Brian Eno: Visual Music
by Christopher Scoates
Chronicle Books

In the late seventies, the late Ian MacDonald, the era’s best home-grown rock music writer, authored one of the longest interviews that the then hipper than thou New Musical Express had ever published. In the two part 20 000 word feature, MacDonald described his subject, the ex-Roxy Music non-musician, Brian Eno as “one of great talkers of his generation.” Yet the piece was also an early example of how Eno was equally adept at exciting pale young music obsessives into writing voluminously on the exotic electronics buff and his many and varied theories and concepts, so different to much of the music world. As Eno moved on to become celebrated studio producer – and career redefiner - of the likes of David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and James, the words and articles continued to stack up. Over the decades cultural writer types, beguiled by the hyper-articulate and intellectually adroit Eno, helped make him one of the most written about figures working across the blurred boundaries of popular and one-time avant-garde music, art, technology and evolutionary thinking. A veritable bookshelf of books has followed, adding to the many interviews, TV documentaries and other media paraphernalia accreting to the idiosyncratic rock something’s name.

These books, including a few by Eno himself, have been primarily focused on the man’s music, even if the attraction to many Eno-watchers has been the originality of his disciplinary-upending, charmingly presented, one-man aesthetics and ideas professorial showcase, seemingly at times unfolding in the real time of interview situations, and generalist allure in a way that more orthodox radical tendencies of the times – say eighties Postmodernism, wasn’t.

Up to late last year, however, there hadn’t been any book on a strand of Eno’s work that has received less attention than the headliner music studio producer to the stars; his ongoing work with visual art practice, specifically the ambient video art work. From 1979 on, when he moved to New York, this quiet strand has continued through the intervening decades, transferring onto new media based tech, and specifically, generative or algorithmic software, resulting in recent works such as 77 Million Paintings. This absence has now been filled with Christopher Scoates warmly appreciative Visual Music, which tells the long story of Eno’s art, and more specifically, ‘visual ambient,’ journey, from early student days at Ipswich and Winchester art schools, through music notoriety and after, up to present day activities, such as his presence among The Long Now luminaries, and forays into the UK’s wider political cultural life, turning up on Radio 4’s Any Questions, and being the 60 year plus advisor to Nick Clegg on youth culture.

All this acceptance suggests that the art battles which so animated the young Eno have long been won, and the arguments - today very much part of the mainstream – are clearly present within Visual Music’s narrative. When in the first of a four part essay, The Aesthetics of Time, Scoates outlines Eno’s well-known dislike for the pillars of traditional old school classical and heroic art aesthetics, you are immediately returned to the rationales for many of the art experiments diligently documented in the books opening sections, even if they don’t go anywhere near possible psychological sources of Eno’s passionate (angry?) aesthetics arguments.

The early student and after period sections are interesting as historical documentation, highlighting how time-consuming and exacting Eno was in his early work, but it is once the book gets onto the video work - begun when Eno happened to turn a TV screen on its side in his New York flat, and saw the world open up differently, precipitating the emergence of ambient video and envisaged as visual analogue to ambient music - that the story takes on more than academic interest. The various phases of Eno's moving image work, intensely slow and 'ignorable as they are interesting' are extensively detailed, including drawings and plans, as well as many stills from luminous video's including Memories of Medieval Manhattan, Quiet Club and The Future will be like Perfume

As for texts, there are six essays, an Eno lecture, and an end-piece interview with the non-musician. Editor Christopher Scoate contributes his four part The Aesthetics of Time essay, locating the ancestry of Visual Music, along with an intriguing meditation by Brian Dillon on Eno as landscape artist, paired with W G Sebald’s Suffolk wanderings, and a younger generation new media curator, Steve Dietz, invited perhaps, to link Eno’s generative and other algorithmic experiments to new media land – which those for whom words are significant may find noticeably shallow and grating after Dillon’s careful eloquence.

At times, the accessible, contextualising essays can seem a tad overdone. Plainly hagiographic, and void of real critical bite, despite Eno's anti-heroic endeavours, Visual Music can look like yet another celebratory, almost 'great man' art book. The narrative moves design and chronology-wise from simple student experiments near the book's outset, through Eno's very funny lecture contribution, Perfume, Defense, and David Bowie's Wedding, to the last picture section; 77 Million Paintings beamed onto the Sydney Opera house's facades, is a kind of climatic finale to the story so far. Eno at the opera house is illustration enough of the paradoxes of success. As, of course, is this book.

Kevin Eden traces Eno's Ambient Lightworks in FDR4, within a themed section on Inner Space Luminosities.