The Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music

Visiting Brian Eno’s studio in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, there’s plenty to catch the eye. Shelves sag beneath books and records, a spiral staircase climbs up toward the rafters, and a kitchen table is filled with wine bottles in preparation for a party. Standing in front of a computer monitor, Eno listens to an excerpt of a Baroque opera at formidable volume. Large skylights flood the white-walled space in natural light, and an open doorway affords a tantalizing view into the room where the producer makes his music. Two glowing light boxes, artworks from Eno’s Light Music series—four feet high and priced up to £35,000 apiece—cycle slowly through a series of geometrical shapes in rich pastel colors, like melting blocks of fruit sorbet.

Once the opera stops playing, I ask Eno how long he’s been in this space. “All night,” he says. If that’s true—it’s 10:30 in the morning—he looks remarkably fresh. I clarify: But for how many years? “All night for the past 22 years,” he deadpans. The room’s appeal is obvious; it feels like an oasis. A few tree branches are faintly visible through the skylights, silhouetted against February’s slate-grey sky. The city feels far away.

One of the scene’s most striking details is the way Eno jots down quick notes on his laptop—in pencil, right on the aluminum exterior of the MacBook Pro. The computer rests between us, already covered in scribbles and smeared graphite, when we sit down to talk over cups of almond rooibos tea, and by the end of the hour, fresh markings will have been added to its hieroglyphic tangle: lines of MIDI data, economic diagrams, a pyramid illustrating the hierarchical structure of a symphony orchestra.

You won’t find that note-taking strategy in any user’s manual, but then, the 68-year-old has made an entire career out of turning convention on its head, from his freeform studio methods to his invention—or advocacy, anyway—of ambient music, a form he once dreamed to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Clearly, his counterintuitive instincts are working: In the 44 years since he quit Roxy Music and struck out on his own, he’s made some 50 albums and produced dozens more for artists such as David Bowie, U2, and Coldplay. Not bad for a self-described “non-musician.”

If, once upon a time, Eno seemed the very embodiment of glam panache—eyeliner, feather boas, etc.—these days he’s better known as a sort of kindly philosophy professor, a persona that he lives up to in person, right down to his blue flannel shirt. In the 90 minutes I’m with him, he’s thoughtful, engaged, and prone to self-deprecation. More than once he remarks upon the allegedly frightfully messy state of his studio, exaggerating for comic effect; his housekeeper is scheduled to clean up for the party he has planned, but she’s nowhere to be found. “I just texted her,” he mutters, before we sit down. “I said, ‘Are you coming? I’m shitting bricks here!’” He’s a natural performer, in other words—and that extends to the role he plays as an interviewee: Whether talking art or politics or philosophy, everything in the world seems suddenly much more interesting in Brian Eno’s company.

With his new album Reflection, Eno picks up a thread that has run through most of his career. The soft, contemplative LP is not just ambient, but also generative—that is, it is not a composed piece of music, but rather one for which he set in place a system of musical variables and then stepped back to witness what would happen. Every combination of sound is the product of chance operations: An all-encompassing warmth, like that of cats napping in sunlit corners, is tempered by the occasional otherworldly trill, as though a highly efficient spacecraft were powering up. Every now and then, a bell rings out, breaking the meditative calm. He once used tools like magnetic tape to achieve similar effects; nowadays, his colleaguePeter Chilvers codes randomization scripts that Eno drops into Logic Pro, setting in motion his cottony chain reactions.

But Reflection differs from previous generative pieces, like, 1975’sDiscreet Music and 1993’s Neroli, in one important aspect: The 54-minute album is but one iteration of the piece’s virtually limitless sprawl. A corresponding iOS app, co-authored with Chilvers, will never play exactly the same thing the same way twice. Unlike the album, the app is not a recording of the piece; it is the piece itself, a virtual machine with all the probabilistic clockworks coded right in. It’s less something you listen to and more something you use to color the air around you.

It might seem like a strange time to be putting more soft, contemplative music into the world. But for Eno, who might be the closest thing contemporary pop music has to a public intellectual—he recently co-signed an open letter criticizing the British government’s overtures to Donald Trump—creating generative electronic music is, in itself, a kind of political act: a rejection of hierarchy in favor of ecological models of existence.

But ambient music represents just one facet of Eno’s boundless curiosity. I’m reminded of this after our interview, when he brings me into the music studio to show off the generative processes he used to create Reflection. Leaning against his standing desk, he flips through randomization scripts in Logic Pro, and skeletal percussion patterns suddenly explode into wild, distorted formations, more Autechrethan Music for Airports.

