Brian Eno: Oblique Music

Sean Albiez and David Pattie (eds.)
New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
ISBN: 978-1-4411-1745-8 (hardcover), 978-1-4411-2912-3 (paperback), 978-1-4411-5534-4 (PDF e-book), 978-1-4411-4806-3 (EPUB e-book)
RRP: US$100.00 (hardcover), US$29.95 (paperback), US$25.99 (PDF e-book), US$25.99 (EPUB e-book)

Ed Montano

RMIT University (Australia)

The influence and impact of Brian Eno ripples across various music genres. While widely known as a producer of a selection of the world’s most successful rock bands, electronic dance music has connections to some of Eno’s most important and influential work, perhaps most notably in the ambient genre. Furthermore, some of Eno’s most innovative work with U2 coincided with the band’s explorations of dance music rhythms, electronic sounds and remixing, while Eno’s more recent output has involved collaborations with Underworld’s Karl Hyde. Eno’s presence looms large over EDM. And yet, of course, his work draws on and crosses over into much more, and as this rich, engaging and thought-provoking collection from Sean Albiez and David Pattie demonstrates, the man and the myth of Eno provide fertile topics for critical and analytical discussion. While Eno has also contributed his talents to other media fields such as sound design, art installations, software design and writing, this book focuses on his work as a musician, and the many collaborations and productions this has involved.

Albiez and Pattie have gathered together a collection of insightful and stimulating chapters from an international selection of scholars. While they cover a broad array of topics and moments from Eno’s long career, there are a handful of key themes and issues that re-appear throughout and neatly tie the collection together. While the authors clearly demonstrate the importance of Eno’s work, they do so by situating it in relevant social and cultural contexts and acknowledging the contributions of the other musicians Eno has constantly surrounded himself with. At the core of the book and its explorations sits Eno, but this is countered by the acknowledgement that Eno himself doesn’t sit at the core of his projects. Rather, as Pattie and Albiez note in the introduction, Eno is “somewhere in the system as part of the ecology of the recording, but not its focal point” (2). The chapters explore the various processes, systems, technologies and theories that have shaped Eno’s solo and collaborative projects, in which Eno is positioned as “a key part of the creative structure, but not necessarily its centre” (7).

The book is divided into two sections. Part One explores “Eno: Composer, musician and theorist”, while Part Two considers “The University of Eno: Production and collaborations”. Both provide an abundance of fresh interpretations of Eno’s work. Notably, even with Eno’s public profile as a producer being arguably greater than his profile as a composer (even if that production work simultaneously involves composition), the book’s second half manages to present some familiar histories in new light. In Part One, the first of two chapters from David Pattie introduces us to some of Eno’s background and influences, framed in a discussion of his role in Roxy Music in the early 1970s. Pattie explores the tensions that surfaced between Eno and singer Bryan Ferry, and situates the band’s pioneering work as emerging from the British art-school system that encouraged the experimental tendencies of many key popular music figures from the 1960s. Eno’s production work on Ferry’s compositions helped to position him as a key figure in the popular music landscape in the 1970s, and even if his time in the band was only brief, Pattie demonstrates how Eno was beginning to formulate some of the key principles that have continually informed his work since. As Pattie concludes, the creative relationship between Ferry and Eno fractured due to their distinct approaches to composition, with Ferry “drawn towards the shaping of a musical object”, while Eno “preferred to explore systems and processes” (26–7).

Cecilia Sun’s chapter explores some less familiar territory through a consideration of Eno’s experimental work in the 1970s with the Portsmouth Sinfonia and the Scratch Orchestra. Eno, of course, is well-known for acknowledging his lack of formal musical education and defining himself as a “non-musician”, and Sun discusses how Eno harnessed this “non-musicianship” to engage in experimentation and explore new approaches to music creation. While Eno may ultimately have shifted his attention away from the more radical avant-garde, he was able to incorporate his experimental experiences into creative processes that challenged traditional conceptions of music creation, and, as Sun notes, in doing so he identified technology as “the greatest compositional tool for a non-musician” (46).

