Brian Eno, interviewed by Pitchfork's Mark Richardson
November 1, 2010
Pitchfork: You’re credited with “computer” on the album [“Small Craft on a Milk Sea" —F]. There were two things that I read about years ago, when you were speaking about computer music, that might have changed over time. One had to do with the idea of electronic music so often being created on a grid. Where sounds were locked into place and ultimately certain genres of music were dependent on that. But at the time, you talked about how that was maybe problematic in terms of the development of music. Do you feel like that has changed at all? Is that something you’re dealing with now or that has been overcome in how you work with music with computers?
Eno: I think it’s a really, really important issue. I think we’re sort of deep in the grid period of making music— well, we’re probably emerging from it a little bit now, I would say. You know how eras always have a sound to them and you don’t realize it until the era has gone? I remember when in the early days of rock’n’roll, when everything sounded totally different, all amazing and blah blah blah blah blah. Now you can play me one second of any record from that time, and I’ll say “1959” or “1961.” I can hear precisely. It’s like it has a huge date stamp on it. And I think we’re all capable of doing that. You can hear the profile of a sound, in retrospect, so much more clearly than you did at the time. And I think one of the things that’s going to be nauseatingly characteristic about so much music of now is its glossy production values and its griddedness, the tightness of the way everything is locked together.
I just got an amazing 10-CD set, it’s the music that Alan Lomax recorded in Haiti in 1936. And what’s incredible is how fantastic the drummers are and how off-the-grid they are. The liveliness is astonishing; they’re just totally alive, these recordings. It’s very interesting, to me, to be reminded of that, that there was a time when things were not that tight. And we’re going through this super-uptight era, which I think comes entirely from literacy, actually. It’s the result of machines that were designed as word processors being used for making music. Because that’s what we’re doing, after all. All the programs we’re using started their lives, really, as word processing programs and the concepts that typify word processing, like “cut and paste,” “change typeface.”
Pitchfork: Yeah, “undo,” et cetera.
Eno: Yes, exactly, “undo,” in particular. That’s a very important one because— well, I had an interesting day. I was in the studio with a group of musicians, who shall remain nameless, and I said to them “Our exercise today is not to use ‘undo’ at all. So, there’s no second takes. Or, if you do a second take, you have to do the whole take. There’s no sort of drop in, change that little bit. The session broke down in, I’d say, 40 minutes. It was impossible for people to work in that restriction any longer. I think that’s very significant that we’re so attached to the idea now of— it was something I advocated for years, that you can make music in studios, music doesn’t have to be made as a real-time experience. But now you see the results of that in people who are completely crippled unless they know that they have the possibility of “cut and paste” and “undo.” And “undo” and “undo” and “undo” and “undo” and “undo” again.
Pitchfork: A related question is the interface between the body and computers and how different that is from traditional instruments, which were often built with the body in mind— how they would be held, where the hands would be, where the fingers would be. And the computer is obviously modeled on a typewriter machine that was built in the late 19th century, and we have a finger to control a mouse and so on. But do you see any evolution of it in that regard of it? How people use them in terms of making their bodies work with computers?
Eno: First of all, I think you’re quite right in bringing that up, because I think that is such a serious issue, and very few people notice it. Very few people take it seriously at all, because they’re still convinced by the Microsoft slogan “Go where your imagination takes you,” or whatever that bloody thing was. The idea that the computer is a completely neutral device that doesn’t have a personality of its own and just liberates you to do anything you want— it’s complete cock. You just make different music on a computer. And you can make wonderful music on a computer, but don’t pretend that the machinery is transparent. It makes as much difference to what you’re doing as it does if you play an acoustic guitar as opposed to a kettledrum. You’re not going to make the same music.
So, there is a sort of convergence starting to happen between the computer and musical instruments, but it’s still quite a long way off. Basically, you’re still sitting there using just the muscles of your hand, really. Of one hand, actually. It’s another example of the transfer of literacy to making music because the assumption is that everything important is happening in your head; the muscles are there simply to serve the head. But that isn’t how traditional players work at all; musicians know that their muscles have a lot of stuff going on as well. They’re using their whole body to make music, in fact. Whereas it’s quite clear that if the interface between you and a computer is a mouse, then everything of interest that happens must be happening in your head. It’s a big step backwards, I think. It’s back to the biggest problem with classical music, which is [that] it’s head music. It doesn’t emanate from anything below the shoulders, basically.