An iTunes playlist of rough drafts contains 4412 tracks; the most recent of them, something called “Jubilant Hair Sad,” was made just the night before. “I can’t remember what it is,” he says. We listen to it for a moment: slow string pads—the kernel of an idea, maybe, but not much more. “That’s not very interesting,” he says, turning it off. Perhaps part of genius is knowing when to give up on a ho-hum idea and move on.

“I have to show you statistical guitar,” he continues, queuing up an unsteady arpeggio perforating a kind of trip-hop beat. “This tempo’s too slow to make it work,” he mutters, but then he flips a variable, and the song comes bounding to life: a wild chakka-chakka that sounds strikingly like disco’s “chicken-scratch” guitar, all created using the same randomization scripts that drive Reflection’s slowly undulating form. “I’ve always loved rhythm guitar and I’ve never been able to play it,” he beams, his inner philosopher having apparently been replaced by a much more innocent figure: tinkerer, amateur, wide-eyed thrower of dice.

“The path of least resistance for anyone with a lot of sound-making tools is to keep making more sounds. The path of discipline is to say: Let’s see how few we can get away with.”

Pitchfork: What are your studio habits like when making a generative piece like Reflection?

Brian Eno: I often work here in the evening. It’s when I get a bit of peace. I have speakers everywhere, so I can have three-dimensional sound. I just start something simple [in the studio]—like a couple of tones that overlay each other—and then I come back in here and do emails or write or whatever I have to do. So as I’m listening, I’ll think,It would be nice if I had more harmonics in there. So I take a few minutes to go and fix that up, and I leave it playing. Sometimes that’s all that happens, and I do my emails and then go home. But other times, it starts to sound like a piece of music. So then I start working on it.

I always try to keep this balance with ambient pieces between making them and listening to them. If you’re only in maker mode all the time, you put too much in. It was a discovery I made right in the beginning of making this kind of music, where I would make something—I was working on tape then, of course—and find that if I played it back at half-speed, it always improved it dramatically. One reason was because of the change of sonic color that you get; the thing is suddenly mellow. But the other one was that much less was happening per unit of time. That was the lesson I really took. As a maker, you tend to do too much, because you’re there with all the tools and you keep putting things in. As a listener, you’re happy with quite a lot less.

The other way I had of moving myself towards minimalism, shall we say, was when I would think at the end of a day’s work: OK, now I’m going to do the film soundtrack mix of it. As soon as you think of something as a film soundtrack, you’re thinking of something that is behind the action, that is not the action itself. And I would think,Where is this piece? It feels like evening, it’s a river, there’s vines hanging down over the water—some kind of picture would come to me. And then I would find it very easy to do quite minimal versions of things. It’s a discipline, because the path of least resistance for anyone with a lot of sound-making tools is to keep making more sounds. The path of discipline is to say: Let’s see how few we can get away with.

You equate action or effort with authorship.

That’s right. I find that you’re a completely different person as a maker than you are as a listener. That’s one of the reasons I so often leave the studio to listen to things. A lot of people never leave the studio when they’re making something, so they’re always in that maker mode, screwdriving things in—adding, adding, adding. Because it seems like the right thing to be doing in that room. But it’s when you come out that you start to hear what you like.

Given the infinite nature of the Reflection project, was it difficult to select the 54-minute chunk that became the album?

Yes, it was quite interesting doing that. When you’re running it as an ephemeral piece, you have quite different considerations. If there is something that is a bit doubtful or odd, you think, OK, that’s just in the nature of the piece and now it’s passed and we’re somewhere else. Whereas if you’re thinking of it as a record that people are going to listen to again and again, what philosophy do you take? Choose just a random amount of time? Could have done that. Just do several of them and fix them together? Is that faking it? These are very interesting philosophical questions.

Which approach did you follow?

A hybrid approach. I generated 11 pieces of the length I’d set the piece to be and I had them all in my iTunes on random shuffle, so I would be listening at night, doing other things, and as one ran through, I would think, That was a nice one, I particularly like the second half. So then I would make a note. I did this for quite a few evenings. There were two that I really liked. On one, the last 40 minutes of it were lovely, and on another, the first 25 minutes of it were really nice. So I thought, This is a studio, I’m making a record. I’ll edit them together! It was like the birth of rock’n’roll. I’m allowed to do that! It’s not cheating. It was quite a bit of jiggery-pokery to find a place I could do it, but the result is two pieces stuck together.

I find myself listening to the app differently than I would listen to an album. I might hear something, and my interpretive brain tries to ascribe meaning to that event, but then I remember it’s essentially accidental, and it defies interpretation.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? I really think that for us, who all grew up listening primarily to recorded music, we tend to forget that until about 120 years ago ephemeral experience was the only one people had. I remember reading about a huge fan of Beethoven who lived to the age of 86 [in the era before recordings], and the great triumph of his life was that he’d managed to hear the Fifth Symphony six times. That’s pretty amazing. They would have been spread over many years, so there would have been no way of reliably comparing those performances.

