Always Evolving: 64 Years of Brian Eno's Best Nonproduction Work
Although he has more than 15 solo albums to his credit, Brian Eno's legacy in terms of popular music will always be defined by his work with others. Whether it was his time as a member of Roxy Music or his nearly 40-year production career, his best-known works have always come in the form of collaboration.
Bowie. Talking Heads. Devo. U2. They're the highlights of an impressive body of production work that few producers could rival.
Even though he's worked with some of music's biggest and brightest, Eno has always been a man of diverse interests and works. He's helped give birth to genres, been at the forefront of technology and composed one of the most recognizable short pieces of music in the last 20 years.
Next year he turns 65, which is one of those numbers that will make for a nice time to celebrate his more famous accomplishments. In honor of his more mathematically numbered (64 is a self number and a superperfect number, after all) birthday, Rocks Off takes a look at some his lesser-known but more interesting musical accomplishments.
1. Frippertronics: Most notably associated with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp (hence the name), Frippertronics is a form of analogue delay. It basically involves using two reel-to-reel tape recorders to feed each other in a constant loop; tape exits one machine and enters the second, then the tape exits that second machine and re-enters the first.
This allowed the musician to record a phrase of music, then record on top of that layer as it played back in real time a few seconds later. They can then keep building over these layers as many times as they'd like.
Although the name, chosen by Fripp's girlfriend, doesn't mention Eno, it was something that Fripp didn't start experimenting with until he started working in Eno's studio. The result of those experiments was the pair's first collaborative album (No Pussyfooting).
2. Ambient Music: Ambient music may fall under the larger framework of EDM these days, but its roots go back to a series of solo records released by Eno in the late '70s/early '80s.
He was interested in producing works that were effectively background music: Sound to be either focused on or ignored depending on the individual listener, while intending "to induce calm and a space to think." He labeled this style ambient because if you go back far enough, you get to the word ambio, which is Latin for "to surround."
Maybe the most highly regarded of his solo ambient words is Music for Airports, which is exactly what it sounds like. Stuck during a layover, he found himself unimpressed by the background noise of the airport and decided to come up with something better.
The result might not make layovers something to look forward to, but at least the atmosphere in the terminal will be better.
3. Generative Music: In broad strokes, we tend to think of music as linear. Someone gets the idea for a song and they refine it until it becomes the finished product. Yet wind chimes are musical as well, and their playing is left completely up to chance and nature.
Think of generative music this way: You have a computer and an idea for a song. You give the computer a set of rules for the song -- key, speed, note durations, note probabilities. When you hit "Enter," the computer makes music based on those rules. If you stop the song and hit "Enter" again, the computer will use those same rules to make a completely different song.
There's a lot of math and algorithms involved. Eno is a pioneer in the style, working with SSEYO's Koan program to release the album Generative Music 1.
Generative music is interesting because it challenges our perception of music. It combines the spontaneity of the live performance with the sheen of the studio, and it challenges us to rethink how we approach composition. After all, would you like to listen to one great song a hundred times or a hundred great songs once?
4. The Windows 95 Startup Sound: Nostalgia is triggered in a variety of ways. And just like smell and touch may recall a certain memory, so do certain sounds.
If you're part of the generation whose first computer was a Windows 95 PC, those six seconds of audio might transport you back to a world without Facebook and Twitter, a world where cell phones weren't part of our daily lives, and a world where it was significantly harder to do research papers.
Composing is difficult in the best circumstances, but think of the task ahead of Eno. Imagine the difficulty of writing something that's both pleasing yet unobtrusive, melodic but not too catchy, something that people won't hate hearing a thousand times, and it has to be over in less than one-tenth of a minute. Oh, and it has to be approved by a major corporation.
Bonus fact: The track was written on a Mac.
5. iOS Apps: It shouldn't come as a surprise that someone interested in technology, and who already uses Macs exclusively, would embrace Apple's App Store.
Many artists have their own apps. DJ Spooky, for example, has his own DJ app that he uses as part of his live rig.
Eno has two apps available for iOS devices, both firmly set in the realms of ambient and generative music. Both Bloom and Trope allow the user to interact with the screen to make music and visual art. If the user leaves the app open and stops touching the screen, the program continues to evolve their melody into new compositions.
Bloom was one of the first music apps to use the iPhone as more than just an instrument simulator and it was ahead of the curve. Multiple apps have built upon this foundation to use the technology of the iPhone to compose in new ways.
Thirty-nine years after the birth of Frippertronics, Brian Eno is still changing the way people make music, even if they don't realize it.
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