Brian Eno is enough

John-Paul Anthony

Modern music, on the whole, is boring.  There are great artists out there, and if you can handle spending hours searching through artistic posturing, self-importance and flashes of brilliance accompanied by the mundane, you may find a handful.  Still, there’s a problem.  From what I’ve heard, there’s nothing new.  Where have all the innovators gone?  

There are reasons that the new “it band” is it, and the majority of those reasons generally fall into a category of rehashing the past, of imitating what their own heroes did years before them.  It’s no coincidence the Arcade Fire covers a Talking Heads song at the end of each live set.  

Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoy many of these new interpretations, but to better understand what’s happening between your headphones and ears, you have to take a look back to why this is all going on.  Give credit where credit is due.  That’s what I’ll try to do, and this time, with a brief overview of the music of Brian Eno – hit producer, innovator, musical pioneer, and eccentric artist.

Born May 15, 1948, in Suffolk, England, Eno first rose to prominence with the glam-rock outfit Roxy Music as keyboardist and, perhaps more importantly, sound manipulator.

See, if there’s one thing to understand about Eno, it’s that he doesn’t consider himself a musician.  His approach to music is one that is defined better in terms of visual art; while much of his easily accessible 1970s work relied on the conventional song format, with verses, choruses, bridges and instrumental breaks, these offer an imposing soundscape more akin to an impressionist painting than any music that was produced in the era.  

Eno championed the idea of the recording studio as an instrument in and of itself, by treating conventional instruments with his own unique effects in order to create something tangible from the density of his brain.  The sounds he coaxed out of guitars and keyboards are often otherworldly without feeling inorganic; the listener gets the feeling that these sounds jumped out the primordial ooze and lay dying in a cave for eons, only to be brought back to life by some savant.  

The music seems directly siphoned from his brain, with no distortion between idea and application, and with an understanding of the complexity of much of his work, the fact becomes so much more impressive.  

His lyrics, often nonsensical on paper, become a profound accompaniment to the music created – instead of the music fitting the mood of the lyrics, the words sung are used as ornamentation to the brilliance of his fractured pop compositions.  Without words, the listener would still understand the impression of the song; his often free-associative and darkly humorous vocal sentiments only serve to make better what is already brilliant.

Attempting to discuss the immensity of Eno’s influence on the majority of music today is almost impossible.  First, a delay-based invention of his, dubbed “Frippertronics,” showed the music world that the studio, and in particular, sampling, was a perfectly legitimate instrument in and of itself.  The repercussions of this are limitless, ranging from sampling in hip-hop to electronica to any number of experimental musicians.  

Second, with his techniques of building tracks in the studio, simply layering pieces of seemingly unrelated music on top of one another, he changed the approach to composition of music.  The attitude behind the careless addition and subtraction of segments surely influenced many punk bands, knocking music off its mount on high and making it something that could be done by anyone with a desire to create.

Third, Eno’s innovative usage of synthesizer work set the stage, for better or worse, the new-wave movement.

Fourth (and stay with me here), Brian Eno created ambient music.  While a 1975 car accident left him bedridden for months, Eno realized music itself could take on the properties of light and color – something that exists not as a stimulant, but as an unobtrusive and enriching addition to life.  In his own words: “Whereas [music’s] intention is to ‘brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it, ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.  [It] must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”  

Tune your radio from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. to  UPenn’s radio station, WXPN, and the program, “Echoes,” to get an idea of what can of worms that innovation opened up.  

Finally, Eno didn’t limit himself to his own compositions – collaboration with David Bowie produced Bowie’s brilliant Berlin trilogy, “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger,” while production credits include the Talking Head’s “Fear of Music,” “More Songs About Buildings and Food” and “Remain in Light” (of which he was given co-songwriting credits on all but one track) and U2’s “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby” – all records immensely influential in their own ways.

In the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for the slogan “Eno is God,” to pop up on t-shirts and graffittied walls around New York City.  While he didn’t create modern music, his impact on what is good about today’s music is immense.  

Brian Eno as the eccentric innovator, the music architect.  With next week comes the fun of picking apart a selection of his best works and attempting to put descriptive words to those sounds.  Until then, listen for Eno – he’s literally everywhere.