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22 January 2010

Brian Eno has beef with Steve Reich, enjoys musical seduction

Few artists’ careers are as unimpeachable as Brian Eno’s. (Well, ok, there is that Paul Simon record.) Anyway, you can marvel at Eno’s recorded accomplishments elsewhere. As impressive as his long list of amazing, culture-impacting albums, though, is the way he talks about music:

    “I came out of this funny place where I was interested in the experimental ideas of Cornelius Cardew, John Cage and Gavin Bryars, but also in pop music. Pop was all about the results and the feedback. The experimental side was interested in process more than the actual result — the results just happened and there was often very little control over them, and very little feedback. Take Steve Reich. He was an important composer for me with his early tape pieces and his way of having musicians play a piece each at different speeds so that they slipped out of synch.

    “But then when he comes to record a piece of his like, say, Drumming, he uses orchestral drums stiffly played and badly recorded. He’s learnt nothing from the history of recorded music. Why not look at what the pop world is doing with recording, which is making incredible sounds with great musicians who really feel what they play. It’s because in Reich’s world there was no real feedback. What was interesting to them in that world was merely the diagram of the piece, the music merely existed as an indicator of a type of process. I can see the point of it in one way, that you just want to show the skeleton, you don’t want a lot of fluff around it, you just want to show how you did what you did. As a listener who grew up listening to pop music I am interested in results. Pop is totally results-oriented and there is a very strong feedback loop. Did it work? No. We’ll do it differently then. Did it sell? No. We’ll do it differently then. So I wanted to bring the two sides together. I liked the processes and systems in the experimental world and the attitude to effect that there was in the pop, I wanted the ideas to be seductive but also the results.”

This appeared a few days ago in an interview that Eno did with the Guardian. In this age of blogs & Twitter posts, Eno is well served by his genius at expressing big thoughts in relatively small bites. I’ve actually heard variations on his above-quoted sentiment from many people. But Eno’s platform, his ability to speak in full paragraphs that are one part aphorism, one part logical proof, it gives his words a particular power.

I’m not all praise: Eno’s dismissal of “Drumming” and elevation of Reich’s early tape pieces made me wince a bit. Later on, Reich also wrote one of the 20th century’s most sublime pieces, “Music for 18 Musicians”:


Would that piece have been possible without “Drumming”? If you were wondering, here’s what that sounds like:

The comments speak for themselves…

…but sink into both “Drumming” and “Music for 18 Musicians” for a few minutes and you’ll learn some things about flow — a state of musical grace that is enabled by the structural logic which composition excels at, a structural logic that pop could learn a thing or two from. And is.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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