Seeing music in a new light
Eight time zones ahead of Los Angeles, Brian Eno’s cellphone is ringing. He’s cycling along the Thames River towpath, savoring the shank of a summer afternoon. “Could you call back in an hour?” he asks politely.
The appointed moment arrives and Eno is ready to chat, having come to a temporary halt in the tranquillity of his London home. Like his fellow harried humanoids, the British multimedia artist intimates that he’s constantly trying to carve out a few minutes of quiet, contemplative space for himself within the manic, tech-driven modern world.
Of course, Eno, 61, has been a pioneer of that world and a proponent of new artistic technologies for decades: first as a keyboardist for the definitive glam-rock ensemble Roxy Music; then as the producer of countless albums by U2, the Talking Heads, Coldplay and other sonically promiscuous bands; and in his prolific audio-visual collaborations, ranging from the Microsoft Windows six-second start-up jingle to the sound design for the Spore(2008_video_game) video game to the soundtrack for Peter Jackson’s upcoming feature film adaptation of Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones.” Eno’s seemingly inexhaustible list of projects and artistic partners has earned him a reputation as a kind of creative perpetual-motion machine. But he confesses that he, too, struggles to keep the 24-7 pace from overwhelming him.
“I think it’s very, very difficult, and I’m not very good at it, to tell you the truth,” he says. “I’ve noticed a terrible thing, which is I will agree to anything if it’s far enough in the future. And then I look in my calendar and see things looming closer and think, ‘Oh, now I’ve got to do it!’ ”
Luckily, Eno’s restless endeavors often produce oases of calm reflection for his listeners and viewers. Exhibit A is one of his most recent projects, “77 Million Paintings,” a multimedia installation that will be unveiled today at the University Art Museum of Cal State Long Beach.
It consists of a wall of 12 computer-operated monitors of varying dimensions, displaying a procession of constantly mutating images that group and regroup into a virtually limitless series of configurations. The protean “paintings” are accompanied by Eno’s ambient original score.
Eno also designed the installation’s computer software and hand-drew the interchangeable images on slides, using etching tools and paintbrushes. Most of the configurations are abstract, but Eno occasionally added variety by tossing in found art culled from magazines and elsewhere.
The idea of making art that links one sensory or cognitive process to another -- for example, hearing with seeing -- has roots in the concept of synesthesia, which has been employed by such artists as the Russian painter-theorist Wassily Kandinksy and elaborated on by the likes of Matthew Barney, in his “Cremaster Cycle.” Eno’s overall intent with “77 Million Paintings” was to create what he calls “generative art,” a random flow of visuals patterned after the “generative music” he has created using synthesizers and other computerized instruments.
He hopes that those experiencing the installation will be inspired to consider different notions of time, a goal that he’s been pursuing as one of the founders of The Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco-based institution that aims (in its website’s words) to “provide counterpoint to today’s ‘faster/cheaper’ mind set and promote ‘slower/better’ thinking.”
“The dominant theory coming out of Hollywood is that peoples’ attention spans are getting shorter and shorter and they need more stimulation,” Eno says. “I point to this work as a counter-problem. I think it’s a myth that American public or any other public is so stupid that they need to be constantly pricked.”
To encourage visitors to linger as long as they please, the museum space is being illuminated with large vermiculite cones and suspended trunks of silver birch trees. Over time, Eno says, “77 Million Paintings,” which has been presented in a number of venues including San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, induces an agreeable sensation of “surrender.”
“We like to be faced with something that makes us say, ‘All right, take me there, I’ll go, I’m not fighting it anymore.’ ”
Chris Scoates, the museum’s director, says part of the challenge in presenting “77 Million Paintings” is that Eno’s plasticity as an artist, and the volume and variety of his work, make him hard to describe to younger students who may be unfamiliar with him. More glimpses of Eno will be afforded by a Sept. 20 lecture he’s scheduled to give at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center.
“I think it’s important to contextualize Brian’s work for a younger generation,” Scoates says. “I’m beginning to realize that many of the students in school who are freshmen were born in the ‘90s. So much of what they listen to was not in Brian’s era.”
Preferring to describe himself as a “sonic landscape painter” rather than a composer, Eno says his interest in mixing sound with sight was kindled in the 1960s while attending the Winchester School of Art, where he began to dabble with electronic instruments. “Like many people in England who study painting, I immediately became a musician,” he jokes, “but unlike many of them I didn’t give up the visual side of the business.”
At that time, new mixing and editing technologies were converging to fundamentally change the nature of composing music.
“You could do all the things you could do with paint, only now you could do it with music,” Eno says. “You could scrape it off, you change it, you could turn it upside down.”
Eno admired how rock artists like Phil Spector, the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane were creating not merely rock records but lushly conceptual aural landscapes or atmospheres. Meanwhile, Pink Floyd and other high-concept bands were experimenting and expanding the use of sophisticated visuals and light-show elements, turning their live concerts into fully immersive environments.
For Eno, all these influences temporarily united in the experimental theatricality and platform-soled phenomenology of the glam rock movement. But he quickly tired of the rock-star life, and by the mid-1970s he was off pursuing his own projects.
Eno believes that imposing “built-in narratives” onto music or imagery -- “a superstructure of words,” as he puts it -- often can distort a given piece of art or music. In keeping with that philosophy, he tends to state upfront when scoring films that he won’t “work to picture,” i.e make music that follows the imagery in a literal-minded way.
He mentions “Deep Blue Sky,” a lovely, ethereal piece that he wrote for the 1989 documentary “For All Mankind” about the Apollo missions. In that movie, the piece was matched to a scene of astronauts en route to the moon. “It’s very grand and cosmic and beautiful,” Eno says.
Several years later, the same piece was used in the feature film “Trainspotting” for a surreal sequence in which the main character, a Scottish junkie played by Ewan McGregor, dives into a toilet bowl to retrieve some opium suppositories.
Eno laughs at the juxtaposition.
“It’s nice, I think,” he says, “when people use your music for things you didn’t think of.”
‘77 Million Paintings’
Where: University Art Museum, CSULB, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays. Ends Dec. 13
Contact: (562) 985-5761