Brian Eno, Architect?

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As Christopher Scoates leaves Long Beach UAM for Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bennett Stein contemplates Scoates’ book about the “Visual Music” of Brian Eno — and finds the soul of an architect.

Christopher Scoates, director since 2005 of the University Art Museum (UAM) on the California State University, Long Beach, has upped sticks to become director of the venerable Cranbrook Academy of Art and Museum in Michigan. Scoates, originally from England, studied at Cranbrook, receiving an MFA in photography.

While at Long Beach, Scoates endeavored, among many projects, to enlighten students to the creative genius of musicians who had profoundly shaped his own youth and cultural perspectives, among them Lou Reed and Brian Eno. Following an exhibit and lecture by Eno, Scoates published Brian Eno Visual Music, a Chronicle monograph (above) celebrating the visual art of the renowned musician.

The book spans 40 years-worth of Eno’s museum and gallery installations and his musical endeavors; it is illustrated with newly-published archival materials such as sketchbook pages, installation views, screenshots (shown on this page) and includes essays by Steve Dietz, Brian Dillon, Roy Ascott, William R. Wright and Eno himself, along with a download code for a previously unreleased piece of music created by Eno.

DnA was interested to learn more about this book and gave it to Bennett Stein, aka the Good4Nothing Connoisseur, a contributor to DnA on topics at the intersection of design and music. He cogitated over the book for several months and has written this very personal essay, situating the artist in the realm of architecture. 

Read more about Christopher Scoates’ move to Cranbrook, here.


When the Good4Nothing Connoisseur was first asked to review the textbook-thick BRIAN ENO VISUAL MUSIC, I sneered, thinking it was one of those haute arty, deconstructionist, techno-fetishist monographs that would talk down to the reader and lecture how best to understand the King Tut of the Techno Geeks, Brian Eno and his oft near impenetrable artifacts.

I speak as an Eno fan-boy, mind you, and swoon over much of the man’s prodigious output. For heck’s sake who ain’t a Brian Eno fan? Put another way, saying you’re an Eno fan is like saying you breathe oxygen. Eno’s the cultural O2 of our time, having produced the finest avant-hip pop (Bowie, The Talking Heads, Devo, Roxy Music, Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon, U2); in other words, the soundtrack of our lives the past half-century. He’s practically the Leonardo Da Vinci of sound.

But what hits like a revelation right between the chakras is that Brian Eno dreams, schemes and works like an architect, all under the guise of indie music producer/conceptual artist of course.

That’s not necessarily Scoates’ thesis, but hey, Exhibit A: Eno’s latest release “Someday World” (May 2014, Warp Records) with Karl Hyde of famed house/electronica group Underworld. On the cut “A Man Wakes Up,” a rather swing dub funky track musically, the following lyric hacks into your mind: “A man gets up, walks around, his limbs make a numphomania (sic) rhythm, he turns into words, the words into architecture, buildings that greeteth him like giant clowns.”

Further signs of Eno’s architectural leanings lie in how he, in a detached way, functions, as he’s stated in interviews of late, like a project architect whilst collaborating with, or producing high concept, brand name music artists. He’s never been about scoring a hit record, art or video installation just to cash in to swing the bling. No he’s a perennially restless aesthetic Captain Ahab out for the big idea(s) that swim(s) the mighty oceans of our collective subconscious, yet he hunts with tautologies and systems with which designers work.

Notice how many of his song forms embrace aspects of architecture, design, site specificity or the built environment. The titles alone tell the story: The Talking Heads’ “More Songs about Buildings & Food;” “Music for Airports;” “Extracts from Music For White Cube;” “Lightness: Music For The Marble Palace;” “Music For Civic Recovery Center;” “Luftschloss (Castle In The Air);” “Fierce Aisles of Light;” “A Measured Room;” and works that suggest landscapes or notions of place: “Apollo Atmospheres;” “Another Green World;” “Ambient 4: On Land;” “Taking Tiger Mountain… By Strategy;” “Making Space;” “In A Land Of Clear Colors;” or designed objects: “Small Craft On A Milk Sea;” “Here Come The Warm Jets;” “Virtual Dream Bells, Thick Glass;” and engineering: “Fixed Ratio Harmonic Bells;” “Base & Apex;” “Emphasizing Enharmonic Partials;” “Changes Where Bell Number = Repeat Number.”


