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Classic interview - Brian Eno: “I use the DX7 because I understand it. I know that there are theoretically better synths, but I don’t know how to use them”

Brian Eno
(Image credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

Brian Eno likes guitars. Yes, he’s a keyboard ‘n’ computer user and his own music sounds like Christmas in Filterland, but if you had him down as a devotee of current music technology you’d be wrong.

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Brian Eno

(Image credit: Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

5 tracks producers need to hear by… Brian Eno

Having great fun inventing ambient music, playing “devices” on albums by an obscene list of legends and going ‘bleep’ a lot in his first band doesn’t make him a boffin. This man does not get out at Tweak Central.

He prefers, instead, to pursue very high artistic goals with a minimum of technical fuss. It’s just that he tends to have to get very scientific about being artistic, in a way which, admittedly, always used to be the province of the keyboard player.

But nowadays, of course, you don't need keyboards. You don't even need fingers. And it's what keyboards make your fingers do that he has a problem with. Sort of. Er, you’d better explain it, Brian…

“The thing about the guitar is that it isn't a digital instrument,” he begins. “Keyboards, which tend to dominate electronic music, are digital. They are digital in the sense that you have one note, and you have a different note next to it - they are cut up into discreet bits. Even though you have frets on a guitar, no guitarist just plays on the fret. Any player is always fluidly moving around the notes. Synthesizer players don’t do that a lot.”

I think music with musicians will not only persist but flourish again… People will get fed up with this chopped-up thing.

Right, so, despite mod wheels, pitch wheels, joysticks and portamento, your average keyboard player kind of plods up and down a bit. But, for Eno, it's not just keyboards that have this limitation. Computers, too, invite a building-block approach to music making that may have given us great dance music - but it's only given us great dance music. It reminds Eno of Beethoven.

“One of the problems you have with this kind of equipment is that it has enforced a music that has all the worst aspects of classical music. It’s very discreet.

“First of all, everything is locked in time, because that's the way that sequencers work. You tend to cut things on bars and move blocks around like that. So, this reinforces the idea of the music as a kind of thread that can be chopped about as a horizontal band. But what's interesting is the idea of music as a ‘field’ - like any live music, any music with musicians - and this is why I think music with musicians will not only persist but flourish again.

“People will get fed up with this chopped-up thing. In any live music there’s a feel, with a lot of things competing for attention and overlapping in different ways, and sometimes miraculously locking together. And it's the tension between those moments of lock and those moments of drift that I find most interesting about playing with real players.

Unlocking tradition

FM would like to point out that it believes sequencer musicians are real, too, so please don't write to the Editor. That's not what Eno really means, anyway. As a producer he has always exploited the influence that technique and technology have over the shape of music, like the way materials influence the shape of buildings. It's just that, for him, current techniques are too precise.

“I have this word that I think about a lot which is ‘unlocked music,” he continues. “Ambient - my kind of ambient music - is the most unlocked music possible. A lot of things drift separately from each other and you listen to the result.

“In fact, African music is basically like that, because you have two time signatures going on always, a three-beat and a four-bear, and they don't always lock. They are cycles of different length that don't overlay in precise numerical ways - or if they do, they overlay in such long cycles that you are not conscious of that, necessarily.

What I like to think about is a field not a horizontal strip - a field where there are a lot of elements that float free from each other, that occasionally create wonderful moments as they cluster.

“So, I’m always arguing for the unlocked. Some technology really encourages lock, so you have a problem with it being locked vertically. And if it's keyboard-based you have a problem with it being locked horizontally as well. These instruments play either this pitch or that pitch, they tend not to move fluidly between them. You may have a mod wheel, but it's not an expressive element. 

“What I like to think about is a field not a horizontal strip - a field where there are a lot of elements that float free from each other, that occasionally create wonderful moments as they cluster. I try to think of music in this sense - not as something that has direction, but as something that has a place in space. This is what I’ve been trying to do for some time.”

Surely computer software could be designed along these lines, if you’ll forgive the expression…

“Oh yeah, all things are possible - but they don't happen. They don't happen because design philosophies rarely start again. It’s very easy to add more options to an existing design philosophy - to flesh it out a little bit more and add a few twiddles to it. It's very difficult to go back and say, actually, we should start again with a different idea. It just doesn't happen, generally because once the format gets entrenched it stays there. Technology should be chosen by a meritocracy - but it never is.”

On the bright side…

Maybe there’s some light at the end of this tunnel. Recently Eno has been sufficiently impressed by a program called Koan Pro to put his name to a citation on the box.

