Brian Eno: Improvising Within The Rules The composer and musician appreciates structure, but Eno also pursues the compelling results that occur outside comfort zones. A collaboration with two of Eno's colleagues, Small Craft on a Milk Sea enters fantastical terrain.
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Brian Eno: Improvising Within The Rules

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Brian Eno: Improvising Within The Rules

Brian Eno: Improvising Within The Rules

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When Brian Eno works his musical magic, his presence is unmistakable. You may not know of his long solo career or remember his flamboyant debut as the synthesizer stylist in the early days of Roxy Music, but if you're a rock fan, you've certainly heard his studio wizardry as one of pop music's most sought-after producers.

(Soundbite of song, "Once In A Lifetime")

TALKING HEADS (Music Group): (Singing) You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack...

HANSEN: Maybe you remember the shimmering electronics flowing through this song by Talking Heads or the aural sheen that graced U2's "The Joshua Tree" that Eno co-produced with Daniel Lanois.

(Soundbite of song, "Where The Streets Have No Name")

BONO: (Singing) I go there with you, it's all I can do.

HANSEN: Maybe you recall some of the musical soundscapes behind "The Lovely Bones" when that movie came out last year.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Lovely Bones")

Ms. SAOIRSE RONAN: (as Susie Salmon) We weren't those people, those unlucky people to whom bad things happened for no reason.

HANSEN: Film soundtracks have long interested Brian Eno. Early on in his solo career, he released an album called "Music for Film" and about the pieces on his new CD, "Small Craft on a Milk Sea," Eno calls them the mirror image of silent movies - sound-only movies.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Brian Eno joins us from his studio in London. Brian, it's almost been 20 years since we've had a chance to have a conversation. It's nice to speak to you again.

Mr. BRIAN ENO (Musician): Gosh, is it really that long?

HANSEN: I'm afraid so, sir, I'm afraid so. But it all went by in a flash, did it not?

Mr. ENO: Yes, completely. Seems like only yesterday.

HANSEN: It seems like only yesterday. Yeah, we were talking about the record you did with John Cale, "Wrong Way Up." This CD, "Small Craft on a Milk Sea," this features collaborators John Hopkins and Leo Abrahams. Was the music related to the work you did together for "The Lovely Bones"?

Mr. ENO: Yes. We decided to try to work on it as we had been working anyway together, which is to improvise together and then to select parts of the improvisations and work on those. In fact, we made a lot more music than was used in the film. So, we then thought, what should we do with all this fantastic additional music?

In fact, only five of the pieces on here were related to "Lovely Bones." The rest are sort of fantasy pieces, if you like, entirely separate.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: John Hopkins said this really was random. You had a process involving a whiteboard where you had written a chord and the number of bars they should stay on that chord, and point to the chords at random.

Mr. ENO: Yes. Well, I'm often looking at different ways of creating sort of structures within which improvisations can take place to direct them somewhere interesting. Because the problem with improvisations is that, A, people tend to play within their comfort zone, so - the best things are achieved in a state of surprise, actually. And the second thing is I want to get set up ways of getting people to shut up sometimes. 'Cause the other big problem with improvisation is that everybody plays all the time unless told not to.

So, there are lots and lots of ways of approaching both of these issues. One of them is sort of by role playing, by saying, let's imagine a kind of music that hasn't yet existed.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ENO: I imagine that we are living 20 years from now or 50 years from now and we're reading a review. I often write the review of a concert that we're supposed to have seen or has happened where we've seen 25 North African Arabic musicians who have a Japanese bandleader. And they're playing a new kind of music called neagata(ph) machine techno, which appeared in the suburbs of Tokyo in the year 2020. And then I make a description of what that music is like and then we try to make it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ENO: So, sometimes I have quite sort of involved frames that we are working within. But other times very simple ones, like the rule which says you can only use the extremes of your instrument, top or bottom 10 percent of its range. Or you can only play when so and so is playing, when this other person's playing; when he stops you stop. Just little rules like that, and they really aren't sacred in any way. They're very much ad hoc and they're really there to push us into a new place.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I am speaking with Brian Eno, one of pop music's most sought-after producers. His new CD is called "Small Craft on a Milk Sea."

Yeah, you know what I have in front of me? I have something that you did with Peter Schmidt and it's a box.

Mr. ENO: The "Oblique Strategies."

HANSEN: You betcha. It's the "Oblique Strategies." Briefly remind our listeners what this is. You know what my card says? Mute and continue. So, I'll mute, you continue. Tell them what it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ENO: Well, that's the end of this interview.

HANSEN: I guess so. He's fleeing the interview.

Mr. ENO: Well, I'll tell you what the cards are then. So, I was very close friends with a now dead painter, unfortunately, called Peter Schmidt in the early and mid-'70s. Peter and I were kind of similar personality-wise in that we were very interested in what kinds of rules, what kinds of structures and thoughts tend to lead you towards making good work and what are the kinds of mistakes that you can make.

So, quite separately from each other, we'd both been keeping a list of little rules or aphorisms. The first one I ever wrote was, honor thy error as a hidden intention. It was a sort of commandment that I would take into the recording studio, so that when something went wrong, instead of saying, do that again, I'd say, well, let's listen to it. Maybe there's something there that I didn't intend but which may be better than what I did intend.

So, over a period, I built up a set of these rules and then I had the thought: maybe I should put them on cards because they didn't look very good on the list. And we've published them ever since, actually. Well, Peter died in 1980 but I've kept them in print ever since.

HANSEN: Did you use any of them when you were working on "Small Craft on a Milk Sea"?

Mr. ENO: I use them fairly often, really. I find that, for instance, for improvisations, if each player takes one of those cards and keeps it to themselves so they don't tell anyone else what rule they're operating under, that can produce some extremely interesting results.

HANSEN: Brian Eno, you've, well, according to the card, "give the game away" and you just have. Brian, you know, his new CD, "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" comes out Tuesday on Warp Records and he joined us from his studio in London. Thank you so much.

Mr. ENO: Thank you very much. Nice to talk to you again.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can hear "Small Craft on a Milk Sea" in its entirety and listen to my 1991 interview with Brian Eno at our website, And tonight on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, tune in for a conversation with Bryan Ferry, Eno's one-time collaborator from Roxy Music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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