On the line from his London studio, Brian Eno is telling a joke. In fact, he’s working a variant on the old “three men walk into a bar” routine, but with a distinctly Suffolk spin.
“Three old guys are sitting in the pub on a Sunday night, and some cattle pass by outside,” says the amiable producer, slipping easily into a broad East Anglian accent. “And one of them says, after about 15 minutes, ”˜That’s old Bob’s cows, innit?’ About 20 minutes later the second man says ”˜No, that ain’t Bob’s, that’s Dave’s.’ And about 20 minutes after that, the third one says ”˜Well, if you two are going to fucking argue all night, I’m goin’ home.’
“That’s actually quite close to reality,” Eno adds, laughing. And while it might seem strange that this stylish and sophisticated innovator is quietly cracking himself up with quips about geezers and cattle, it’s a sign that there’s even more to his complex talent than might immediately be apparent. First off, he’s got a sense of humour. And secondly, while he might seem to be the consummate urbanite, he’s actually rooted in the estuarial landscape of Suffolk, an agricultural region just over 100 kilometres northeast of his present home.
“There’s sort of a theory in England that people from Suffolk are very melancholy—and I think it’s true, in a way,” he says. “They’re quite reflective, taciturn people, in general. There’s a sort of feeling in Suffolk that a) you don’t show feelings too much, and b) you deal with them internally.
“I don’t know if you know Suffolk at all: it’s a beautiful landscape, but it is quite melancholy,” he continues. “I love it, but I like the experience of melancholy, I think. I don’t equate it with sadness. I think it’s a way of thinking about things; it’s a feeling of ”˜Things could have been otherwise, and let’s revel in the sense of imagining what else could have been.’ ”
Eno doesn’t quite come out and say it, but one senses that Suffolk is all over his most recent release, the moody and sublime Small Craft on a Milk Sea. From the flat fen landscape and low maritime clouds that decorate its sepia-toned cover to the brooding musical strata within, the new album suggests that Eno, his fellow keyboardist Jon Hopkins, and guitarist Leo Abrahams often find themselves contemplating desolate, wintry shores.
But there are other, more explicit strategies at play. Like Eno’s recent live performances in Australia and the U.K., most of the record is improvised—made without reference to conventional song structures, but guided, in part, by a degree of musical role-playing.
“When I improvise with other musicians, I sometimes try to set up little thought-experiments that we work within,” he explains. “For example, recently I did these shows where I said ”˜What we’re going to imagine is that we’re professors at a university in the year 2060, and we’re giving a seminar about the lost music of the 21st century.’ The thesis is that there has been some kind of atomic or electromagnetic catastrophe, and much of the music from the years 2010 to 2030 got lost, because it was only stored digitally and it all got erased.
“This is not a totally impossible scenario, by the way,” Eno continues. “So all that remains of that music is people’s description of it. So what I then do is make a description of this music—how it was done; what it was done for; what kind of people went to see it—everything except what it sounded like. So the improvisation is trying to create music that fits that description. It’s really a lot of fun, actually. And it kind of gives you enough structure that what you’re doing isn’t completely random and arbitrary.”
Conceptual procedures have been a part of Eno’s practice since even before his glittering debut, in 1971, as Roxy Music’s synth player and secret sonic weapon. (For the band’s first few shows he worked at the mixing desk rather than on-stage, but not without donning full glam-rock drag.) This he credits to his art-school training, which introduced him to such key figures as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the relatively little-known composer Cornelius Cardew, whose anti-elitist tendencies and use of graphic scores proved particularly influential.
“Obviously, I came out of a sort of fine-art background, but at a time when the sonic arts, music and so on, were very, very important in the art-school world,” says Eno, who maintains a parallel career as a creator of visual installations and computer-based generative art. “So the idea of processes and games and strategies and scores was with me from the beginning, in the painting I was doing, and in the music that I subsequently started doing.
“I still think that those are very, very useful ways of pushing yourself into new areas that taste probably wouldn’t take you to,” he continues. “The thing about games and strategies is that they push you beyond your aesthetic limits, in a way. Once you’re there, you might find that you don’t like it at all, but you might also go ”˜Oh my gosh:I never thought of doing this before!’ ”
Perhaps most remarkably, Eno’s playful strategies, contemplative nature, and wide-ranging imagination have allowed him the luxury of existing in two places at once: on the fringe of the music industry, and at its centre. As the 25 million people who have purchased U2’s Eno-produced The Joshua Tree will testify, his ideas might be outré, but they work.