Working with the product’s mentor, Tim Cole of SSEYO, Eno has taken the software under his wing and may well use it for a specific album in the near future.

Koan Pro is a kind of auto composer, using 150 specifically-designed variable controls to influence and produce music. The values of these controllers determine the notes and melodies of a Koan piece.

Koan Pro

(Image credit: Intermorphic)

The user selects various options to produce the music in realtime and results tend to be smooth, non-intuitive and natural. It’s an ideal program for Eno, but it still won’t stop him going on about guitars…

“Whatever you say about guitars, they are highly evolved instruments. So are most electro-acoustic instruments. Part of the reason that they are highly evolved is not because they are intrinsically, but because people evolved a relationship with them. 

“I use the DX7 because I understand it. I was quite ill for a while, and I filled the time by learning it. I think it’s just as good as anything else. Sticking with this is choosing rapport over options. I know that there are theoretically better synths, but I don’t know how to use them. I know how to use this. I have a relationship with it.”

Attention all equipment designers. You can either retire now, or get yourself a pen and paper ready. And no giggling at the back from Yamaha.

“I’m always saying to synthesizer people, ‘why don't you make a synth that makes just six great sounds, has a couple of tone controls, but has lots of ways of articulating? Why don't you build them with switchable degrees of reliability, so instead of using all 2% tolerance, gold resistors, you make them with 2%, 5% and 15% circuits that you can switch between? So that if you want a completely linear response, 2% is what you use?’

“If you want there to be a degree of chaos, like a string orchestra for instance - that's what makes a string orchestra interesting, they are not all playing the same thing, and the fascination is all those quixotic harmonic accidents - well then you switch to 15%. That would be such an easy thing for the manufacturers to do. The goal of ultimate reliability is not the way to go.

“It's the same as the problem with acoustics designers. I’m saying to them, ‘well, actually I don't want a neutral environment thank you very much’. I’d rather have something that has its own colour. It would be so easy. I have to do it to my own synths.”

But wouldn't it undermine a manufacturer's sales pitch to effectively offer unreliable technology?

“They shouldn't call it unreliable, they should call it ‘enriched’. I’d be happy to write the copy for them.”

Back to basics

For all that, Eno has a neat home setup revolving around a computer-based sequencer and has trusty DX7, with sundry classic synths and signal-processing modules all racked up and on wheels like a sonic Filofax. It has its uses.

“I use it to remember things. I use it as a recorder, basically. I just sit and play - usually without a metronome or bar lines or anything like that. I can then listen through and actually work on the sound of the performance, rather than the notes of it.

“I’m not a keyboard player, and I could never repeat a performance of anything twice, so I improvise. I get the freshness of an improvisation, but I do the more analytical work of getting the right sound for that piece of music after the event.

“I have DAT. I usually intend to get whatever I am doing finished in one sitting. With the sequencer I’ll only work for a day on one thing afterwards.”

Do you keep tapes of everything?

“Not always. And it's very complicated. I don't even bother keeping the data, because I know I'm not going to go back to it. It's too tedious to set up. I think, ‘fuck, I’m never going to bother to set this all up again, so what’s the point of remembering any of it?’ It's all a package.”

I really admire economy more than anything else: elegant ways of making big things happen - which is the opposite of what normally happens in a studio, where you have clumsy ways of making small things happen.

Is it your own solo material that you're working on here, or ideas that you take into a studio when producing another act? 

“I always regard it as my own, but often that does not happen. It gets incorporated into something else. What I'm more and more inclined to do is to limit options. One of the reasons for destroying programs is so that there isn't the choice of going back to them. What you've got is the DAT - you've got that or nothing.”

Actually, Eno’s electronic improvisations and general economy of method aligns him perfectly with today’s hi-tech musician. Although cynical in regard to many aspects of modern equipment design, he shares that cynicism with most of the cutting-edge combos knocking around. It’s probably this attitude that maintains his towering influence over current music making, a figure more than any other deserving of the phrase ‘ahead of his time.’ And sod guitars - he really likes DJs…

“I admire people like Howie B,” he concludes, “who just turn up with their record collection and they dont bring a single instrument with them. They just patch together other bits of music. This is so intelligent. You get all the complexity of one sound, all its cultural resonances, and then you stick it with all the complexity and cultural resonances of another.

“I really admire economy more than anything else: elegant ways of making big things happen - which is the opposite of what normally happens in a studio, where you have clumsy ways of making small things happen.”

This interview originally appeared in issue 38 of Future Music in December 1995.

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