Tara Brabazon: Strange overtones, heroic undertones

Brian Eno’s post-musicianship is a dream for the new humanities, argues Tara Brabazon

January 13, 2010

As the last series of Celebrity Big Brother staggers to a conclusion, I wonder what type of train-crash television will replace it. When Ron Wood and Katie Price run out of wives, husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends to populate reality TV, Celebrity Vice-Chancellor could be a fitting replacement in our schedules.

Imagine the build-up to the first broadcast. “You thought Katie screamed at Peter? You thought assorted Z-listers consumed weird mammalian and reptilian genitalia in the Australian bush? It’s time to stop shouting and bounce back from the outback. Yes, you’re a vice-chancellor and you’re stuck on the fourth floor of a dreary mock-Gothic building until you balance the budget, fix the photocopier, stop plagiarism and explain to Lord Mandelson why higher education is different from the banking sector, while trying to convince him that universities could use a similar injection of funds with no strings attached.”

It’s like Wife Swap, but with a vice-chancellor. Think of it: for two weeks, a clutch of celebrities assume the role of v-c to see who can survive the morning platitudes, the cardiac-inducing emails and pro vice-chancellors with new age designations involving growth, partnerships, collaboration, development and sustainability. Cilla Black would (obviously) take over the University of Liverpool. Alan Shearer could run Newcastle University, with Jo Brand managing Brunel University and Robbie Coltrane heading for the University of Glasgow. Shaun Ryder would lead the University of Salford, with Bez in attendance to add randomness to his PowerPoint presentations.

The trouble is, even in our imagination, we know these sorts of celebrity jobs end up going to either Bob Geldof or (bloody) Bono. My favourite joke of the Noughties was: “What’s the difference between God and Bono? At least God knows he’s not Bono.” As a celebrity v-c, Bono would download his higher powers to solve London Metropolitan University’s budgetary issues, Lord Mandelson’s “request” for accelerated two-year degree programmes, security fears in airports and world poverty, all before morning tea.

No, Bono is a party pooper celebrity vice-chancellor. We need a few Shakespearean actors to get in there and chew up the furniture, sigh, set fire to the drapes and chuck a computer out of the window.

My dream celebrity vice-chancellor is Brian Eno. Actually, he is my dream vice-chancellor as well. Eno is one of the truly extraordinary individuals in the world. He walks stridently and differently through life, never looking over his shoulder, not too interested in the past, but vitally intrigued by the present.

Brian Eno is the Orson Welles of sonic media. He has a fame that only startlingly confident individualists can sustain. While former members of Roxy Music such as Phil Manzanera forged defiant rhythmic pathways through the international music industry, we all knew Bryan Ferry would end up advertising Marks & Spencer suits.

Instead, Eno is weird. I like weird. Non-standard thinkers make the planet dynamic, textured and provocative. Such men and women are incredibly useful in education.

I teach a module titled Sonic Media each year, and reading Eno is a highlight for the students. Invariably, one seminar is filled with answers to a question he asked while walking through Cologne Airport: “I started to wonder what kind of music would sound good in a building like that.” Listening to his album Music for Airports increases student fascination. My hope is that one year a great thesis will answer his question. Last year I got close. Inspired by Eno, a student spent a week recording the sound of lifts. The resultant assignment was fascinating, yet weird. I like weird.

I am currently rewriting my Sonic Media module for 2010. Every few pages of the study guide feature another attention-grabbing – if slightly impenetrable – comment from Eno, daring students to use sounds to think and to think through sounds.

In finding new links and sonic sources for this module, I wanted to see if any app developers for Apple’s iPhone or iTouch acknowledge Eno’s soundscapes and theories of ambience. I was in for a surprise.

Eno develops apps.

I am not making this up for journalistic effect.

Brian Eno develops apps.

“Air” was created by Sandra O’Neill and Peter Chilvers, based on Eno’s experimentations with ambient music, sound and light. Another application is titled “Bloom”. His third – and even I could not hope for a title as appropriate as this – is “Trope”.

The choice for the user (player/consumer/composer) is to either “listen to a generative composition” or create their own. Tapping or swiping the screen summons the sounds. Fascinating rhythms, colours, shapes and tones emerge from the touchscreen. It is extraordinary. It feels as if the user/musician/gamer is building a new age, aromatherapy oil marinade for ambient, aura-reading vegans that might sustain the rest of us through the next general election. Well, almost.

This “generative music” layers sound through vision, listening and touch. The shapes created on the screen activate new and random sonic combinations. These soundscapes can then be augmented, erased or become a meditative accompaniment through the day.

Rarely does something so appropriate happen in our academic lives. If someone was to connect sound, vision, touch and user-generated content into a theoretically provocative package, it was going to be Eno.

His 2008 biographer David Sheppard captured his subject’s tendency to invent provocative connections between old and new media: “You couldn’t make him up. Or at least if you did no one would quite believe you.” Eno has been well served by biographers, researchers and writers, as have Roxy Music. Probably because the writers must work harder to understand the musical and visual palette, the resultant monographs have a self-standing integrity that arches beyond the micro-celebrity, micro-fame micro-biography.

I always use Eric Tamm’s Brian Eno: his music and the vertical color of sound (1995) as an example to my PhD students in how to transform a good thesis into an outstanding published monograph. Originally submitted as a doctorate in the music department at the University of California, Berkeley, Tamm reconstituted his research to create a readable and scholarly amalgamation of biography, musicology and cultural history.

Tamm captures what makes Eno so influential for those of us working in the new humanities. He shows that even in the 1970s, Eno “was not so much making rock music as he was making music about rock music”. Eno works between categories, genres and media, but remains focused on thinking about timbre: the “colour” of sound. One of the reasons that Eno has been such an influential producer – even for (bloody) Bono – is that he understands timbre. Tamm offers a subtle but influential argument that Eno’s music is constructed vertically, not horizontally. He is not interested in developing a linear melody. Instead, he summons layers of sound that are ephemeral, organic, textured and post-progressive.

Eno described himself as an “anti-musician”. Actually, he is a post-musician. As with postcolonialism and postmodernism, the “post” signals a reinterpretation and reconfiguration of the word that follows.

His fascination with sound resonates with wider tests and experiments with technology. Eno reveals that “with devices, my technique is always to hide the handbook in the drawer until I’ve played with it for a while. The handbook always tells you what it does, and you can be quite sure that if it’s a complex device it can do at least 15 other things that weren’t predicted in the handbook, or that they didn’t consider desirable. It’s normally those other things that interest me.”

While traditional composers transpose ephemeral melodies on to paper, Eno composed on tape and in the studio, but is now enabling phone composition for the rest of us. Through these innovations, he builds intellectual resources for students and scholars about sound, space, media and identity. He argued that “any music worth anything is born in clumsiness and chaos”. Probably there is no better description of the wider research process.

While he famously produced music for airports and now an application for the iPhone, Eno’s innovations are a reminder of how productive radical thinking can be. It is no surprise that he has turned his attention to politics, information and knowledge in the last few years through the Stop the War Coalition. Part of his answer to ending war is to demand not more but better information. He realises that “we need, in short, a way of arriving at positions based more on knowledge and reason than on ideology, political convenience or the needs of business”.

Through his intelligent quirkiness and strange ambience, there is something fundamentally democratic about Brian Eno. He takes the dark, the dense, the intricate and the worrying and cuts it up for consumption, rewriting and renegotiation. He hears differently so that we can think defiantly.

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