Patties’s second chapter traces Eno’s progression in the 1970s from the glam sound guru of Roxy Music to a popular music polymath with an intellectual orientation embraced by music journalists of the time. Pattie focuses on Eno’s early solo material to sketch out more of the processes that have since underpinned Eno’s innovations and inventions—“the period in which all the main components of what we might call the Eno myth came together for the first time” (50). The following chapter from Chris Atton furthers this portrayal of Eno the intellectual, with an analysis of media representations of Eno from the British weekly music press of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As well as demonstrating Eno’s approach to framing his work in interviews, Atton makes some broader observations about how the music press shapes and influences audiences. For Atton (and indeed most of the other authors in this collection), Eno’s work sits somewhere between the avant-garde and the popular, in the process stimulating debates about authenticity and originality.

Perhaps of most interest to scholars of EDM will be Mark Achtermann’s chapter on Eno’s ambient music, specifically the Ambient four-album series released between 1978 and 1982. Achtermann develops this into a broader discussion of the purposes and uses of art, drawing on the work and arguments of writers J. R. R. Tolkien and R. G. Collingwood. While on occasions this makes for a somewhat dense philosophical journey through fairy storytelling, Achtermann arguably delivers one of the collection’s most unique and engaging chapters, locating some of Eno’s most influential work in a broader context of aesthetic purpose. Achtermann uses Eno’s ambient output to consider how one defines such music, and the extent to which it can be considered as actual music, concluding that Eno’s work, while presented as art, also calls into question the nature of art, encouraging listeners to “reappraise their understanding of music and the uses of music” (103).

The first section is rounded out by a chapter from EDM scholar Hillegonda C. Rietveld, who extends the discussion of Eno’s ambient music with a focus on his soundtrack work and a close analysis of the 2009 film The Lovely Bones, and a chapter by Sean Albiez on Eno’s use of the voice (both his own and that of others) in solo and collaborative work between 1991 and 2014. Albiez considers the way Eno has used various technologies and production techniques to challenge traditional conceptions of the role of the voice and words in songs, arguing that this evidences a “post-humanist stance that . . . raises issues concerning the liminality of identity, and the slipperiness of technologically mediated subjectivity in the contemporary period” (119).

Part Two begins with an expansive co-written piece by Sean Albiez and Ruth Dockwray that provides a fascinating exploration of the historical precedents and broader cultural contexts that connect to Eno’s 1979 lecture “The Recording Studio as Compositional Tool”. As well as tracing a journey through Eno’s education in the 1960s and his time in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Albiez and Dockwray unpack the lecture’s main themes, and then link these back to the work of seminal composers who came before Eno such as John Cage, Erik Satie and Pierre Schaeffer. In doing so they position Eno’s lecture and theories not as breaking new intellectual ground, but rather as breaking down boundaries between different musical worlds, with Eno acting “as a conduit for these ideas to enter discourses around studio production in popular music” (168).

No discussion of Eno is complete without a consideration of his Oblique Strategies cards, developed by Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 as a way to generate creativity in the studio through presenting collaborators with various cryptic messages. Kingsley Marshall and Rupert Loydell contribute an engaging chapter that takes one particular card strategy as the theme and focus for each of its sections. Within these they explore how Eno has articulated and responded to the strategy through his many collaborations. This provides a rich exploration of Eno’s working practices throughout the years, set against the authors’ questioning of collaborative practice in the digital age when they ask “Is there value in returning to limited systems (such as Oblique Strategies) that deny creators opportunities, somehow allowing them to realize something different?” (176).

