Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sounds of silence: new biographies of Eno, Gould

Eno, seated before at least two instruments

There are artists whose contributions to art enthrall us even while seemingly urging art itself toward some sort of end. Brian Eno and the late Glenn Gould offer potent case studies, the former a self-described “non-musician” traversing the margins of pop and the avant-garde, the latter one of history’s great virtuosos, working largely within the Western classical canon. Both either avoided or completely swore off live appearances early in their careers in favour of the recording studio, where their innovations focused on music’s vertical or textural qualities over the documentation of performance or celebration of technique. Both sought to diminish the centrality of the artist in the making of art, the former remaining an advocate of self-generating systems, the latter having made bold pronouncements to the effect of art’s eventual irrelevance altogether. There is something apocalyptic to such a sensibility.

Gould, with large pants

Of course, both Eno and Gould have at one time or another been pegged as consummate bullshitters. In his absorbing and ambitious new biography,
On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (Orion, $34.95), British writer and musician David Sheppard describes how being interviewed early in his life taught Eno “to construct a theoretical context for his work after the event. He would subsequently develop a nonpareil facility for articulating persuasively plausible retrospective concepts for what had simply been intuitive, or happenstance creativity.” In Glenn Gould (Penguin, $26), his provocative biographical essay, Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell writes of Gould’s “after-the-fact rationalizations” and the “danger that his theorizing will undermine the joy given by his performances.” What emerges in both books are portraits of artists whose capacity to apply systems or polemic to their art, however compelling, must be considered secondary to the art itself, which can feel so multifaceted as to overwhelm those who endeavour to encapsulate it.

Eno chased a lot of girls in his youth,
only partly to borrow their outfits

Eno was born the same year as the LP, the hologram, and Velcro. As a child in mid-1950s Suffolk he collected fossils, saw a UFO, and was fascinated by the alien-like sounds of doo-wop emanating from nearby USAF airbases. Sheppard, who first met the composer/producer/video-artist/et al. at Michael Brook’s studio when Eno popped by to examine Brook’s fish cutlery, gives a vivid sense of his subject’s rather idyllic rural English upbringing and panoply of early fascinations. It’s a lot of fun to read Sheppard’s evocations of Eno’s formative art school experiences, his attraction to John Cage, androgynous clothing, audio equipment, the Velvet Underground, Mondrian, Little Richard, and girls. A wildly productive, vivacious dilettante, Eno’s appetite for diverse forms and subversive approaches were matched by a particular bravado regarding his ability to interact with whatever medium, regardless of ostensible facility. There is, Sheppard writes, “something of a late medieval polymath about Brian Eno, albeit cut with a very mid-20th-century strain of British ‘garden shed’ amateurism.”

Eno, Fripp, Bowie in Berlin

While methodically tracing the development of Eno’s iconoclastic musical approaches—including a careful re-examination of the oft-told and perhaps apocryphal tale of Eno’s “discovery” of ambient music while convalescing to a low-volume recording of 18th century harp music—Sheppard, perhaps unsurprisingly, pays closest attention to Eno’s name-making tenure with Roxy Music, his quartet of watershed experimental rock albums, and his 1970s collaborations with Robert Fripp, David Bowie and Talking Heads. Sheppard’s study of these periods, as well as Eno’s rigorous employment of both systems and accidents, yield countless great stories: co-producer Tony Visconti’s four-year-old son spontaneously “composing” the opening of Bowie’s ‘Warszawa’ on the piano during the
Low sessions; Eno convincing David Byrne to jog on the spot to create his breathless delivery on Talking Heads’ ‘Drugs’; or the transformation of ashtrays, lampshades and wooden flooring into musical instruments. Along the way Sheppard offers an unexpected defense of Paul McCartney, and suggests that Eno may bear some responsibility for Phil Collins’ solo career. (Readers are advised to refer to Sheppard’s footnotes, which contain some of his funniest findings, such as Eno’s contractual clause that he never be obligated to set foot in Los Angeles, or the time he signed autographs as Quincy Jones for excitable Japanese Michael Jackson fans.) The only real flaw with On Some Faraway Beach—other than Sheppard’s over-use of certain adjectives, “sanguine” especially—is his compression of the last quarter-century of Eno’s life into what reads like an annotated CV. Apparently, at some point Eno’s near-superhuman productivity simply exhausted Sheppard. I can’t entirely blame him. Eno's only in his 60s now, and it's easy to see him re-inventing everything well into our new millennium.


“I have decided to tell Gould’s story—really a linked set of ideas about perception, consciousness, time, and silence—not as a story but as a single contested piece considered from a variety of angles.” There have been some stern grievances with Kingwell’s approach to writing about Gould, one of Canada’s most beloved and enigmatic icons, but to be fair he makes his M.O. explicit from the start, and it’s not like there’s any lack of other conventional biographies of Gould available to those who crave a more well-behaved, chronologically-ordered series of facts and anecdotes. Having said that, Kingwell does court contention, having written a slim volume that isn’t quite biography and isn’t quite philosophy. Were he to concentrate his energies on fully realizing either of these things he would likely have had to compose something far bulkier and daunting.


The chapters, each pertaining to a single idea that connects, however tenuously, to Gould’s life and work, are short. Titles include ‘Memory,’ ‘Existence,’ ‘Quodlibet,’ and, of course, ‘Genius.’ The overall structure is prismatic. Kingwell’s observations on each topic form stimulating chains of epiphanies. He writes elegantly about the inherent constraints of several artistic forms and the challenges they pose. (Kingwell begins his ‘Architecture’ chapter with the oft-used claim that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” subsequently explaining that when taken to its logical conclusion such a claim implies that “the only appropriate reaction to music is more music, an absurd position if taken literally.” I immediately wondered if Kingwell had read Geoff Dyer’s sublime
But Beautiful, which in fact suggests that much of the history of jazz is exactly that: articulate musical responses to other music.) Whether or not these build toward a satisfying conclusion—conclusion in the argumentative, rather than the musical, sense—is open to debate.

The Oblique Strategies

In the end I got a lot out of both books, and found that so many of Kingwell’s preoccupations while examining Gould's life and work dovetailed nicely into themes raised by Eno’s life and work. It would be great if Kingwell could apply this same approach to an Eno book. Come to think of it, it would be great if Sheppard could apply his rigorous research and cultural and critical insight to a book about Gould. A trade-off—sounds like one of Eno’s
Oblique Strategies. What about it, guys?

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