With Music for Installations, British composer and musical innovator Brian Eno has checked in for 2018. Eno is one of the most influential figures in modern popular music, having begun his career around the start of the 1970s with the “glam rock” outfit Roxy Music, deciding within a couple of years that the life of the “rock star” was not his cup of tea, and then beginning the solo career that led to such masterpieces as Another Green World (1975). Soon he became one of the most in-demand producers in the industry (producing records for Robert Calvert, Devo, Talking Heads, U2, Laurie Anderson, James, Coldplay, and many other groups and artists of varying visibility; he has also collaborated with the likes of Robert Fripp, David Byrne, Rachid Taha, Paul Simon, Karl Hyde, and most recently, Kevin Shields, putting in appearances on long-players by countless others).
This massive collection consists of either nine vinyl records or six CDs, depending on your preference. I’ll focus on the CDs because that’s what I ordered (since at the moment, alas, I don’t own a functional turntable). Eno composed, or arranged, all of the material on these records or CDs for use in his visual art installations for which he has become well known in art communities all over the world. Three of the CDs contain material that has been available in the past, but only on limited edition releases initially available only to attendees at the installations and very hard to obtain otherwise (a few copies showed up on eBay). These include Lightness: Music for the Marble Palace (premiered for the first time at The State Russian Museum at St. Petersburg, 1997), I Dormienti and Kite Stories (debuted at The Roundhouse in London, 1999, the former done alongside Italian painter, sculptor and set designer Mimmo Paladino), and the more recent Making Space, initially available only at Lumen London or at exhibitions of 77 Million Paintings. Speaking of which, also included here is a selection from that, his constantly shifting “generative art” production which premiered in Tokyo at the La Foret Museum in 2006.
The rest of the material, including tracks like “Kazakhstan” (listen to a 4-and-a-half.minute excerpt here), is previously unavailable in any form, making this collection worth having even if you have some or all of the others (in the opinion of this long time Eno-watcher); none, incidentally, have been available on vinyl before.
There are two editions, moreover. There is the standard edition, and a collector’s “deluxe” limited edition. The latter comes with previously unseen exhibition photographs as well as a 64-page booklet featuring a new essay by Eno.
Eno said in a statement back in 2006, “If you think of music as a moving, changing form, and painting as a still form, what I’m trying to do is make very still music and paintings that move…. I’m trying to find in both of those forms, the space in between the traditional concept of music and the traditional concept of painting.”
Now in case casual readers are wondering, what is this doing here, on a philosophy blog? Why is a philosopher writing about, and promoting, a box set of CDs by Brian Eno. Let me address this. Eno has said on a number of occasions how he was influenced to think about art following a remark he attributed to the mother of a girl he was dating as a teenager, someone who had taken a liking to him and would influence him. What she asked him was, in effect, why someone as obviously bright as him was “wasting his time” at an art school (Ipswich). The question was clearly a turning point in his life, for as he put it later:
“ … it set a question going in my mind that has always stayed with me, and motivated a lot of what I’ve done: what does art do for people, why do people do it, why don’t we only do rational things, like design better engines? And because it came from someone I very much respected, that was the foundation of my intellectual life.”
Eno has since noted elsewhere that while those in the sciences, or engineering, have a pretty good consensus on the point to what they are doing, if you ask ten different artists about the purpose of art in human life, you might get ten different answers.
It struck me, upon reading those words, that the same kinds of questions could, and can, be asked about philosophy. Why have certain people been driven to do it? What does philosophy do for them? Is it rational to do it in a science-and-technology based civilization, when it doesn’t produce anything of truly commercial value? Does it contribute anything essential in society? My answers to the last two questions have always been a resounding Yes, that philosophy — perhaps like art — has a job to do in civilization, although if you ask different philosophers what that job is, again you’ll get a range of answers. This kind of question, though, became the foundation for my work in progress, What Should Philosophy Do? (a few preliminaries elsewhere on this blog).
What Eno does in his installations is to set up CD players at various locations around the installation, program them to play tracks of different lengths at random, some of the tracks silent, so that what results could play, in principle, for thousands of years without repeating exactly. What’s the point? He wants us thinking about time, including deep time, as a means to long-term thinking in the present. As one of the co-founders of The Long Now Foundation, he is an advocate of thinking about and planning a future our children and grandchildren and their grandchildren will find livable.
In other words, and in sum, Brian Eno’s artistic and musical activities, as well as his thought as reflected in his essays, are surely relevant to a wide range of thinking about philosophical activities in the world, as reflected in our essays. Eno does not get everything right, but the fact that he has Israel’s number is enough for me to think carefully about my judgment when I think he gets something wrong (as with world government and universal basic income).
All that aside, Eno’s musical output alone opens up a tremendous space for creating the kind of personal environment many of us like to have when we set fingers to word processor: music that is often more suited to filling a background without distracting us from our work. For this reason I’ve always recommended his best albums of quiet instrumental material that have been commercially available all along, such as Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) or On Land (1982) or Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983) (composed to accompany the National Geographic special on the moon landings entitled For All Mankind, finally issued on VHS in 1989).
Music for Installations Official Release, May 5, 2018.
Track Listing (CDs)
DISC ONE : Music From Installations
01: Kazakhstan ( 20:33 )
02: The Ritan Bells ( 17:05 )
03: Five Light Paintings ( 19:56 )
04: Flower Bells ( 18:49 )
DISC TWO: 77 Million Paintings
01: 77 Million Paintings ( 43:57 )
DISC THREE : Lightness – Music For The Marble Palace
01: Atmospheric Lightness ( 30:40 )
02: Chamber Lightness ( 25:00 )
DISC FOUR : ‘ I Dormienti’ / ‘Kite Stories’
01: I Dormienti ( 39:42 )
02: Kites I ( 8:07 )
03: Kites II ( 14:29 )
04: Kites III ( 7:34 )
DISC FIVE : ‘Making Space’
01: Needle Click ( 4:09 )
02: Light Legs ( 3:38 )
03: Flora and Fauna / Gleise 581d ( 3:56 )
04: New Moons ( 4:03 )
05: Vanadium ( 1:56 )
06: All The Stars Were Out ( 3:53 )
07: Hopeful Timean Intersect ( 5:13 )
08: World Without Wind ( 5:24 )
09: Delightful Universe ( seen from above ) ( 7:33 )
DISC SIX : Music For Future Installations
01: Unnoticed Planet ( 7:45 )
02: Liquidambar ( 6:55 )
03: Sour Evening ( Complex Heaven 3 ) ( 8:12 )
04: Surbahar Sleeping Music ( 18:16 )