A conversation with Brian Eno: 'We are all singing. We call it speech, but we're singing to each other'
In Tuesday's Times, Brian Eno discusses the release of his new collaboration with British poet Rick Holland, "Drums Between the Bells." Over the course of our conversation, Eno touched on many fascinating topics, many of which didn't make it into the story. What follows is the full transcript of the conversation. (Well, not the full transcript, as the first few minutes have been lost to time -- or, more accurately, to a faulty recording device.)
Brian Eno: We are all singing. We call it speech, but we’re singing to each other, and I thought, as soon as you put spoken word onto music, you start to hear it like singing anyway. You start to develop musical value and musical weight, and you start to notice how this word falls on that beat, and so on and so on. So in a way I think I was trying to draw more attention to the fact that everybody is a singer -- everybody who uses their voice is kind of singing. And that was a big liberation for me, to realize that.
I think one of my pursuits over the years is trying to answer the question of, ‘What else can you do with a voice other than stand in front of a microphone and sing?’ What other roles can a voice have in modern music. And ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ was one attempt to answer that question, and various other things i’ve done. 'Music for Airports' was another attempt. And various other things have been ways of trying to answer that question.
Pop & Hiss: And how did Rick Holland get involved?
I had been experimenting a little bit with poems on my own. On my last album, there’s a song that dates from about 2002 I think which is called ‘Bone Bomb’ where I used one of the voices that actually turns up on this record, a woman called Aylie Cooke to read a poem that I had made out of two news reports about suicide bombers. And I was really fascinated by this new territory of ‘musical poetry,’ you might call it, but I thought, ‘Who’s going to write the poems?’ That’s not my job, really, I’m not that good at it, and anyway I don’t particularly want to, I don’t want to be concerned with that aspect of the job.
So I was at an event, and this young poet, Rick Holland, appeared and did a piece, and I thought, 'That’s exactly the kind of poem I want: something that is compact, evocative, not over-specific and quite pliable,' in the sense that it had to be able to be pulled apart, and stretched, and all the other things that I want to do with sound. So I approached him, and I said, 'Come over sometime and we’ll do a couple of experiments and see if it works.'
The first thing that we did was very successful, actually. It worked very well. It’s not on this album, actually, because we subsequently did better ones, but then whenever he was in London -- he doesn’t live in London, but whenever he was here, we would try another piece. and we weren’t thinking of doing an album or anything like that. Just at a certain point I looked at all this stuff and I thought, 'I’m as interested in this as anything else I’m doing, and I think it’s a goer, this project.' I hadn’t really taken it very seriously until I’d done quite a lot of it. And I listened to the whole lot of it together, and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, there’s definitely something here.’ So it was an album that grew, actually, rather than was conceived and executed.
And it grew over the course of nearly a decade?
Yes, quite a long time. People may listen to it and think, ‘Well that doesn’t sound like a decade’s work,’ but it wasn’t a decade’s work.
As a composer, did you view your role as to build structures for his words?
Well, it worked in two different ways, actually. I’m often sitting in my studio late at night working, and just coming up with sound propositions, really -- I’m just thinking, 'I wonder what would happen if you did "this" and "this." ' And a lot of that is just purely experimentation where I’m sort of trying to play with the tools I have available -- which, of course, is an ever increasing set, as you know, with music technology.
But during the course of that, I’ll come up with something and I’ll think, ‘That’s a really nice piece of music,' and then sometimes I would think, 'That would be great with a poem over the top,' so I would just keep those things in reserve, and the next time Rick came over I’d have a few things ready in the sort of deep freeze, and I’d thaw one out and say, ‘Got anything that would go with this, you think?’ And he would rifle through his papers and say, ‘Well let’s try this one.‘ Or sometimes he would say, ‘Well, I don’t really have anything, but what about I try writing one?’ So that was one way we worked -- from music to the poem.
But the other way was that sometimes he would show me a poem and say, 'Can you think of anything that would go with this?' And very often I would start a piece of music from scratch based on whatever he had written. I would say on the record it’s about 50/50 for those two approaches.
Did you ever compose music after the reader had recorded his or her voice? There’s one, I think it’s “Dreambirds," where it sounds like you riff on her phrasing.
