implications. Nevertheless, I believe it actually broadened the range of possibilities for musical expression.

To denote this type of music, I coined the word ‘ambient’, but this is not meant to encompass all of my music. My work resides somewhere along the spectrum that recording has opened up, and I have always tried to make it clear where it stands.

Listening to this kind of music calls for a different type of attention, but that doesn’t mean that one cannot still write challenging, high-Porlock music.

I have noticed a marked difference in the way that contemporary pop music is composed compared to that of the past. Pioneers such as Portishead and the Cocteau Twins (along with myself) were some of the first to initiate this shift in sound.

Nowadays, many musicians have adopted the ambient-pop style, where vocals are reduced, reverberation is employed to create an echo effect and the percussion is subtly produced in the background.

It may be that after so much loud music, a softer voice is appealing.


Question:Have you ever had a dream that gave you a creative piece of inspiration? I remember once I had a dream that I opened a wooden box at the foot of my bed and it had “The Language of Mountains Is Rain”.

I was so inspired that I used it in one of my earlier works. Has something similar ever happened to you?

Answer:I have experienced a great deal of fortune with dreams. Many times I have awoken in the night with a phrase or even a complete song in my head.

Although it is not a sure thing that these creations are going to be of high quality due to the fact that they are coming straight from the subconscious, it is still quite exciting to receive a large piece of material that way.

For instance, the song “On Some Faraway Beach” was almost completely formed in a dream, and, to a lesser degree, other songs have pulled lines or titles from dreams. The poem for “Two Voices” from my album with Peter Schwalm was entirely from a dream.

I had a clear image of a piece of paper with all the words of the poem written on it, so I quickly made my way to the kitchen table and transcribed it.

I have had the occasional reverie of coming up with new kinds of music. One of them was known as a “reality score” and it used samples.

Every single noise was taken from a noteworthy historic recording – the snare drum was a recording of the gunshot that killed President Kennedy, and so on. I still think this could be a great concept, but I lack the dedication and technical expertise to make it a reality.

Leo Abrahams informed me of a dream he had, involving a new art form labeled “free jazz theater,” which he characterized as being horribly bad.

Question:Do you experience synesthesia? Is it possible that music can evoke feelings due to the fact that it is, in essence, a type of universal synesthesia? For me, days of the week and male names have specific colors.

Answer:I cannot say that I am a synesthete, since I do not have the same kind of personal and uncontrollable associations of sounds and colors as Nabokov and you. However, I am very sensitive to certain aesthetic elements.

For instance, I get very angry when I hear a minor chord used carelessly in music or a middle eight just for the purpose of variety. People around me find my reactions peculiar.

On the opposite side, certain combinations of sound or hue can move me profoundly, like sky blue and light chocolate brown. I have thought a lot about the source of my strong preferences.

I find music to be unique among all the arts, as it is and has always been a purely non figurative medium.

Even though the accompanying notes for classical albums may allude to various scenes, such as a trill of flutes suggesting a mountain stream, I highly doubt that anyone listens to music expecting an auditory painting.

Opera, though it has a strong narrative element, does not rely on this narrative to evoke emotion from the listener. Thus, while many people are still perplexed by abstract painting, they are more than content to listen to music, which is an even more abstract form of art.

I understand your opinion that music is more abstract than art, however, couldn’t its emotive power be the reason for its high level of appeal?

Despite the lack of vocals, music can still cause a range of emotions, ranging from adrenaline to homesickness, which only literature can rival in the realm of the arts.

One may ponder why music has any kind of emotional appeal in the first place. It is quite different from any sound that can be generated naturally in the world, yet it still has a significant emotional effect.

Similar to this is the impact of perfume; we experience the effects of it without being able to explain why. On the other hand, with stories we usually have a better understanding of the content and why it could be meaningful.

In response to a query from a scientific website, the majority of respondents offered up questions such as “Is the alpha constant stable throughout the universe?” and “Will the Riemann hypothesis hold?” and “Does junk DNA have a function in the genome?”.

My friend Danny Hillis, however, asked the intriguing question: “Why do we like music?” A query which has been the topic of many conversations between us over the years.

Why is it that I appreciate one composer’s string quartet more than another’s, when to an alien spectator they may appear identical? What is it that we are hearing that makes us react differently?

Is there an intrinsic wiring within us that makes us prefer symmetrical faces or be scared of spiders? I used to believe that, with enough patience, any person would be able to understand any form of music, no matter how foreign the culture. But then I heard Chinese opera.


Question:Do you believe that music involves nearness? In writing, I have seen how two sentences–one on a ladybird, the other on a man’s last three seconds of life–when placed side-by-side, can create a third element that was not present before, as if by magic.

This third element is not explicitly written, and should not be. I was pondering if this phenomenon also occurs in music, and whether this is why, even when your songs avoid melody, it still seems as if there is a tune, as long as one does not make a considerable effort to recognize it?

When it comes to music analysis, there are so many aspects to consider. One of the most complex is context.

How much of the context is relevant when hearing a great moment in a piece of music? Is it the two bars leading up to it, the four bars surrounding it, the whole composition, or something else?

Perhaps it’s the way it was performed, the artist’s other works, or the genre in general. Music can be seen as one long story with each piece being a new sentence. What makes a piece of music stand out are the slight variations and additions or omissions of familiar elements.

DM: What is the reasoning behind some chords being dark and gloomy, some expressing a yearning, and others being loud and outgoing? What is the explanation for this?

It can be argued that musical reactions are just a product of the culture we grow up in, and thus someone from a different culture may have completely different emotional reactions to music. However, this is not backed up by evidence.