All of our musical experience is based on the the possibility of repetition, and of portability, so you can move music around to where you want to be, and scrutiny, because repetition allows scrutiny. You can go into something and hear it again and again. That’s really produced quite a different attitude to what is allowable in music. I always say that modern jazz wouldn’t have existed without recording, because to make improvisations sound sensible, you need to hear them again and again, so that all those little details that sound a bit random at first start to fit. You anticipate them and they seem right after a while. So in a way, the apps and the generative music are borrowing from all of the technology that has evolved in connection with recorded music and making a new kind of live, ephemeral, unfixable music. It’s a quite interesting historical moment.

Do you find it easier on the ego to release something like this instead of an album of traditionally “composed” music?

Yes, I think it is. If I make something like Reflection, people know it’s a sort of calculated, dispassionate piece of music. But if I record a song with my voice, people assume, Oh, it’s his voice, therefore it must be carrying something deep. A voice is very exposing, and of course, a voice is always seen as being the voice of the creator, no matter how many times you tell them it isn’t. A lot of singers are really trying out personalities when they sing. It isn’t them. It’s just like somebody writing a play: He isn’t the person in the play, he’s inventing personas and seeing how they interact. I think David Byrne does it; David Bowie did it a lot. Just saying, “Who do I want this character to be? What’s the world they’re in, and how are they going to behave in that world?” But of course people always read it as autobiographical. So yes, there’s much more ego tied into anything that uses your voice, essentially. Even if you try to abstract your voice wildly, people still think: Hm, that Brian—doesn’t sound too happy.

I was listening to your 1993 album Neroli and noticed that it’s in the same key as Reflection. I had them both running at the same time—the album on my laptop and the app on my phone—and it turns out they work really nicely together.

Do they! Oh, I want to try that. I often think I’ve only ever had two ideas, and I keep finding new approaches to them. And each time I do, I think, Wow, this is really new! But it actually isn’t. It’s the same idea from a different angle.

You’ve said that the difference between classical and contemporary music is the difference between architecture and gardening. Do you keep a garden yourself?

“Keep” is not quite the word. I do garden, yes, but I’m not very good at it. I’m much better at theorizing about gardening than doing it. My gardening is similar to my cricket. When I was at school I always used to think, When I get out on that field, I’m going to bash that ball all over the place. And I was nearly always out on the second ball. I had enormous confidence and very little skill. Which you could say has typified my whole career, really!

The original price of the Reflection app was around $40, which is quite a bit higher than previous apps you’ve done. Why was that? Were you trying to make a statement about value?

Yes, I was. There are two statements: One is the price and the other is that it isn’t interactive. That was quite important to me, to try to keep it free of anything you could do with it. I just did not want people sort of fiddling. I was trying to say, “This is something to listen to.” Think of it like a finished piece of music. It happens to be a finished piece of music that will never repeat, but it is a finished piece. Some people were a little bit annoyed there was nothing they could do to it. My response is: You don’t expect to be able to do anything to a CD, do you? You just put it on and turn it up.

The point about the price was that if you make a vinyl, it costs 22 pounds in England, a CD is 16. Both of those are reduced versions of the app, in the sense that they are a tiny fraction, infinitesimal, of the lifetime piece. I really want to make the point that this is an endless piece of music. And one of the ways I can make that point is to price it higher. So in England, the app went to 30 pounds. A lot of work went into it, as well. It was only the two of us, Peter and I, and it took about a year to make the app.

Last time Pitchfork interviewed you, in 2010, you said that you still listened to CDs. Is that still true?

I do. I’m much less attached to analog stuff in general than a lot of people seem to be. I think there’s quite a lot of black magic about it. For instance, I really don’t think I can tell the difference between a well-mastered CD and a well-mastered vinyl. If I’m listening to CDs for a long time, and then I put a record on, I think I notice a slight difference. Or vice versa, actually. But both ways ’round, I quite like the difference.

Do you stream music?

Not very much. But what I was just playing there [before the interview] was streamed, actually. I’ve really only started doing that recently. But I don’t listen to that much music that isn’t mine; the only problem with being a composer is you don’t get to listen to very much music. You can’t really have the radio on while you’re doing it. The people I know who are writers or painters or designers know so much more about music than me because they’re listening all the time. Those are the people I always ask about what should I be listening to. I have a friend, a social worker, and he has the most interesting musical tastes. I always say to him, “John, what’s happening right now?” He makes me CDs. Every month he gives me one. He’ll put on 25 things he thinks I’ll be interested in, and they’re nearly always things I never would have heard otherwise.

