4 Dec

Things You Can Learn From a Conversation Between Brian Eno and David Mitchell

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1. That Eno was first a painter and that it was another painter that pushed him toward minimalism.
BE: “I feel a lot more connection with painters than composers. Mondrian, for example, is a big star in my firmament. …  I’m sure that this feeling of “magic from limited means” has remained a meme for me, and why I’d call myself a minimalist.”

2. That it is, in fact, okay for you to listen to music that doesn’t do a whole lot.
BE:  “I wanted a music that simply ‘tinted’ the air around me.”

3. Why people started making such music.
BE: “Separated from performance, recorded sound had become a malleable material, like paint or clay. 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. And the results of this process were pointing toward a type of music that was less linear and more immersive: music you lived inside.”

Brian Eno, legendary musical artist and producer

4. New definitions for time (and potentially a new one for music).
DM: “One of my favorite definitions of time is that time is what stops everything happening at once. I wonder if music is what stops noise happening all at once?”

5. That you’ve not remotely considered just how revolutionary recording was, or that it subsequently opened up a new musical realm that you’ve taken for granted for as long as you’ve lived.
BE: “In classical times, or pre-electronic times, the question of timbre was of limited importance. A violin sounded like a violin, and, in the hands of a great player, it could be extended a little this way or that. But it always sounded like a violin, rather than, say, a kettledrum or a harp. So with all other instruments: each is an isolated sonic island in the same way that animal species are isolated genetic islands. Just as there isn’t such a thing as a horsecow, there isn’t a violinet. But there can be now. The field of timbre is effectively unlimited and continuous, and a lot of what contemporary composers—particularly in pop music—are doing is exploring that huge new palette.”

“I’ve occasionally dreamed ideas for types of music. One was called ‘reality score.’ … Every sound was sampled from a momentous historical recording—the snare drum was a recording of the shot that killed President Kennedy.” —Brian Eno 

6. How writing is a form of alchemy.
DM: “I’ve noticed with writing, just by placing sentence a—about a ladybird, say—next to sentence b—about a man’s last three seconds of his life—a c gets generated as if by alchemy. It’s not there, but it is.”

7. That Mitchell either has spent an inordinate and alarming amount of time comparing Eno’s music to his own artistic medium or that he was not so busy during the time of this email exchange to prevent him from inventing mildly existential analogies with which to impress Eno, or readers, or both.
DM: “Novels are palimpsests written over earlier versions, red herrings, wrongly barked-up trees, and still somehow contain the ghosts of the novels that didn’t get written in order for this one, the finished one, to emerge. In a not-dissimilar way, one senses the thought behind an Eno composition—all the paths not taken to find the uncluttered path that is taken.”

David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

8. That for most of your life, you’ve not thought enough about what you were hearing.
BE: “When you hear a great moment in a piece of music, how far can you separate it from its context? And how much of its context is relevant: the preceding two bars? The surrounding four bars? The whole piece? What is the context, anyway? Is it your knowledge of how the piece was played? Your understanding of the artist’s other works? Your understanding of the whole genre?”

9. That, despite all that, you’re not a complete failure, because even someone like Brian Eno can’t always motivate himself to follow through on his ideas, even the really cool ones.
BE: “I’ve occasionally dreamed ideas for types of music. One was ccalled ‘reality score.’ … Every sound was sampled from a momentous historical recording—the snare drum was a recording of the shot that killed President Kennedy, and so on. I still think this could be great, but I don’t have the necessary persistence and nerdery to actually get it done.”

10. Also that even someone like Brian Eno wrestles with age-old questions about music and taste.
BE: “A science website asked several scientists to tell them what they thought was the most interesting question you could ask of science at this moment. … My friend Danny Hillis asked, “Why do we like music?” … And that is truly a mysterious question, which many learned books have utterly failed to answer. Why do I like one composer’s string quartet rather than another’s, when to a martian visitor they’d seem indistinguishable? What are the differences we’re hearing? What intrinsic wiring exists for having feelings about music—and by intrinsic wiring I mean the kind of wiring that leads us to prefer symmetrical faces to asymmetrical ones, or to be frightened of spiders.”

“I’ve noticed with writing, just by placing sentence a—about a ladybird, say—next to sentence b—about a man’s last three seconds of his life—a c gets generated as if by alchemy.” —David Mitchell

11. That, deep down, you hope one day to be asked to participate in a conversation with a great artist for The Believer, a conversation in which you manage to say something this cool:
BE: “Whenever you listen to a piece of music, what you are actually doing is hearing the latest sentence in a very long story you’ve been listening to—all the pieces of music you’ve ever heard.”

12. That if I respect Eno as much as all this suggests, then I need to quit excerpting interviews and get on with my own work, which has piled up to the point of necessitating convoluted naming systems in the Dropbox cloud.
BE: “My feeling is that a work has little value until you “release’ it, until you liberate it from yourself and your excuses for it. … Until you see it out there in the world along with everything else, you don’t realy know what it is or what to think of it, so it’s of no use to you.”

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The conversation from which these quotes were lifted appeared in The Believer‘s 2011 music issue.

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