Brian Eno, the influential “non-musician” at 66
By Cecilia Sun
Brian Eno turns 66 today. It has become a cliché to start every profile of Eno by noting the eclecticism and longevity of his musical career. After all, here is a man who made his performance debut smashing a piece of wood against an open piano frame (La Monte Young, X (Any Integer) for Henry Flynt) and went on to produce award-winning albums for chart-topping bands. Nonetheless, it is still startling to realize that a quick game of One Degree of Brian Eno can bring together musicians as diverse as Cornelius Cardew, Luciano Pavarotti, Nico, Karl Hyde, and Coldplay. Eno’s credits include composer, singer, keyboardist, producer, clarinetist, video artist, and app designer; his music has been heard in concert halls, arenas, airports, movie theaters, and art galleries. Thanks to the start-up sounds he wrote for Windows 95, Eno might well have been the most-played composer of the 1990s. Not bad for someone who has embraced the label of “non-musician.”
It is impossible to give a brief yet coherent overview of a career that continues to be so rich and wide-ranging. Instead, and in honor of his 66th birthday, here are six of my favorite Eno contributions to our musical world.
(1) Richard Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra from Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics
Formed in 1970 by composer Gavin Bryars, the Portsmouth Sinfonia opened its membership to all–instrumental competence is not required. Its distinctive sounds come from the resulting mix of complete neophytes and trained musicians. Eno played the clarinet with them on and off for four years, and produced two of their three albums. The Sinfonia’s performance of Also sprach Zarathustra is typical in its chaotic, yet recognizable, attempt to play only the most famous part of Strauss’s half-hour tone poem.
(2) Eno, Discreet Music (1975)
Discreet Music is Eno’s first foray into what he would later call “ambient music.” In a now-famous anecdote, Eno claims its genesis in a failure of technology. While recovering at home after a serious accident, Eno was left with a recording that was playing too softly and only out of one channel. Unable to get up to fix the sound, he listened to barely audible output and discovered a new way of hearing. After Discreet, music no longer had to be the center of attention. It could be loops of deliberately simple music that become “part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.”
(3) Penguin Café Orchestra, “Chartered Flight,” from Music from the Penguin Café (released in 1976 on Obscure; Eno, executive producer)
In 1975, following the success of Eno’s solo albums, Island Records created the Obscure label for him. Although short-lived (ten albums in three years), Obscure gave Eno the opportunity to introduce to a wider audience music they might not otherwise encounter. The quirky and charming Music from Penguin Café Orchestra was Obscure 7.
(4) U2, “The Unforgettable Fire” from The Unforgettable Fire, produced by Eno and Daniel Lanois (1984)
Given the critical and commercial enormous success Eno and U2 have enjoyed together, it is easy to forget that many–including Eno himself–found this an odd and risky collaboration when they first came together on The Unforgettable Fire. U2 famously brought Eno in so his “arty” and “weird” influence could change the band’s sound. (Bono: “We didn’t go to art school, we went to Brian.”) The album’s title track shows Eno’s introduction of a more atmospheric soundscape to U2’s previously straight-forward anthemic rock style.
(5) Eno, “This” from Another Day on Earth (2005)
Another Day on Earth was Eno’s first solo album of songs since the 1970s. Appropriately for Eno’s first album as a soloist for over a quarter of a century, the opening track “This” features not just his voice, but his voice multi-tracked as he intones the title over thirty times in this three-minute song. The result is an impossibly catchy tune that pairs Eno’s solemn, almost hypnotic singing with an infectiously catchy rhythmic accompaniment.
(6) Eno and Peter Chilvers, “Bloom” (2008)
“Bloom” brings Eno’s interests in ambient music and generative music to the iPhone. Billed as “an endless music machine” and a “music box for the 21st century,” this app allows you to create soundscapes reminiscent of Eno’s ambient experiments of the 1970s and 1980s by simply tapping on the screen. If you so choose, you can also experience your musical creation as a part of your ambience by allowing a generative player to take over. “Bloom” manages to be both addictive and soothing at the same time.
Happy birthday, Brian Eno. Our current musical landscape would be so much less interesting without you.
Cecilia Sun is an Assistant Professor of musicology in the Department of Music at the University of California, Irvine. She updated the Brian Eno entry for The Grove Dictionary of American Music, and she has an essay on Eno and the experimental tradition in the forthcoming collection Brian Eno: Oblique Strategies.
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