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Brian Eno's Sound Paintings Discussed

There is an interesting interview of Brian Eno on Salon.com, that was previously published in the Believer. Rather than an interview, it is a dialogue between Eno and novelist David Mitchell.

During their conversation turning around deep reflections about music, Eno, whom Mitchell calls ‘a sonic Rothko’, shows he is someone who sees correspondences between different forms of arts, and some of his ideas and descriptions are so colorful and visual that I cannot resist to copy and paste some bits of the article:

‘I listened with interest to the work of producers like Phil Spector and Joe Meek and George Martin because I realized that they were doing things with music that could be described as sound painting. For me, trained as a painter, this was exciting: Music was being made like paintings were made, adding and subtracting, manipulating colors, built up over a period of time rather than performed in one sitting. Separated from performance, recorded sound had become a malleable material, like paint or clay. And the results of this process were pointing toward a type of music that was less linear and more immersive: music you lived inside.’

If his work has been described as ‘ambient music’, he sees in music more than melody, beat and lyric, which, he says, may be distracting from what he has in mind:

‘I remember an early review of one of my ambient records saying something like, “No song, no beat, no melody, no movement” — and they weren’t being complimentary. But I think they were accurate, because this is a music of texture and sonic sensuality more than it is any of those things they were alluding to. I’m sure when the first abstract paintings appeared, people said, “No figure, no structure,” etc … The point about melody and beat and lyric is that they exist to engage you in a very particular way. They want to occupy your attention.

I wanted to hear a music that could create an atmosphere that would support your attention but still let you decide where it was directed.’

One of his points was really interesting: the paradoxical fact that music is an abstract form of art which nevertheless directly affects people:

‘What is interesting to me about music among all the arts is that it is, and always has been, as far as I know, a completely nonfigurative medium. Although cover notes for classical music albums tend to say that the trill of flutes suggests mountain streams and so on, I don’t think anybody listens to music with the expectation that they’re going to be presented with a sort of landscape painting. Even opera, with its strong narrative element, doesn’t depend on the narrative for its effect. So although lots of people still find abstract painting difficult to deal with, they are very happy to listen to music — a much more resolutely abstract form of art.

And there is the troubling question that even Brain Eno can’t answer:

‘Why do we like music?” — a question that has formed the basis of our conversations over the years. And that is truly a mysterious question, which many learned books have utterly failed to answer.’

More than music, the two men discussed about our response to music, especially to specific chords, that we find melancholic or sinister, and he gave the scientific approach:

‘One could maintain that there are no fundamental musical responses — that they’re all the result of acculturation, so somebody growing up in an entirely different culture could quite possibly receive entirely different emotional signals. But this extreme position is not supported by evidence. There do seem to be some “pre-cultural” fundamentals. I think we universally hear “louder” as “more exciting, alarming” and “brighter” as more “lively,” for example. I think few people would argue about that. But there’s a lot of argument about subtler points. Does everybody feel that minor chords (that is, chords with a flattened third) are darker, sadder, more nuanced? If so, why?’

The psycho-acoustician’s answer is that the more dissonant a chord is, the more work our perceptual machinery has to do to read it. A minor chord — say C, E-flat, G — apparently requires more neural processing than its major — C, E, G. That may be true: The notes in the former are more complexly related, mathematically. But I don’t understand why it follows that we would translate that neural overtime into sinister or melancholy.’

And if for Eno, ‘recording fixes the ephemeral, like insects in amber', ‘a work has little value until you “release” it, until you liberate it from yourself ‘.

Beyond any intellectual thoughts about what music is or does, this seems to be what matters the most for the artist after all.
 

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