This video captures a short discussion by Brian Eno on his concept of Composers as Gardeners.
Eno contrasts the stereotype of the classical composer conceiving a piece and then writing it out against the practice that became more common in the 60s of creating processes that result in music that you may or may not have anticipated.
Composers as Gardeners
About the time when I first started making records, I was also starting to become aware of a new sort of organizing principle in music. I think like many people, I had assumed that music was produced, or created in the way that you imagine symphony composers make music, which is by having a complete idea in their head in every detail and then somehow writing out ways by which other people could reproduce that. In the same way as one imagines an architect working. You know, designing the building, in all its details, and then having that constructed.
In the mid-’60s, there started to appear some music that really wasn’t like that at all. And in fact, it was about the time I started making music, and I found that I was making music in this same rather unusual new way. So that the music I was listening to then in particular, in relation to this point, was Terry Riley’s “In C” and Steve Reich’s famous tape pieces, “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out.” And various other pieces as well.
Of course, I was also familiar with Cage and his use of randomness, and new ways of making musical decisions. Or not making them. What fascinated me about these kinds of music was that they really completely moved away from that old idea of how a composer worked. It was quite clear with these pieces, for example “In C,” that the composer didn’t have a picture of the finished piece in his head when he started. What the composer had was a kind of menu, a packet of seeds, you might say. And those musical seeds, once planted, turned into the piece. And they turned into a different version of that piece every time.
So for me, this was really a new paradigm of composing. Changing the idea of the composer from somebody who stood at the top of a process and dictated precisely how it was carried out, to somebody who stood at the bottom of a process who carefully planted some rather well-selected seeds, hopefully, and watched them turn into something. Now, I was sort of looking for support for that idea. The term ‘bottom-up’ hadn’t come into existence then. Chaos theory, complexity theory, so on, they didn’t exist. I don’t even think we had catastrophe theory then.
What we did have, though, was cybernetics. And I became very interested in the work of a cybernetician called Stafford Beer. In fact, I became friends with him, ultimately. Stafford had written a book called The Brain Of The Firm, The Managerial Cybernetics Of Organization, which came out, I think, in ’72 or ’73. And it was a very exciting book because it was essentially about this idea, again, unspoken at the time, of bottom-up organization, of things growing from the bottom and turning into things of greater complexity.
Now, you must understand why this was surprising at the time. It’s surprising for the same reason that evolution theory is still surprising to most Americans. Which is that the concept of something intelligent coming from something simple is very hard to understand. It’s not intuitive at all. The whole shock about Darwinian evolution is that simplicity turns into complexity. It’s not obvious that that should happen.
What happened in Stafford’s work was that he was talking about organization and how things organize themselves in this new way. And there was one sentence in the book which I think I still remember, he said ‘instead of trying to organize it in full detail, you organize it only somewhat and you then rely on the dynamics of the system to take you in the direction you want to go.’ And this became my sort of motto for how I wanted composition to be.
As I said, I started a correspondence with Stafford, and we did some presentations about this idea, both in music and science, in Canada. Around about the end of the ’70s, I started to become aware of another field of activity, which at that time was represented by just one single example in my experience. And this was the cellular automaton game called “Life,” by the mathematician, John Conway. I won’t go into that now because I don’t have time, but to give you a very simple glimpse of what that was about, I think to science, it sort of had the kind of impact that Duchamp’s urinal had in art. It’s sort of such a simple idea, which was so glowingly far-reaching that you thought my God, everything’s different now.
“Life” is a very simple mathematical game which is entirely deterministic, which is to say that you know exactly what all the inputs to the system are, you know exactly what rules govern it, and they’re very simple rules, and yet the outcomes are extremely unintuitive. They’re very unpredictable, sometimes extremely boring, sometimes incredibly elaborate and beautiful. But more than anything else, they’re not predictable. So your intuition kind of runs out on you there.
And shortly after that, various other versions of cellular automatons started to make themselves known to me. I don’t really know the history of them, chronologically, but I became aware of two-dimensional cellular automata Steven Wolfram, people like that, were starting to work with. And I started to realize that in science, too, there was this feeling that we had to start thinking about organization in a different way. We had to start thinking about how things came into being with a different set of paradigms.
And I will try to explain this to people, here this is where I make a connection to the subject we’re talking about today, I would try to explain this to people in terms of talking about the difference between an architect and a gardener. An architect, at least in the traditional sense, is somebody who has an in-detail concept of the final result in their head, and their task is to control the rest of nature sufficiently to get that built. Nature being things like bricks and sites and builders and so on. Everything outside has to be subject to an effort of control.