In the notes to Reflection, you write of ambient music, “I don’t think I understand what the term stands for anymore; it seems to have swollen to accommodate some quite unexpected bedfellows.” What surprises you about the way that ambient music has evolved?

It’s interesting what part of ambient they took as being the center of it. For me, the central idea was about music as a place you go to. Not a narrative, not a sequence that has some sort of teleological direction to it—verse, chorus, this, that, and the other. It’s really based on abstract expressionism: Instead of the picture being a structured perspective, where your eye is expected to go in certain directions, it’s a field, and you wander sonically over the field. And it’s a field that is deliberately devoid of personalities, because if there’s a personality there, that’s who you’ll follow. So there’s not somebody in that field leading you around; you find your own way.

In my case, because of my musical tastes, it also meant quiet and mellow. But it doesn’t have to be that; [1982’s] On Land is an example of ambient music that isn’t quiet and mellow, it’s sinister and quite dark. But mostly people took the quiet and mellow bit, which for me was just a stylistic aspect of it, not the philosophical aspect—they took that as being what ambient music is. So for me, a lot of the stuff that gets called ambient is a kind of an accidental offshoot of my taste.

Flattering, but limiting, perhaps.

Yes, that’s right. Of course, you don’t own an idea like that, and I don’t have any objection to whatever people do. But when I listen to things that are called ambient sometimes, I think, Oh, I see, it’s that part of the thing they’ve taken.

You’ve been working on generative music for decades now. Are there any techniques today that you see now as you did generative music 40 years ago—ideas with great potential that people are only beginning to scratch the surface of?

I don’t think it really is there yet, but I find some kind of idea of group composition very promising. I don’t really know what form it will take. But there have been some quite interesting experiments with thousands of people coordinating on the internet to make one piece of music. To me those are more interesting in theory than in practice so far; I may not have heard the best ones, I don’t know. It’s an idea that I like.

“You can’t really make apolitical art.”

BRIAN ENO

I was curious about the album’s title, Reflection. You wrote a very thoughtful post on New Year’s Day about the current political moment, and I think many Americans, at least, have become more reflective since the presidential election. Did Trump’s win come as a surprise to you?

Not to me. About three months before the election, I wrote to all my American friends and said, “Trump’s going to win.” I was convinced everybody was in the state of mind we were in before Brexit. Brexit was the surprise for me. I thought, It’s going to happen again.

Does the current political moment change the kind of music you feel it’s necessary to make?

It does in a way, yes. I think that one of the interesting things that’s happened since Trump is that everybody who isn’t a Trumpist, has become what I call a “liberal conservative.” Suddenly, we realize that those old-fashioned institutions that we liberals don’t think about much—like the judiciary, the infrastructure of government—are actually worth protecting. The basis of stability in a society is in those deep structures. So we’ve all become conservatives—and liberals as well. It’s consolidated a lot of people who have buried differences they might otherwise have had. That’s a new coalition. And it’s a powerful one. In that sense, the Trumpists are much more radical than I’ve ever been. They’re Leninists, basically.

Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon even said he was a Leninist.

Fucking hell. Christ, I got him right, then. That’s so interesting. It is the idea that you remake society by smashing it up—but I think you just smash it up by doing that. There’s a lot of precedents for that, where complex societies have just fallen apart under the weight of their own complexity. It can happen! The Roman Empire is the great example of a society that was incredibly organized, well-run, and very successful, and in a generation disappeared. Really. One generation. It went from the Forum being the center of global civilization to being a place where people grazed their sheep.

And what is the impact on art? Is there a need for political music now? Is making art itself a political act?

Yes, I think it is. You can’t really make apolitical art. We started out talking about ways of composing; ways of composing are political statements. [Pulls out his pencil and points to a diagram on his laptop.] If your concept of how something comes into being goes from God, to composer, conductor, leader of the orchestra, section principals, section sub-principals, rank and file, that’s a picture of society, isn’t it? It’s a belief that things work according to that hierarchy. That’s still how traditional armies work; the church still works like that. Nothing else does, really. We’ve largely abandoned that as an idea of how human affairs work. We have more sophisticated ways of looking at things.

But to make something is to express a belief in how things belong together. To me, that’s a political statement. So I’m suggesting a funny mixture of bottom-up and top-down, which is actually what I think nature does. It’s a mixture of will and desire with an understanding of ecology—how complex things mesh together, and how much you can interfere with that. Where do you allow freedoms and where do you try to constrain results? That’s what I’m learning and practicing in doing this. It is a political statement.