Like some pointy-headed Oxford don of the underground in perpetual TED Talk mode Eno is hot for process, keen on deconstructing and reconsidering stuff and place, always pondering malleability and perception of spatiality. You half think you’re eavesdropping on Zaha Hadid, Peter Cook, Rem Koolhaas, or Le Corbusier, some paper architect stoned on theory, rigorous analysis and discussion before getting around to building and making. I’ve always sensed this about Eno from frequent skinny dips into his sonic oeuvre, that he’s an obsessive thought experimentalist or ravenously curious naif armed with queries, never assumptions. For he’s positively elfin and gracious and open-minded about it. Could the man be an oracle?

As I read deeper into subsequent chapters of BRIAN ENO VISUAL MUSIC I was hit with the sense–if not sheer panic–that I was in possession of a rare book of incantations that contained the secret to make the world over, or erase gravity or turn water into petrol. Not some Hogwart’s Master Magus’ Lexicon of Wizard Craft this–but the real thing, except tailored to artist-thinker-makers who in the end produce the only real magic worth considering.

I came to see the book for what it is, or in the right hands could be—a master stylist’s procedural text. I started pretending I was Eno. Is there a more serious thrill around than to step into the shoes of one the spiffiest living artist-scientists of our time and take the wheel for a spin around the track?

That’s the journey this book takes you on. Actually it’s a ship, or no, it’s a plane—as it tracks the steps in Eno’s formation from his 1960s art school days (actually it reaches back to Eno’s granddad who used to repair hurdy gurdies and organ grinders, which the grandson thinks of as analogue synthesizers.)

Initially BEVM hums along like a memoir of some precocious English figurative painting student who navigates the rapids of sniffy UK institutes of brush and oil.  But then!

Suddenly it’s about a politic, rebel, dandy in top hat and blush throwing over calcified Marxist dogma to forge his own way like Harold with his purple dot crayon, except Eno does it via light and sound from a fortress, a veritable siege-engine of computers, tape machine loops, sonic effects boxes, synths, midis and mixers.


He becomes a maestro and upon tracking his methods you get to be his apprentice. Eno is the gentleman-gadget-artiste-perfectionist par excellence. He makes Steve Jobs look like the mime on the museum steps. The difference may be Jobs made the most glorious toys on earth but Eno makes them dub step and sing and poke you.

In a nutshell, Eno has been smuggling into brand name acts’ records concepts first absorbed from early mentors, like the arts professor Roy Ascott, who Eno studied under at Ipswich Civic College.

Ascott lead the charge in ground-breaking computer network-driven projects and taught an art instruction method he called Groundcourse, a data-, systems- and feedback-fueled technique driven by cybernetics theory and computers arranged in sequence that spoke to each other, a rootsy pre-internet version of online collaborative endeavors. Ascott got Eno thinking in terms of materials and assembling projects via interlocking units that supported and depended on one another, projects that could be disassembled and reassembled at will, and that could align to the logic of perspective.

Right out of the gate, Eno is trained to think holistically and structurally. From there he was exposed to painting teacher Tom Phillips who got Eno into philosophical texts and the works of minimalist composers, who themselves seemed to hoe to uniquely architecturally-minded approaches, composers like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and John Cage.

From there Eno was directed to create using mathematics and linguistics. One senses this is what makes many of his musical works so long lasting, so memorable or classic, because they seem to stand upon solid foundations, are sturdily constructed, stress tested down to the last crash test dummy in drag, if you will.

As Senor Eno’s output is so vast and vastly distributed I would argue he’s a premier master builder and city planner of the pop culture mindscape. From Kraftwork to Daft Punk to the entire EDM scene it could be argued that Eno led the charge and set the standard.