Yes, that is “Dreambirds,” that’s right. That started out -- this has an interesting story, actually. It started out just as a piano piece, and then Rick showed me that poem, and I thought, 'Oh, that would be very nice over this piano piece.' Then I called up this woman who works at my health club, Caroline Wildi, and I said, 'Can you cover and read this?,' because I love her voice. And she read it, and now and again her voice was really well in sync with the music, although she didn’t hear the music when she was reading it. And I thought, 'Hmm, it would be really interesting if we really followed the voice.' I had had a Midi piano performance, so I just went in and started moving notes, so that quite a few of them fell on her words. And I thought that was a lovely effect. I really loved the idea.
It is. It catches you off guard a little, because it’s not like it works that way through the whole piece. It’s just one brief moment.
Exactly. So that was the trick for me. At first I thought, 'Oh, I’ll sync it all up.' But when I did that, it didn’t sound very interesting, actually. It was when the music and the voice occasionally kind of rung together, that it really made it magical for me. When it was all locked together, it sounded just contrived, and not very interesting. But it was with occasional collision, like the two things are in orbit together, that really worked for me.
Do you always have some sort of music playing in your head? Do you get ear worms the way some people do?
Oh dear, terribly. It’s a terrible problem sometimes.
Well, there are some things that I just can’t get out of my head, and they start to annoy me after a while. Sometimes they’re of my own creation, as well -- and they’re just as annoying. It’s not only other people’s ear worms that bug me, it’s my own, as well.
The reason I ask is that there’s an American radio show called 'Radiolab,' and they devoted an hour to ear worms, and it was one of the most fascinating, educational pieces I’ve ever heard on the subject.
Oh, I love that show, but I haven’t heard that one.
How do you listen to music these days? How do you hear new music?
Well, two things. I love good, loud speakers. I don’t like headphones very much, and I rarely listen to music on headphones. I like the physical feeling of music, and I love big old loudspeakers. And the other thing I love is live performance in small venues. I almost always despise live performances in big venues, I just really don’t enjoy them. But I find in smaller clubs, places up to about a thousand people, I guess, I find that I’m still very engaged with what’s going on sonically. So those are really the two ways I listen. Oh, and I listen to the radio too.
In the car?
I don’t have a car, so I don’t listen, but I think that the car is a very good listening space.
I’ve been using the streaming service Spotify for the last few months, and it’s been really interesting for me. I’m curious about your thoughts on universal access to the entire recorded music library, and how that may change the way we experience music.
Well, it certainly has changed things for me, because one of the things I notice that often happens now in the studio when I’m working with other people, is that we’ll mention something -- ‘Do you remember that song by so-and-so? No, you haven’t heard it? Oh, well, listen.’ We suddenly refer to music a lot in a way that never used to happen.
When you went into the studio in the past, you went to a space that was actually, deliberately sealed off from music, because the only music you were supposed to be hearing in there was yours. And this sudden thought that the whole library of recorded music is there and available to you as reference material, really, I think that’s changed the way people work a lot. So as a composer, I think it makes a really big difference, because it sort of erases history in a way.
In the past, you would of course know what’s going on contemporaneously, but it was a bit of a job to find something from 1962 or 1947 or something like that. But now it’s all there, it’s all equally present, equally current, in a sense, so I think that really changes the way people think about the music that they’re doing. They don’t so much think now of certain styles being unacceptably old fashioned, and certain other styles being wonderfully, interestingly new. You make your own patchwork quilt.
Right, and if you mention an artist to me that I’m not familiar with, in the past I would have to make a mental note, and decide whether this is an artist that I want to pursue the next time I was at the record store. And I’ve also noticed movements in which the sound of the recording is as much a signifier and an aesthetic choice as the arrangements of the notes.
I think you’re absolutely right. You become acutely aware of the different sort of recording aesthetics when you hear things next to each other. When you hear a contemporary recording followed immediately, as often happens when you have shuffling forms like Spotify and the iPod, by something from 1958, you think, ‘My God, he was so close to the microphone then. Or, listen to those strings. they’ve got a whole orchestra there, but it’s about at the level of a very quiet high-hat.'