It appears that there are some “universal” basics, such as we all agree that louder is more exciting and brighter is more lively. But there is disagreement over more subtle points, such as does everyone think minor chords are darker, sadder and more nuanced? If so, why?

The findings of the psycho-acoustician suggest that chords which are more dissonant require more of the brain’s resources to process.

An example of this is the difference in complexity between a minor chord (C, Eflat, G) and a major chord (C, E, G). However, what is not understood is how this additional processing translates into feelings of foreboding or sadness.

We could propose that we have a predilection for the chords that are similar to the ones we heard when we were young, and that unusual chords, which we associate with adulthood, tend to unsettle us.

But this notion is circular in nature: do we play music with major chords due to children’s preference, or do we enjoy these chords because we heard them at an early age? How would a child raised in an environment where only twelve-tone music is played react?

However, there is another element to ponder. Before the introduction of electronics, the concept of timbre was of little importance. A violin would always sound like a violin, and with a great musician, it could be manipulated a bit.

This goes for other instruments too; each is a distinct sound similar to how individual animal species are distinct genetic entities. There was no such thing as a horse cow, and likewise, a violinet didn’t exist.

But now, with the advancements in technology, the potential of timbre is infinite and continuous. A lot of modern composers, especially in the realm of pop, are delving into this vast new realm of sound.

The exploration has yielded a noteworthy outcome: augmentations or even displacements of the long-standing distinctions between major and minor are now achievable through timbral effects. I can give a major chord a sorrowful tone simply by altering its timbre.

Incidentally, this is something Tretchikoff, the kitsch painter, had already discovered. His “Blue Lady” works of art portrayed ordinary women in an intriguing manner, thanks to the deep blue hue. This kind of technique is quite commonplace in modern music.

Today I was pleasantly surprised to discover a new field I didn’t previously know about–psycho-acoustician! I’m grateful to have learned about it.


Question:Which deceased musicians do you feel a strong connection to?

Answer:The late Cornelius Cardew, who passed away in 1981, has been an influential figure in my life. His music was highly experimental, and although some of his experiments may now seem antiquated, they were revolutionary when they first appeared.

He founded the Scratch Orchestra, to which I belonged. The members of the Orchestra, mainly art students, embraced the concept of music being a form of philosophical exploration. That idea of music being an expression of philosophy has stayed with me ever since.

I hadn’t thought of using “painterly” to describe your music before our discussion, but now that I reflect on it, it seems to be an apt word. I remembered reading that you had studied art.

My admiration for painters far surpasses that of composers. Mondrian, in particular, is an enormous inspiration to me. His artwork’s captivating simplicity still astounds me.

His being the first artist to whom I truly related likely explains why minimalism has become a lasting trait of my character.

DM: Novels are like palimpsests, with the remnants of earlier drafts faintly visible, wrong turns and misdirections, and yet the finished product still contains the echoes of the books that never were written.

Similarly, in Brian Eno’s music, one can detect the ideas that were not chosen, that became part of the process to craft the one that is present.

When I take the time to really pay attention to your work–rather than just playing it–I feel as if I’m being observed.

I’m not sure where this is leading–maybe a confession of paranoia?–but your music has an extraordinary power over its hearers, and I’m keen to understand why.

It’s likely snakes feel a similar fascination when they watch a snake charmer. Mondrian’s “magic from limited means” can give us a glimpse into your artistry.

To me, you have always been a sonic Rothko. A friend of mine once said of Rothko that “it’s as if this is how people with no sight would view radiators.”

A fabulous Comparison!

DM: During the past five decades, you and a handful of other British musicians have created music that is both artistically impressive and highly popular.

What is the key to such long-term success in the music industry? This was prompted by a recent biography of Syd Barrett, which featured a vivid analogy of creativity being like a tube of paint having a finite amount.

If it is all used up at once, there is none left for a lasting career, however, if it is used more carefully, it can be prolonged. Although the amount may vary, the basic idea stands.

I’m grateful for the praise, but I’m only in my forties, so I’m not sure I can take credit for that yet. Maybe the key is not to be overly successful in one area: sometimes success can be a burden for artists, like it is for actors who are so successful in a certain role that it’s difficult for them to take on other projects.

If humanity was to be destroyed and only one work of human origin could be spared, what would it be?

BE: Goodness! That’s a difficult question. I could make a strong claim in favor of writing, but an even stronger one in favor of recording, since theoretically the latter could incorporate writing itself.

The concept of recording–saving experiences in a way that makes them accessible to others–is, in fact, the foundation of human culture. That is how humans are able to transmit information to one another and transcend their solely genetic destiny.

DM’s comment sparked a thought; printed words can be thought of as frozen speech, or even pickled thought. Kilgore Trout might have pictured a universe where authors would read from memory and once finished, they would consume homemade alcohol and forget their work forever. In a way, the downfall of civilization could result in the same outcome.

What advice would you give to your twenty-year-old self if you had the chance to email him about what was in store? Or, would you rather not say anything and let life take its course?

Answer:I would suggest, “Get your work out there! It will do nothing just sitting on the shelf.”

In my opinion, a piece of art is not truly valuable until it is “liberated” from an individual and their reasoning for not putting it out there–like “It hasn’t been completed,” “The mix will make it better,” and so on.

You won’t know what it is or what to make of it until it is in the world among other things, so it will offer no benefit.

Here Are Some Other Options To Consider

The nature of work has altered drastically with the advent of technology. Now, it is possible to execute tasks from virtually anywhere, as long as one has access to the Internet.

This development has provided new opportunities for people to be more productive, since they can now work from home or any other convenient location.


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