To be frank, his solo records can be trying or put one in a sour mood either via irritating rhythm beds featuring found objects (sonic furniture) or nervy John Cage-esque sparcity. He made an entire album devoted to church bells, Bell Studies For The Clock Of The Long Now. Now I love church bells, and that title, but 90 minutes worth of bell tones? This kind of music may sometimes be art but it’s not always music.

Eno likes to take us right up to the edge of aesthetic tolerance, and his work is often an acquired taste but when you approach his sonic self-probing texts–for many of his recordings do have the density of texts–it helps to be down for the challenge. Eno’s solo musical works lean toward towering abstraction or are undefined just enough so as to let you co-create your own sister worlds within or along side his. And much of his work has a warmth and a lightness to it that is sublime and inviting. His music overall, one could argue, on account of its ubiquitous levity of touch, genteel expanses and vistas of come hither spatial cushioning, is for all practical purposes a public space. It makes me wonder if Eno is not the Pierre Charles L’Enfant of sound.

77 Million Paintings in room

Scoates writes that “process became Eno’s conceptual filter,” and cites that during his second year at Ipswich Eno would prowl junk shops for old tape recorders. Odd for a visual artist seeking visual arts instruction. Talk about the training redefining the medium redefining the message, to cobble from McLuhan. No wonder he ended up choosing the sonic over the visual. It was at this juncture in his training that Eno stepped into a leadership role and would book the most outré, avant-garde, cutting edge thinker-innovators to come to the academy to lecture and inspire Eno to take exponential leaps into thought experimentation and intermedia with Fluxus-level discipline.

Is it possible to overdose on a kind of aesthetic LSD? Eno is in constant overdose mode, and seeks the antidote for it not. As I kept reading I had the sense Eno could get a bit mono-focused on fussy thought games. In fact, there’s never a mention, in the book or in Eno’s work frankly, of the topic of girls or sexuality. If there is it’s encrypted. This is refreshing on one hand, and on the other, I wondered if the guy is asexual? Out of all the bands he’s worked with and all his solo works there’s nary a mention of physical love, or the lure of a man or a woman’s body, or of Aphrodite’s realm, or of being struck with any kind of love sickness or heartbreak. That’s it, the mystery component to Eno’s appeal perhaps; he imparts the sense of the pure, the poetic simplicity of the monk’s cell, the clinical, bacterial vacuum of the operating room. But that’s just a theory.

Of course, the end result is we experience such clean work as tight, angular and mathy. As opposed to the dirty, slovenly, wrong side of the tracks bad boy B-O put over by the Stones, The Who, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and other raunch n rollers. Maybe it’s that Eno’s sound is a hybrid of rock ‘n’ roll and architecture. That might spill the beans on the code of the architect, which demands a state of total anal-retentive hygiene combined with high self-adoration.

Come to think of it, there is a cool sensuality to Eno’s work. It’s consistently unhurried, easy, of a relaxed simplicity that can be erotic. But his eroticism is of the school of narcissism. Nothing wrong with self-love, baby, ooh baby, perhaps, but there again, he feels like an architect. For what architect is not in love with the self? That’s okay in the end because architecture is about perfection, and perfection can’t improve upon itself without long, lovelorn gazes into the reflecting pool. It’s a technical thing.

Visual Music

By the way, Eno did paint at art school. He just would, under disapproving instructors’ glares, submit a score to accompany each painting, a score that subdivided sections of canvas into a numbered grid to correspond with numbered tubes of paint. Is the guy a process head case or what? As Le Corbusier said, “a house is a machine for living in.” Eno would say an art project is a machine, just as later he’d say the entire contents of a recording studio is an instrument. Further evidence that to Eno all of reality, living, inanimate, is merely a palette of materials with which to create. The world is Eno’s paint box, his big fat craft supplies cupboard. All things, sounds, fellow artists are so much materiality from which to give form to concept.

In a chapter titled “The Aesthetics Of Time,” Scoates describes how Eno subjected David Bowie to Dadaistic random selection processes during the “Low” and “Heroes” sessions. Eno got Bowie, who was facile enough to play avant-pop guinea pig, to approach parts of the making of those albums by submitting to a system he named ‘Oblique Strategies.’

