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Brian Eno Has a Very Big Brain

brian eno Red Bull Music Academy

Friday afternoon at the Red Bull Music Academy in Manhattan, Brian Eno dished out a steady stream of ribald backstage tales and sordid studio gossip during a moderated discussion for a crowd of journalists and upstart musicians. Come on, that’s not what happened — this is Brian Eno we’re talking about.

Sitting on a couch before a packed room, producer-theorist-generally very smart guy Eno, who will also be delivering an “An Illustrated Talk” at Cooper Union on May 6 as part of the Red Bull event series, delved into many of his working methods, though primarily in regard to his more experimental creations rather than the classic albums he’s produced for the likes of Talking Heads and U2. 

Key takeaway: Eno, 64, explained that his music emanates from parasympathetic rather than sympathetic impulses. What’s that mean? Biological sympathetic impulses are those having to do with control (like fight or flight) and parasympathetic impulses have to do with surrender (rest, calm, etc). This isn’t just idle theoretical talk, either: Eno has recently worked with a hospital in England to create a room where patients can aid the recovery process by listening to his music.

Eno also discussed the ways that technology can hinder, rather than foster, creativity. After calling for a show of hands to see which of the young musicians in attendance worked primarily on analog or digital instruments, he asked rhetorically, “Isn’t it interesting that in the second decade of the 21st century, much of the most interesting music is being made on analog instruments?”

Eno’s theory is that digital technology gives musicians too much choice, whereas a limited tool such as a guitar forces musicians to develop creative solutions as a result of its relatively meager capabilities. Software, he reasoned, allows users to “cover the fact that you don’t have an idea by trying new options.” Remember that the next time you think about swapping the old six-string for Ableton Suite 9.

If this sounds to you like the stuff of babymaking music, you’re not far off. “I’ve been told,” shared Eno, “that a lot of children have been born listening to Discreet Music.”

Take that, Barry White.