A gardener doesn’t really work like that. Unless it’s, as Mark’s mentioned, Versailles, which is, to me, the most grotesque of all gardens, since it’s the total denial of nature and the complete expression of human control over nature. So it’s a perfect forerunner to the Industrial Age, Versailles. But what I think about, I suppose my feeling about gardening, and I suppose most people’s feeling about gardening now, is that what one is doing is working in collaboration with the complex and unpredictable processes of nature. And trying to insert into that some inputs that will take advantage of those processes, and as Stafford Beers said, take you in the direction that you wanted to go.
Use the dynamics of the system to take you in the direction you wanted to go. So I don’t know how much time we’ve got. Okay, okay. So my feeling has been that the whole concept of how things are created and organized has been shifting for the last 40 or 50 years, and as I said, this sequence of science as cybernetics, catastrophe theory, chaos theory and complexity theory, are really all ways of us trying to get used to this idea that we have to stop thinking of top-down control as being the only way in which things could be made.
We have to actually lose the idea of intelligent design, because that’s actually what that is. The top-down theory is the same as intelligent design. And we have to actually stop thinking like that and start understanding that complexity can arise in another way and variety and intelligence and so on. So my own response to this has been, as an artist, to start to think of my work, too, as a form of gardening. So about 20 years ago I came up with this idea, this term, ‘generative music,’ which is a general term I use to cover not only the stuff that I do, but the kind of stuff that Reich is doing, and Terry Riley and lots and lots of other composers have been doing.
And essentially the idea there is that one is making a kind of music in the way that one might make a garden. One is carefully constructing seeds, or finding seeds, carefully planting them and then letting them have their life. And that life isn’t necessarily exactly what you’d envisaged for them. It’s characteristic of the kind of work that I do that I’m really not aware of how the final result is going to look or sound. So in fact, I’m deliberately constructing systems that will put me in the same position as any other member of the audience. I want to be surprised by it as well. And indeed, I often am.
What this means, really, is a rethinking of one’s own position as a creator. You stop thinking of yourself as me, the controller, you the audience, and you start thinking of all of us as the audience, all of us as people enjoying the garden together. Gardener included. So there’s something in the notes to this thing that says something about the difference between order and disorder. It’s in the preface to the little catalog we have. Which I take issue with, actually, because I think it isn’t the difference between order and disorder, it’s the difference between one understanding of order and how it comes into being, and a newer understanding of how order comes into being.
And another way I can translate that is to say it’s a repositioning of ourselves on the control/surrender spectrum. I’ll talk briefly about that, then I’ll shut up. We’re used to the idea, coming from the industrial and very intelligent post-Enlightenment history that we have, we’re used to the idea that the great triumph of humans is their ability to control. And indeed, that must be the case, to some extent.
What we’re not so used to is the idea that another great gift we have is the talent to surrender and to cooperate. Cooperation and surrender are actually parts of the same skill. To be able to surrender is to be able to know when to stop trying to control. And to know when to go with things, to be taken along by them. And that’s a skill that we actually have to start relearning. Our hubris about our success in terms of being controllers has made us overlook that side of our abilities. So we’re so used to dignifying controllers that we forget to dignify surrenderers.
The reason I have an a cappella group of the kind that John mentioned is because it gives me every Tuesday evening the chance to do some surrendering. Which is, by the way, the reason people go to church, I think, as well. And to art galleries. What you want from those experiences is to be reminded of what it’s like to be taken along by something. To be taken. To be lifted up, to be whatever the other words for transcendence are. And I think we find those experiences in at least four areas. Religion, sex, art, and drugs. So I tend to put those all under the umbrella of surrender, and in fact, it’s interesting that if you look at the various cultures of the world, those things are either totally dignified or totally taboo. In different mixtures in different cultures. In some cultures some of them are mixed together, like Hindu culture mixes sex and religion. Some cultures mix drugs and religion. I don’t know of any culture that mixes all of them, but if any of you do, please tell me about it.
But essentially they’re all experiments with ourselves in trying to remind ourselves that the controlling talent that we have must be balanced by the surrendering talent that we also have. And so my idea about art as gardening is to sort of revivify that discussion and to say let’s accept the role of gardener as being equal in dignity to the role of architect, as in fact, is shown in this lovely pavilion here. Thank you, that’s all.
Video via Daniel Ramos.