Brian Eno On Composing


In a Trouser Press interview from 1982, Brian Eno shared his thoughts on composing:

Brian Eno On Composing

I’m always starting pieces of work. It’s the only thing I do, really; these pieces don’t go anywhere. For some reason, one of them will touch something in me. I never understand why at the time. As soon as I’ve got that, I recognize it as being the seed for something. There follows a period of looking at it in different ways, putting things with it, seeing how it reacts with other things – as you might do with a chemical.

The breakthrough stage is when I suddenly get a strong sense of mood or place. It’s like a fetal idea at the time. I have to surround it with things that will nourish it, if you like; that’s when I start thinking about psychoacoustics and electronics. Then craft enters into it.

Craft has to be dropped at a certain point. You’ve gotten somewhere and you have to decide what you want to do there. The sense of place becomes a seed for the sense of what happens in that place. There’s another way of working which is quite different. I sit down and think, If I connected this to this, and I set this up this way so that this happens to that, something might happen. That’s the technological way of working: imagining a novel technological situation. If you understand those technologies to a certain extent, you have reason to believe a particular novel format might give you something.

I was working in a studio in Canada recently. They had a Fender Rhodes piano there, a standard studio instrument I almost always ignore. I thought, I’ll use that for a change. How can I use this to do something surprising? I looked around and found an old amplifier with a rattly speaker. I took the speaker and sat it on the sustain pedal of a grand piano so the strings were all open. The sound from the Fender Rhodes would make the piano resonate in sympathy with it. Then I set up a microphone with a long plastic tube on it, one of those tubes you spin to get a note. The tube resonates at that frequency, so it was selective. (I did this with my engineer, Daniel Lanois, who always helps me very much.) I sat down and checked out various notes on the Rhodes. One note – just one note – made the whole system come to life. It made the speaker shake with a beautiful purring sound, like a huge foghorn. The piano was ringing away, and the pick-up through the tube particularly resonated around that frequency and all the harmonics.

This was a case of having a technological idea and then seeing if anything could be made of it. It would have stopped there if that sound hadn’t appeared. The avant-garde technique would be to go ahead with it anyway, because the process is supposed to be interesting in itself. I don’t go for that. I think if something doesn’t jolt your senses, forget it. It’s got to be seductive.

Of course, when I got that sound, I was back in the seed position of the other way of working. It immediately suggested a direction I still haven’t resolved. I didn’t find anything more interesting than just the sound on its own. Everything I put on covered up parts of the sound.

4 thoughts on “Brian Eno On Composing

  1. I wouldn't necessarily say my work comes down to happy accidents because that is brushing aside all of the careful listening and searching it took to get to the "accident". I love these types of musical discoveries. Far more interesting than nine microphone BJs.

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