July/August 2011

Brian Eno

[Musician]

in conversation with

David Mitchell

[Novelist]

“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.”
Two potential effects of Brian Eno’s music:
It can kick-start a good writing session
It can make you feel the way a sentient snake feels about a snake charmer

Brian Eno is widely considered one of the great contemporary composers and music producers, famously for his work with U2 and Coldplay, but perhaps most influentially with David Bowie and the Talking Heads. He began his career in 1971, in his early twenties, as a member of the band Roxy Music, then left to make music on his own, including such albums as Another Green World, Music for Airports, and (with David Byrne) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a landmark in the history of sampling.

His fascination with musical technologies and artistic systems led him to popularize the Koan algorithmic music generator, and, with Peter Schmidt, to develop the “Oblique Strategies” deck of cards, an intervention into the artistic process. His music is heard, unknowingly, by millions of people every day: he created the start-up sound of the Microsoft Windows 95 operating software. He is a founder of the Long Now Foundation, whose mandate is to educate the public into thinking about the distant future. Drums Between the Bells is his latest release.

David Mitchell, born in 1969, is the acclaimed, award-winning author of the novels Ghostwritten (1999), Number9Dream (2001), Cloud Atlas (2004)—the latter two shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—Black Swan Green (2006), and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010). Granta selected him as one of the best young British novelists, and he was named one of the one hundred most influential people in the world by Time magazine, which credited him with having “created the 21st century novel.” Mitchell was raised in England, spent many years teaching and writing in Japan, and presently lives in Ireland with his wife and their two children.

Mitchell and Eno were fans and admirers of each other before the idea for this conversation came about, and spoke for the first time over email for the Believer. David Mitchell asked questions, and Brian Eno provided answers.

*

DAVID MITCHELL: Are you synesthetic? Do you think music can convey emotion because music is a form of universal synesthesia? In my limited case, days of the week and common male names have colors.

BRIAN ENO: I don’t think I’d call myself synesthetic, although I do think of sounds in terms of temperature and brightness and hard-edgedness and angularity. Is that being synesthetic? I don’t seem to have an invariable and involuntary set of responses of the kind you and Nabokov have—a “the letter d is dusty olive green” kind. I do, however, have extremely strong responses to certain “aesthetic” things. I am made furious, for example, by a minor chord lazily used in songwriting, or a throwaway middle eight written just for “variety.” I despise variety for its own sake. My friends and colleagues find the extremity of my reactions very amusing. Conversely, I am always deeply moved by certain combinations of sound or color—sky blue and light chocolate brown, for example. But there are thousands of others! I have spent a lot of time wondering where those strong preferences come from.

What is interesting to me about music among all the arts is that it is, and always has been, as far as I know, a completely nonfigurative medium. Although cover notes for classical music albums tend to say that the trill of flutes suggests mountain streams and so on, I don’t think anybody listens to music with the expectation that they’re going to be presented with a sort of landscape painting. Even opera, with its strong narrative element, doesn’t depend on the narrative for its effect. So although lots of people still find abstract painting difficult to deal with, they are very happy to listen to music—a much more resolutely abstract form of art.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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