Before and after science

An interview from PC Format, Issue 54, March 1996, conducted by Garrick Webster

For easy access to particular areas of interest, click on the appropriate subject heading in this list.

Koan Pro
Ambient records and self-generating systems
Screen-savers and Stained Glass
Eno expresses vague misgivings over Headcandy...
Difficulty of correlating sounds and images

He's a musician and a record producer, he's known in the industry as Brain One and he's just discovered the PC: Brian Eno talks to Garrick Webster about music and similarly pressing multimedia issues.

Layers of sound seem to float and drift around the studio. At varying pitches and for random durations, they come together, cluster and dissipate, only to reform in new combinations. Endlessly. This is ambient music, the creation of Brian Eno, and it's filling his studio with an atmosphere so relaxing you almost forget you're surrounded by sounds.

Playing on Eno's PC is a new piece of music he's written using Koan Pro, the only PC program that's ever really interested him. He regards this software as something of a revolution in music because, with Koan, you don't record music, but create randomly self-generating tracks that your PC plays differently each time. Rather than recognising the music by its rhythm or melody, you'll more likely come to know it by the sounds it uses and how it feels. Eno's next musical release will not be an album, but a selection of Koan files.

"What I will release is not recordings from this," he says, "but a floppy disk with several of these pieces on. So what I sell is not a recording of the piece but a system that generates the piece. And, of course, the system generates the piece endlessly and differently all the time. Since the rules in this thing aren't deterministic, it means that every version of it is going to be slightly different."

Koan Pro enables Eno to create musical systems that used to take considerably longer to design when, with his looping tape set-ups, he became the father of the ambient genre in the 1970s. Through it he's no longer tied to distributing music in static form on CD - each track is a digital file containing the sound parameters as well as its self-generating elements (you can experience the program for yourself on our HD and CD Coverdisks).

"All my ambient records were really recordings of the outputs of systems I had thought up. Those systems were sometimes very simple: one tape loop 23 seconds long, another that's 27-and-a-half, another that's 29... Of course, if they all run together, their events are going to cluster differently each time round. So the piece is formed by the system being allowed to work on its own."

"My interest is in creating the inputs to something like that. What do you put in a system that is going to make interesting music? Then, let the system make it for you. In the past I've designed systems like that and then recorded a bit of their output and put it on to a record. What that means is that every time you play the record you hear the same thing, but what I'm more interested in is that you buy this thing," he says, holding up a blue floppy, "and you hear a different version each time. In a way, it's really a revolution in music."

This technology is a revolution to Eno because he sees it as rounding off millennia of musical history. From the first drummings of cave people up to the gramophone, all music was live and each performance had unique aspects. "This is a new future for music," says Eno, glancing over at the monitor displaying another piece he's authored. "We've had a hundred years of reproduced music: the record. And before that, 10,000 years of music which wasn't reproduced, where every performance was unique. This sort of completes that loop and is a hybrid, in fact, because it is a mixture of a recorded music and live music. It needs a name. Generative music, or something."

Whatever folk decide to call it, music written with Koan is one of just two uses Brian Eno has for his PC. The other is screen-savers. Otherwise, there is very little about PCs that interests him.

"As I keep saying to people, screensavers are the most interesting things yet that anyone has done with computers. For me, the whole thrust of computer development has been in completely the wrong direction. It's all a huge army marching to nowhere. There are a few little things that point somewhere else and screensavers are one of them. Unfortunately, the people who make the screensavers are among the thickest on Earth. But by pure accident they occasionally hit on a good one."

The good one Eno refers to is Stained Glass, one of the few screen-savers to include self-generating elements. He's actually made about 250 variations of Stained Glass. Savers like this, and Organic Art by William Latham, form for Brian Eno a narrow, but high-potential field of technology.

"The problem is that computers have been designed by people who thought the best thing about computers was that they could move enormous blocks of data around, so the important thing was to have more memory, more types of data that you could move around together and so on. But I think that the best thing about computers is that they can grow things from seed. That's really what the Latham thing is. That's what this is," he says, indicating Koan Pro. "That's what the Stained Glass thing is What I'm interested in is the idea that you can use the PC as a generator, not as a reproducer.

"You know, CD-ROMs have been a complete disaster. There isn't one I can think of that I would ever want to look at again. They are so tedious because they rely on this idea that you can move huuuuuuuge blocks of data around. So, your choices are, 'do I move to this block of data, or into that block?' So tedious! I think that the idea that you want to sit in front of this and go to places is a bad one. Only idiots actually want to do that with their lives, in my experience."

And it's not as if Eno is without experience. He's a visiting Professor of Interactive Multimedia at the Royal College of Art, and he wrote the Windows 95 start-up tinkle. His music has appeared on one or two CD-ROMs to boot. When he contributed to Headcandy, a disc combining video feedback with his music, he learned a bitter lesson about the failings of multimedia. "When I saw the result it was so awful and terrible and disappointing I've never looked at it again. I looked at it for about a minute. The image is this big," he says, measuring two inches in the air, "and it looks like shit anyway. The music sounds like tin and every time the image changes the music stops. It was an absolute disaster. I really apologise to people if they bought that on the strength of my name: I tell you, I did everything to get my name off there."

What many people expected from the program was more than bright patterns and ambient music. But the idea of creating a system that coordinates sounds and images based on the same formulae as used in Koan tracks, or the same algorithms as used in William Latham's screensavers, is, thinks Eno, misguided too.

"To try to understand what factors are emotionally important in music and then to try to relate them to the factors that are emotionally important visually is an unthinkably complicated task. For example, you could say the musical scale is obviously important. But how do you translate that into anything visual? The translation is nearly always the failure in these things. In fact, the important connection is the connection you make here," he says, pointing to his head, "not connections between two parts of a program."

For Eno, most attempts at multimedia are failures. Real multimedia comes from fairgrounds, theme parks and concerts - not PCs. "Multimedia is things like rock groups doing huge shows on stage that use sound and light, pictures, slides, television and everything else," he says. "That's the interesting multimedia, I think. There's a history of that now. But the people who make CD-ROMs know bugger all about that history. It's like it never happened to them. They didn't connect it with what they're doing."

Eno in thoughtful mood: "I hate 'wacky'. 'Wacky is the opposite of what I want from life."