If Miles Davis has boasted about how many times he’s revolutionised music, how many times must Brian Eno have done the same? That is why we propose to find out, by following a strictly chronological journey through his recordings.
Eno grew up in a corner of England surrounded by American military bases. When he first heard rock'n'roll and doo-wop it must have seemed like these sounds came from outer space, disconnected as they were from their homeland. He later studied at various art schools but the emphasis on ‘concept’ bothered him. Eno tried to reconnect with sensibility: space, light, sound...At the same time he was experimenting with soundtracks and discovering Cage... Steve Reich's phase-shifting technique fascinated him as Reich generated incredible complexity from a very simple system. This was to become Eno’s M.O.
In 1971, Roxy Music brought Eno into the group thanks to his mastery of technology and synthesizers. He wore outrageous, pure-glam outfits. After two albums somewhere between pop and avant-garde, he left the band after an artistic dispute with Bryan Ferry who was trying to be more commercial. Finding himself alone, he worked on friends' records (Lady June, Nico, Robert Wyatt...), remixed Phil Manzarena's guitar solo on John Cale's track “Gun”, modified Peter Gabriel's voice, and introduced guitarist Robert Fripp to the art of delay. Eno also formed his own experimental music label, Obscure, as well as participating in a zany parody of Prokofiev. The creativity wouldn’t stop!
His first solo album – still imbued with glam – was a success. The fact that Eno didn’t start out as a musician allowed him to escape clichés. He couldn’t read music so the recording studio was his main instrument. He deconstructed pop music by putting it through all sorts of anti-establishment aberrations. Eno defined himself as a gardener – his ideas were seeds planted without knowing what the outcome would be. In a spirit close to that of Cage, he cultivated surprise, and laid the groundwork for new forms of music. In 1975 he developed a card game called “oblique strategies” to bring about unexpected solutions to creative dead ends. The creative process was as important as the finished product.
In 1975, a taxi hit Eno. Strapped to his bed after an operation, a friend gave him a harp album. He played the record at a very low volume as he was too bedridden to increase the sound. This allowed Eno to listen to the new album in a different way. The music no longer imposed itself but rather became an integral part of the environment. Rain became as important as recorded music. This is how ambient was born. “Discreet Music”, “Music for Airports”, “Music for Films” make up ‘soundscapes’, mixing the conciseness of haiku and the insistence of mantra.
Brian Eno met David Bowie in 1976. He composed the music for “Warsawa” that inspired Bowie to create an imaginary dialect. Together they left Paris for Germany. Eno immersed himself in the krautrock scene and improvised a series of sumptuous albums with Harmonia and Cluster. All these influences would become condensed through new collaborations with Bowie that are still considered climactic moments in the history of experimental rock. But that's another story!