I noticed a week or so back that the masthead on this blog includes, as one of our topics, “a little music.” There hasn’t been any music on here, though, or any discussions of it, not that I recall. I am thinking that should change.
Nothing I would write about Brian Eno would be short. Let’s just say that I discovered his work my freshman year in college (I was 18) when he had just two vinyl records out, had appeared on a handful of other records (e.g., the first two Roxy Music releases), and was clearly someone to watch. Now, over 40 years later, I’ve no fully reliable count of all his releases official and unofficial, some of them extremely difficult to obtain (not to mention expensive). His latest is called Reflection, and was released on January 1, 2017. Although his name has never exactly been a household word, he’s produced significant groups such as the Talking Heads and U2, shaping their sound in new ways, and has become the subject of biographies and even academic studies. It was clear, back when I was an undergraduate, reading his interviews, that I’d encountered a keen intellect who was always pushing the envelope.
His thoughts about the nature of art are as interesting as how he came by them. David Sheppard, in his biography On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (2008), records a definitive incident in Eno’s life that happened when he was 18 and about to enter art school. The mother of his then-girlfriend had dismissed the idea, telling him he would be “wasting his time” and wondering why someone as obviously bright as he was would want to be an artist. Eno said later, “it set a question going in my mind that has always stayed with me, and motivated a lot of what I’ve done: what does art do for people, why do people do it, why don’t we only do rational things, like design better engines? And because it came from someone I very much respected, that was the foundation of my intellectual life” (Sheppard 2008, p. 45).
It struck me, when reading those words (variations on them have been circulating since the 1970s), that the same questions could be posed about philosophy. It’s hardly “rational” in the sense that designing better engines is “rational.” But for some of us, it became an obsession practically on the day we encountered it. We knew it wasn’t the world’s obsession. But neither is art the world’s obsession. At the same time, would a society without both art and philosophy seem fully civilized? So what does philosophy do for us? Why does it do whatever it is that it does? Why can those of us captured by this obsession not leave it alone, and not just do other things (especially those of us who have left academia, the one place in the world where philosophers are at home, kind of, sort of). What should philosophy do? and should it do the same thing for all of us who do it? These all seem like questions worth exploring.
But back to Eno. I’ve learned to appreciate his work on at least two levels. One is that of a mind hard at work, conscious of what he is doing, the media in which he is working, and exploring its possibilities. He’s a trained artist who is comfortable with technology and able to use it to generate sound. He’s studied systems thinking and made use of it, having composed pieces illustrating how very simple repetitive systems can be used to generate seeming great complexity — in visual art as well as music. He (more or less) invented “ambient music,” drawing on antecedents such as Terry Riley and John Cage and influencing the atmospheric “chill out” music we began to hear in the 1990s. He’s also invented “generative music,” played with software instead of regular CD players, as it consists of multiple randomized tracks that never play the same way twice.
Eno’s body of work opens quite a number of listening possibilities, as “ambient” tracks like Discreet Music, Thursday Afternoon, and Neroli are perfectly suitable as backing material on which other things can be laid. One has to be careful in doing this. Knowing what not to do, which tracks not to use, is clearly as important as knowing which ones to use. I don’t know who Tamás Károly Tamás is (the name is Hungarian, which may or may not be obvious) or if he has any connections to Eno, but he clearly knew what he was doing when he assembled this. Recommended listening for a quiet Sunday evening.