Simplified, it’s a process whereby you pluck a specific actionable step, dozens of which are printed on cards, out of a hat. The way Frank Gehry chucks a crumpled wad of paper onto a table Eno would have Bowie draw a card–with a command that could have been penned by Andre Breton or Guillaume Apollinaire, such as, “tape your mouth,” “emphasize repetitions,” “change instrument roles,” “reverse the tape,” “take a break,” “use fewer notes,” “remove specifics or convert to ambiguities,” or “honor thy error as a hidden intention.” Turns out Eno has a jazz mind, hip as Charlie Parker’s. That last command, “honor thy error” is echoed in Bird’ go-to mantra: if you make a mistake, play it again like you meant it; play it a third time like you planned it.

Reading VISUAL MUSIC drove me to thumb through Le Corbusier’s TOWARD AN ARCHITECTURE. I view them as sister volumes. I recommend them as your beach reading duology this summer. Like lightning out of the clear blue I was hit with the sense these two are soul brothers when I read Corbusier’s ‘Three Reminders To Architects’ where he says, “Under strict obligation to an imperative program, engineers use the directing vectors and accentuators of forms. They create limpid and impressive plastic facts.” To my ear, that could be Eno talking, dreaming, intoning. I’ve spent a lot of time with music and it seems to me jazz, and sometimes classical music, are the only other genres of sound that fit that bill, whereas but for Eno, Corbu’s ‘Reminder’ is a mission statement. As Hendrix was changed by Dylan who was changed by Kerouac, I feel Eno was changed by Corbu.

77 Million Paintings orange and red

As you steep the teabag of your mind in BRIAN ENO VISUAL MUSIC you are constantly struck by how Eno repurposes things he comes across, as Schindler with plywood or Gehry with chicken wire, and by how Eno’s persistent experiments with process and processes are acutely design-minded and spatial.

Take his collaboration with Jiri Prihoda on “Music For Prague” for example, where the focus of the work was site specific, using only street noise. Eno declaimed, “I was thinking of sound less as music and more as sculpture, space, landscape, and of the experience as a process of immersion rather than just listening.”

Again in the chapter “The Aesthetics Of Time,” Scoates describes Eno as keen to create quiet places where one can reflect, as in a public park or church. He quotes Eno: “If you make something that is the right slowness, people are very happy to slow themselves down to meet it. If you accompany that with music that is the right quietness, people are happy to quiet themselves down to listen to it.”

Poets and novelists shoot for similar game, and so too do architects and landscape designers, for example James Corner (NYC’s High Line, Santa Monica’s Tongva Park) who suggested at a talk at the Santa Monica Civic Center in 2010 that he seeks through built environments to quiet and slow humans down from their artificially sped up lives to achieve states of becalmed presence or contemplation. On those grounds one could recommend architecture and music be reclassified as branches of medicine.

The book takes us on through Eno’s relocation from the UK to New York City in 1978, when the NYC punk scene was blowing up. He no doubt kept an eye on that scene as he immersed himself in video installations, taking cues from alt cinema theorist Gene Youngblood’s decree that video, as part of intermedia, is the nervous system of humankind. Eno explored cameras, film, lenses, lighting, and experimented with the flicker effect and slights of perception techniques like loop printing, off screen rephotography, colored gels.

Scoates writes that in this highly visual, experimental period Eno was aiming to create “environments on an architectural scale.”

The visceral thrill of reading the chapter “Learning From Eno,” guest-written by Steve Dietz, cannot be underestimated. As one who occasionally is undone by things digital, it lays out how Eno tamed, and tames, technology, and thus how you can too. Eno did it with honest to goodness Jedi mind tricksterology accessible to you, me, the layperson – for heaven’s sake the man lays it out. It’s another reason you might want to drop what you’re doing and hunt this book down post haste. I now believe that I might be able to hack my way to greatness, or at least some kind of secret fulfillment. Spartacus-style, just remember to say, ‘I am Eno.” Think the thought, say it, stir, believe, evolve – could have been the subtitle of this book.