Brian Eno. What does he know?
For those who are not familiar with Brian Eno, here’s a simple intro I found on AllMusic:
“Ambient pioneer, glam rocker, hit producer, multimedia artist, technological innovator, worldbeat proponent, and self-described non-musician — over the course of his long, prolific, and immensely influential career, Brian Eno was all of these things and much, much more.”
He’s probably one of the most influential and multi-talented artists alive now. Like MGMT and many others who aspire to be creatives like him, I do wonder how he can be extraordinary and innovative across genres, creative forms and time periods — what’s special about him. I have dabbled only a little of his world: most of his studio albums, the music he produced for artists like David Bowie and Talking Heads, several articles, and a documentary about him from BBC. But I have already found some inspiring clues.
He famously invented ambient music while he was staying in the hospital after a car accident. He realized that music could blend into the environment, without aggressively disturbing it, just like light or color. I always feel that being serendipitous is not just being lucky. It requires one to be curious, observant and reflective about even the most ordinary things. The experience of turning the stereo up to hear above the noise of the rain is not uncommon, but discovering a new way to see music, and then going on to invent a new genre are certainly extraordinary.
As a Chinese, it’s a bit amusing to me how his second album was named Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (智取威虎山 in Chinese). It’s a fairly communist and propaganda-like peking opera. Eno was originally inspired by a random set of postcards of this theme in San Francisco. I don’t think Eno knew a lot about this opera, Chinese history or communist culture at the time. Anyways it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing that prevents one to be fascinated by a foreign idea depicted on some random postcards, build his own imagination on top of it, and create a concept album of bouncy music.
Even though Eno primarily makes music, he probably has kept more visual diaries than most of the artists who make visual art. In his notebooks, he kept everything from ideas of how to make an installation, to experience throughout a particular day, to reminders of dentist appointments.
“It’s the act of writing something down, that puts it into memory, takes it out of my mind, where it’s possible to think about it differently.”
Keeping these diaries isn’t necessarily the best way to be creative, but it’s probably the way that best matches the way he thinks and works. He has faith in this method, and has sticked to it for decades.
Process Not Product
The idea of “process not product” is big in modern art movements. I had never fully understood and appreciated it until I got to know Eno. “Another Green World” is an incredible album with lots of genius moments. It was made by inviting a group of musicians to improvise and then editing the materials. In his later ambient works, he assumed the methodology where he builds a system and controls the inputs, watches the experiment of different permutations carry itself out, and picks from results. He’s amazed at how complex results can be generated by very simple systems. Those are incredible new processes to apply to making music, and the products are incredibly innovative as well.
“Process not product” means focusing on innovating the process, not the final product. It doesn’t mean that the final product is not important, which was my original interpretation. To Eno, picking and crafting the final work is extremely important.
“In my computer, there are probably 1500 music pieces that I have never released, they are meaningless until I release them.”
“The completion of a work, is to care about the responses you get to it. The thought of saying, ok this is going to be released as good work, be free from me, I’m not going to be there to make excuses for it any longer, that’s when I really start to think about it, and work hard on it.”
That’s the answer to the constant high quality of work he’s been producing. I work in design, where you keep making variations and decisions, to craft something that connects with people. The same standard applies, and I should hold it up to myself too.
To reach this standard involves hard work and nonstop trying. Eno works into late night, the time he starts to try all that he couldn’t do before. The sheer number of unfinished pieces is not to be overlooked. He has the habit of shuffling them from time to time, and he would discover genius pieces that he doesn’t even remember creating them at all.
Intellectual and Cross-disciplinary Thinking
Among the rock musicians I know of, Eno is noticeably more intellectual, and more involved in many other areas besides music. There are rockstars who don’t really come up with theories of what they do, but surprise and impress us with their simultaneity and originality. Eno is different. He thinks, reflects, relates and forms his own way.
Looking at his studio, you know he reads science, history and many other subjects. There came his intellectual disposition, and also unique inspirations for his work. He talked about how Darwin’s evolution theory inspired him to apply generative methods to both music and visual art. He even took ideas from cybernetics theories in a management book his mother-in-law gave him. It then seems no surprise that he has produced not only standard music records, but also the 6s start-up sound of Windows 95, programs that display his generated paintings, iPhone apps for people to create generative music, etc.
Again, the idea of “process not product”, which he absorbed while studying at the Ipswich Art School, has given him the creative freedom to try different media. He started to experiment with tape recorders before mastering any music instrument. Unlike many musicians who built their careers around virtuosity, Eno focuses on the way of thinking and process of making, which is not limited by one particular form of expression.