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The 77 Million Faces of Brian Eno

The iconic British producer and composer on his new album, "generative" art, and why he likes Jimmy Carter.

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 7:08 AM EST

MJ: You were talking earlier about trying so hard to come up with a piece of music that fits this physical space. Yet a close adaption of that music is now being shipped out to people who can listen to it in any space they want—on a treadmill or in a basement or whatever. Doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose?

"I've got, I think, 3,480 pieces of music that I've never released."

BE: I'm quite prepared to let them decide about that. You know, I'm not sure everybody will agree on whether they think it's a good idea to use it in different places. But first of all, I should say I make a lot of pieces of music that I never release as CDs. I have my computer—I was just looking yesterday—I've got, I think, 3,480 pieces of music that I've never released.

MJ: It seems that you focus on what interests you, and only then consider whether the world might be interested.

BE: Yes, though I also assume that there's a very good chance that if I really like something, somebody else will as well. Because that has historically been the case even though I generally release things like little ships onto an ocean of indifference. Over time, people discover these little ships and say I really love that such and such.

MJ: There's a sense in which a piece that's meant to evoke a mood might be considered background music. Does that bother your composer ego?

"It was incredibly complicated doing long tape loops in the past. It was unbearable, to tell you the truth."

BE: It doesn't bother me at all actually, partly because I use music as background music a lot myself. For instance, there's something I've been listening to for the last few days, which is made by those guys who used to be Stars of the Lid. It's called A Winged Victory for the Sullen, made by Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, fabulous names. I don't know whether they would be offended by the idea that I just put it on in the evenings when I'm in my studio working on visual things, which I like to do, but I absolutely love that record for allowing me to do that. I'm extremely grateful to records that allow themselves to be background material. And I often meet designers, graphic designers, or painters—writers as well—who say, "Oh I hope you don't mind, but I always have your record playing when I'm trying to think." And I think, "No I don't mind at all. I'm really pleased that it's of some use to you."

MJ: I put LUX on while I was writing and while I was doing household chores, and I found that it didn't compete for brain space in the way that a lot of other music would.

BE: Yes, and so a lot of composers would consider that terrible because they want their music to compete for brain space. I like the idea that it can exist as a sort of parallel part of your world. It can be a sort of aesthetic cushion, if you like.

MJ: In your early days, you were working with tape loops. How did digital technology change things for you?

"In 1978, I was the only person I knew who liked Jimmy Carter."

BE: I love it. It was incredibly complicated doing long tape loops in the past. It was unbearable, to tell you the truth, and clumsy, and you know—I'm sure the photographs of it look fabulous and very romantic, but the reality of it was that it made it very difficult to do anything. It limited the number of experiments you could make, and you could only do it if you were quite well off and could afford a big studio. That doesn't mean to say I only enjoy digital technology, I like a lot of things that came out of analog, but I don't want to go back there.

MJ: What percentage of your music could be called "generative?"

BE: There's rather a muddy middle ground of stuff that is partly generative and partly composed in the traditional way; LUX started out generatively but then I worked on it just as I would any piece of pop music. And even when I'm working on pop songs, I sometimes do a thing where I just put something random on the multi-track whatever it is—ProTools or whatever—an Arabic pop song or a recording of people on a street in Rome or something. And then at some point I will set up a mix and I'll introduce that element and perhaps nothing happens—but at some point you might find, "Oh, listen to that; listen to what's going on at that moment!" I don't know whether that classifies as generative composing or not. Anyway, in pure terms, the purely generative is probably about 25 percent of what I do.

MJ: Do you think other people could improve their work by exploring these techniques?

BE: Um, I don't know that I would recommend it to other people. [Laughs.] I think that because I'm interested, I make it work. Somebody said to me the other day, "It's nothing to do with generative the fact that your record sounds nice, it's because you've got good taste." That might be true. I just have this complicated alibi about how I do it.

MJ: Yeah, could be.

BE: I have to finish now, I'm afraid.

MJ: Okay, well, thanks for your time.

BE: And could I just say thanks very much to Mother Jones for the Romney disclosures; I've always liked Mother Jones, actually, and now I read it quite regularly. That was a real coup, so well done.

MJ: Thanks. And thanks to Jimmy Carter's grandson.

BE: I always liked Jimmy Carter as well. You know, when I lived in America first, which was in 1978, I was the only person I knew who liked Jimmy Carter. What really shocked me was not only that the Republicans hated him, which of course they would. But that the liberals hated him too, because they thought he was indecisive. And I thought, "You wankers, what do you expect?" You want liberals governing you, they're going to be indecisive by definition. Liberals are people who aren't certain. That's what we like about them!

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