The 'furniture music' of rock star Brian Eno
New York — Rock star Brian Eno is a law unto himself. A leader of the popular group Roxy Music, he left the band in midstream to experiment with his own musical ideas.
A celebrated performer in his own right, he has also poured much of his energy into behind-the-scenes work with such superstars as David Bowie and such groups as Devo and Talking Heads.
An established rock soloist, he abandoned successful formulas - to pursue a sort of high-art Musak he calls ''ambient music.''
In short, he breaks all the rules - and stirs up controversy. Tim Page, a New York Times music critic and classical disc jockey for public radio, calls Eno ''a gifted and interesting primitive'' who has done ''some masterful, classic rock'' but whose more daring experiments are just ''tasteful and imaginatively done borrowings.''
But Rock critic Lester Bangs, describing him in Musician, Player & Listener magazine as ''a serious composer who doesn't read music'' and ''a rock star without a band who never tours,'' calls him ''one of the true originals of contemporary music,'' a ''unique'' figure whose career has been as dazzlingly varied as the ''colors and patterns on a lizard's back.''
This variety has now been brought together in a new set of his 11 solo albums called ''Working Backwards 1983-1973,'' released by Jem Records. An imposing retrospective, it helps explain why his records have been hugley influential even when sales have been modest.
''I'm proud enough to trust my own judgment,'' says Eno. ''And when it's time to follow a new thread, it always seems like fresh territory. That's what appeals to me. It's a feeling of: 'Can I find my way through this?' ''
Reached by phone in Canada recently for one of his rare interviews with the press, he spoke at great and unhurried length about a subject that currently interests him most: his development of ambient music.
It began, he says, as he listened to the nonstop drone of pop tunes often piped into elevators and supermarkets. He liked the idea of music being part of the architecture, the decor of a place. And he liked being able to ignore the sound or to pause for a while and enjoy it. But he spotted a fatal flaw: If you did stop and really listen, you discovered it was terrible music - trite arrangements of too-familiar melodies.
What if the music weren't terrible, he wondered? What if it were new and ingenious - yet still easy to ignore if you were busy or weren't in the mood?
Hence the concept of ambient music, which treads a thin line. It must be unobtrusive enough to become part of the background, to be what composer Eric Satie called ''furniture music.'' Yet it must be subtly inviting. And for those who stop and listen carefully, it must offer genuine musical rewards.
''The ambient records are similar to paintings,'' Eno says. ''You don't gaze at a painting for hours each day. But you're aware of its presence, and occasionally you choose to go into it deeply - at a time when you're receptive and want it to affect your mood.''
Explaining this new approach to composition, Eno calls it ''total-immersion music.'' The idea isn't to sit and listen as you would to a symphony, but to live with the sound over a period of time.
The notion bore fruit in 1975 with the release of ''Discreet Music,'' the first Eno album meant to be part of the listener's environment. Other ambient records include ''Music for Airports'' and ''On Land,'' which found Eno moving away from synthesizer effects toward the manipulation of natural ''found sounds.'' All are repetitive and undramatic - which is what the composer wants.
''When I was a kid I discovered a woody place where I could hunt for fossils, '' he says. ''After a while I got to know all the details of the spot. Even now, wherever I live I develop familiar walks that I like because they're familiar. . . . The predictability is part of the excitement.
''Ambient music is like that woody place,'' he continues. ''The music offers many possibilities, and in time you recognize some and welcome them when you run across them. I like a music that doesn't use the narrative form with climaxes and surprises and tensions. Rather, the condition stays the same, with changes of balance inside it.''
That, of course, requires a new set of expectations from the listener. ''You can't expect to jump around to it,'' says the erstwhile rocker.
Nor does Eno regard ambient music as a mere aesthetic exercise. Indeed, he feels it can be useful:
''I got to thinking about 'Music for Airports' while sitting in one,'' he recalls.
''It occurred to me that airports could be wonderful places instead of horrid ,'' he says. ''And one helpful thing could be a music that didn't try to brighten you and be all sparkly, which can actually make people more nervous. What's needed is music that would calm you and help you enjoy sitting and waiting. That would encourage creative thinking, and lead to positive environments instead of neutral or negative ones.''
Or, say Eno skeptics, it could lead to boring ones. ''Eno is excellent at adding unexpected sounds to rock music,'' says critic Page. ''But on their own, the sounds seem artsy and contrived. They just sort of lie there.''
Still, ambient music has shown commercial appeal, and while none of his records have been a runaway smash, the ambient albums - to Eno's own pleasant surprise - sell as strongly as his rock discs.
For all his fascination with sound, Eno didn't start out to be a musician. Raised in England, he went to an English art school at a time when ''they were full of people who wanted to do something creative but didn't know quite what,'' he says.
Unfortunately, the art of the period bored him - even fashionable Pop-Art, which he felt had become ''tedious and matter-of-fact, with no room for the spirit.'' He found music more stimulating, and looked up to experimenters like John Cage and Morton Feldman.
Eno played no instrument, but found there was a niche for him. ''Everyone was excited about synthesizers, tape recorders, and studio systems,'' he recalls, ''and nobody knew how to play them! I fit right in. Manual skills weren't needed , but rather a knack for figuring out what those things did, how they could change music.'' Joining Roxy Music as an onstage sound mixer, he became a key member, but later decided that the large size and grueling schedule of the band were blocking its experimental urges.
Then, as time passed, ''I lost interest in songs,'' he says. ''I'd find one sound that was interesting, and I'd develop it, and it would turn into something that could never become a song. . . . A certain type of musical feeling became more and more important to me.''