The differences become so apparent when things are next to each other, and I think that makes you much more acutely aware of the medium of recording than we’ve ever been, because, if you think about it, it’s only now that people start thinking about recording as a non-absolute form. In the past, we’ve thought about recording as transcription, basically. Something happens and you make a recording of it, and the recording is faithful. Now you realize, when you hear things one after another, that recording has never been faithful. Recording has always been a stylistic choice, there’s always been a separate choice that’s being made.
And it becomes an aesthetic decision.
Exactly. So suddenly, the technical becomes seen as the aesthetic. What was thought to be technical is suddenly realized to have been aesthetic -- that’s a complicated sentence.
Yeah, someone I know records their stuff onto old VHS tape because they like the way it flattens the sound. And I think he’s 25.
That’s a very good example of someone hearing something that probably at the time it was made people thought, 'Oh, that’s pretty good, that’s pretty faithful.' That’ll be fine. And now it’s being used as an effect.
You see, one of the great things about popular music, one of its great realizations, is that distortion is an effect, basically, is something people didn’t realize in the whole of classical electronic music. They just didn’t get that at all, that distortion tells you a great deal about music, because what distortion means, or one thing it means, is, I’m too big for this medium, therefore I distort.
But the other thing it says is, not only am I too big for this medium, I come from 1958. I come from this particular set of cultural assumptions that are indicated by this type of distortion. So really, distortion is a way of locating a thing in a certain place in history. And when you do that, of course you’re also locating it in its cultural history. You’re locating it in the context of all those other signs and symbols and assumptions that belong in that time. So it’s a very powerful thing to do, you know? As soon as you put a bit of crinkle on something, you think, ‘Record,’ or you think, ‘Home gramophone,’ you think all the things that belong to that medium -- the vinyl, as opposed to belong to the medium, CD, for example.
Are there sounds that you can make now that you couldn’t make, say, five years ago?
Yes. There are a whole new generation of interesting new tools appearing, and a lot of them have the most peculiar outputs. You really don’t know what -- they don’t have a history, musically, because what they result from is performing purely mathematical operations on a digital stream of numbers, basically.
With digital recording, of course, everything is changed into numbers, so, once everything is numbers, you can do purely numerical things to it, like invert all the numbers, for example, so that everything that is a three becomes a minus three, or you can say, ‘Every odd number jumps up two notches.' Now, these produce results that are quite hard to know what to do with, quite honestly, because they’re sounds that you’ve never heard before, you’ve just never experienced that kind of transformation of sounds. You put a piano through one of these types of filters and what you’ve got in the end is certainly not a piano any longer.
That’s what initially attracted me to electronic music -- I was hearing sounds I’d never heard before, sounds that no one had ever heard before.
Well, I always say to people that what’s happened to sound over the last 40 years, let’s say, it’s a little bit the equivalent to, if you were a painter and you’re sitting there with your box of oil paints, and you’ve got Prussian blue and Cadmium red and all the various colors, and somebody walks into your studio one day carrying an enormous suitcase -- not even a suitcase, an articulated truck -- and they say, ‘Um, we’ve got lots of new colors for you.' And, in fact, inside that truck are colors that you’ve never seen, you’ve never heard of, they don’t have names, nobody has ever seen them before.
That’s sort of what’s happened to music over the last 50 years. There’s suddenly -- they’re not just new varieties of colors, not like new kinds of pink. It’s totally new colors that don’t have names at all, and so a lot of the pursuit of pop music, actually, has been exploring those colors. What can we do with these new colors. What happens when we combine them with one another. To think of the most stupidly obvious example, the [Roland] TR-808 kick drum. Well, nobody had ever heard that sound before, and suddenly a large part of a whole music form grows up around that sound. And I think that’s the most thrilling thing imaginable. But it’s funny. The classical kind of people don’t get it at all. They don’t perceive that as being particularly interesting.
Perhaps that's because automated sounds put a lot of their colleagues out of business.
Well that’s probably why they don’t see it as particularly interesting (laughs).
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Brian Eno (left) and Rick Holland. Credit: Warp Records