The book’s final four chapters focus on specific production collaborations in Eno’s career. Elizabeth Ann Lindau provides a comprehensive overview of Eno’s work with David Byrne of Talking Heads on the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from 1981, a work that fused African rhythms, sampled vocals, loops and more. Released a few years before sampling came to dominate popular music and the rise of “world music” as a marketing category, Eno and Byrne’s project can be seen as a pioneering forerunner of more commercially successful releases such as Paul Simon’s Graceland. While acknowledging the criticism that has been levelled at Western artists appropriating/exploiting non-Western sounds, Lindau argues that ultimately Eno and Byrne’s album stands as an example of “ethnographic surrealism” (206).

A book on Eno with no discussion of U2 would arguably be missing something. Yet the abundance of written material on the band makes it difficult to present anything new. As such, Noel McLaughlin deserves credit for tackling an obvious topic and providing some fresh insight on the band’s work with Eno, framing his discussion around the issue of nationality, playing U2’s Irish background against Eno’s English heritage and uncovering how each has influenced the other. McLaughlin provides a valuable assessment of some of Eno’s most commercially successful work, at the same time taking to task and building a solid argument against those critics who have dismissed U2 and subsequently Eno for choosing to work with such a commercially-focused act.

While Oblique Music does a fine job of mapping and reinforcing the significance of Eno’s work and practices, two of the most intriguing chapters are those from Jonathan Stewart and Martin James, both of whom challenge the Eno myth through case studies that problematize as much as they praise Eno’s approaches to collaboration. Stewart presents a fascinating account of Eno’s production of Devo’s 1978 debut album. While still delivering a discussion that argues for the importance of Eno’s work, Stewart draws on interview material to unpack some of the tensions and “irreparable methodological differences” (211) that ran through the album’s production. As well as providing a comprehensive analysis of the album’s tracks, the project background sketched by Stewart demonstrates that, while band and producer may have shared an appreciation of synthesizer technology and the avant-garde, conflict arose in other areas, such as the band’s refusal to engage with Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards, Devo’s Jerry Casale describing how the band’s response “was pretty disrespectful . . . we were good at spinning off humorous smart ass quips and he didn’t appreciate it” (217).

In the book’s final chapter, Martin James considers Eno’s role as “urban ethnographer” through exploring his work in documenting the No Wave New York music scene of the late 1970s, resulting in the No New York compilation. Sketching the city’s vibrant art scene that Eno landed in upon arriving in 1978, James details the events leading up to Eno’s engagement with the No Wave movement made up of bands that “each applied avant-garde tendencies to eclectic pop frameworks” (262). We learn that Eno’s approach of selecting just four bands to record for his compilation was just one of several issues that generated tensions between Eno and some of the artists involved in the scene. In contrast to his other work, James explains how Eno’s No Wave production displayed “little evidence of . . . using the ‘recording studio as a compositional tool’ with the majority of the recordings having no separation between instruments and no overdubs” (264), and instead James suggests Eno’s aims were to use the studio as “an ethnographic tool” (265, original italics). Yet, as James argues, despite Eno’s efforts in bringing this music to wider public attention, his approach was miscalculated. With some of the artists criticising Eno’s production techniques, and James describing how Eno’s celebrity served to exaggerate his importance in the scene, the project is presented as somewhat flawed. James’ chapter thus captures how not all of Eno’s projects can be framed as success stories.

This much needed book explores the many trajectories of Eno’s varied career, and it will engage and excite any music lover, regardless of your opinion of Eno’s work. It’s a richly rewarding collection that deftly explores and unpacks the work of one of popular music’s pioneering figures. While much has been written on Eno, and no doubt will continue to be written, Oblique Music does an outstanding job of critically capturing both the well-known and less familiar elements of Eno’s work. Beyond the specifics of this work, the book provides some thought-provoking material on broader issues such as collaboration, composition, creativity, experimentation, musicianship, technology and more, and as such will stimulate the interest of anyone engaged in music creation and production. This is a book that you will return to time and again—like Eno’s best work, its rewards make themselves most evident after repeated visits.