Brian Eno: Oblique Music

Brian Eno - Oblique Music Book

Oblique Music is a 2016 collection of essays examining Eno’s work as a musician, as a theoretician, as a collaborator, and a producer. It was published by Bloomsbury Publishing, who also released my favorite musicological text, Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. The book is divided into two primary collections of essays – the first pertaining to Eno as composer, musician, and theorist, and the second section on “The University of Eno” exploring his work as a producer, collaborator and ethnographer.

The book’s introduction dives right into Eno’s early influences. Crucial to Eno’s early development as an artist, in addition to his experiences at The Fine Art Department at Ipswich in the mid-sixties, was Beers’ book The Brain of the Firm which Eno received from Jane Harvey, the mother of his first wife. The central insight of the text was this idea: “instead of specifying it in full detail, you simply ride the dynamics of the system where you want to go.” This resolved the stubborn dilemma of how one can get anywhere creatively if they don’t know what or where their destination might be. Beer’s insights were incorporated into Eno’s strategies as he moved from the quasi-hierarchical working structure of Warm Jets to his present position – that of a key part of the creative system, but not necessarily its centre.

It is this very tenet of Eno’s philosophy which attracts me to his generative work – that Eno endeavors to remove the ego from his artistry and instead he merely engineers the conditions from which his process music will commence and then permits the system to run its course. There seems to be an almost Eastern / Buddhist perspective about this approach to musical composition, and I find it infinitely more satisfying than the proud and declarative concrete structures typical of rock music.

Chapter 1: The Bogus Men explores the forcefully and glamorously modern synthesis of style and experimentation pioneered by Roxy Music in the early 1970s. Quoting Allan Moore, essayist David Pattie describes how the band managed to create a sound world in which ‘the traditional instrumental relationships are frequently and subtly overturned.’

The virtual environment of sonic space is examined structurally as three component parts – localized space,  spectral space and morphological space, and contrasts are drawn between the sonic environments of Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand” from 1973 and Eno’s “Discreet Music” from 1975. The essay closes touching upon the creative divergence of Eno and Ferry and the unsustainability of the Roxy Music project. “Ferry,” Pattie describes, “was drawn towards the shaping of a musical object; Eno, then and now, preferred to explore systems and processes.” This tension led to the breakdown of their relations.

Chapter 2 explores Eno’s non-musicianship, his experimental tradition, and his strategy of deliberately selecting musicians who would be incompatible with one another, as well as creating conditions wherein the performers are not able to hear each other to introduce unexpected interactions. Both the Portsmouth Sinfonia and The Scratch Orchestra are examined. The chapter closes drawing parallels between the non-musical properties of Discreet Music and Satie’s Musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”) from a half-century before. The chapter addresses the fundamental differences between the teleological nature of traditional musical structures and what Eno calls the ‘hypothetical continuum’ of experimental music.

Describing his ‘non-musicianship,’ Eno remarks,

“Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated towards situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part. That is to say, I tend towards the roles of the planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results.”

In chapter 3: Taking the Studio By Strategy, David Pattie offers an examination of Eno’s creative process. Pattie calls attention to Eno’s serendipitous taxi accident which created the circumstances inspiring his discovery of ambient listening, via the now legendary tale where Eno was bedridden and unable to turn up the volume on a barely-audible recording of eighteenth-century harp music. He also describes Eno’s incorporation of chance into otherwise strictly-structured systems. And like his contemporary Cornelius Cardew, his approach to composition permits hierarchical structures to give way to a more heuristic process. However, Pattie notes, Eno endeavored not to simply recast the compositional framework of Reich’s Music As a Gradual Process, but incorporated the artists’ response to the introduction of chance, via what Eno termed, “scenius” or communal genius.

Chapter 5 by Mark Edward Achtermann entitled Yes, But Is It Music? views and analyses Eno’s earliest ambient works through several lenses and philosophies of established artistic theory beginning with Tolkien’s critique of allegory and aesthetic theory, as well as Collingwood’s 1938 Principles of Art. Eric Tamm’s 1989 book, Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Color of Sound is also touched upon to frame the merit of music employing static harmony and timbral homogeneity. It was interesting to see ambient music framed by Tolkien’s theory, specifically his argument that art provides three great benefits: escape, recovery, and consolation. Achtermann proposes that Eno both confirms and challenges this theory. Further parallels are drawn between the systems at play in Eno’s ambient compositions and Lazlo’s evolutionary theory.

The final chapter of Book One entitled The Voice And/Of Brian Eno examines Eno’s post-humanist use of voice in song “to chart the convulsions at the boundaries of race, gender, and the human.” The use and manipulation of voice on albums released between 1991 and 2014 are explored, as are other artists who have synthesized and otherwise technologically manipulated voices of “post-human ventriloquism” in popular song from the 1940s to contemporary artists like Boards of Canada, DJ Shadow, and Giorgio Moroder.

Sean Albiez quotes P.K. Nayar’s Transhumanism proposing that Eno “explores strategies that emphasize co-evolution, symbiosis, feedback, and responses as determining conditions rather than autonomy, competition, and self-contained isolation of the human.” And it is that “loss of ego,” that concept of “scenius” which makes him such a powerful critical force of the post-human perspective.

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Part 2 is entitled, The University of Eno and explores his work as a producer and collaborator.

Chapter 8: Before and After Eno contextualizes Eno’s seminal lecture, ‘The Recording Studio as a Compositional Tool’ and how Eno “acts as a nexus between historical and contemporary currents in experimental, avant-garde, and popular musics.” Parallels are drawn between Eno’s musical philosophy and that of John Cage, as well as those of Satie, Varèse, Russolo, Schaeffer, and other pivotal music theorists of the era of recorded sound. Albiez and Dockwray demonstrate that Eno reiterated ideas many decades in the making but that his work is noteworthy due to his unique position in bridging the early & twentieth-century avant-garde with later experimenters in popular music.

Interestingly, not all of the essays are voices of praise. Elizabeth Ann Lindau offers some important criticism in chapter ten of the ‘ethnographic surrealism’ of Byrne and Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and its role in cultural anthropology. Further criticisms are presented in the final chapters detailing Eno’s role as producer for Devo and U2 as well as in the closing chapter where Martin James’ briefly examines Eno’s curation of the no wave scene in 1978 with the album, No New York.

Oblique Music effectively contextualizes the many facets of Eno’s work throughout the course of his illustrious career. And I appreciated that the text wasn’t all one-sided praise, but instead sheds light on the friction between Eno and his many collaborators. The book also excels at outlining Eno’s musical philosophy without being overly academic and makes for a stimulating survey of one of the most influential artists and producers of the century.

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