In 1976 — three years after he left Roxy Music, one year after he released his dual solo landmarks “Discreet Music” and “Another Green World,” and a year before he expanded the horizons of art-rock with his work on David Bowie’s “Low” — Brian Eno put together an album called “Music for Films.”
“I should have called it ‘Music Looking for Films,’” the English musician, 72, said with a genial laugh more than four decades later, video chatting from the home in Norfolk County, England, where he’s been riding out the pandemic.
“Music for Films” was partly an experimental foray into the new genre Eno was in the process of creating, ambient music, and partly a commercial gambit: An initial pressing of 500 copies were distributed to various film and television production companies. In 1978, after the influential first volume of Eno’s Ambient series, “Music for Airports,” became something of a cult sensation, “Music for Films” was released to the suddenly curious public.
Eno is now putting out a compilation called “Brian Eno (Film Music, 1976-2020),” though he admits he just as well could have called it “Music That Has Found Films.” These 17 tracks comprise only a fraction of his music that has appeared as scores or on soundtracks: “There are quite important pieces, in terms of my film music career, that are missing from this album,” he said. “But they just wouldn’t fit in this particular version.”
The collection, still, is plenty eclectic, including a tense mood piece written for Michael Mann’s “Heat,” a dreamy cover of “You Don’t Miss Your Water” that appeared in Jonathan Demme’s “Married to the Mob,” and the eerily hypnotic “Prophecy Theme” composed for David Lynch’s “Dune.” The plan is at some point to put out another volume or two, barring the apocalypse: “There’s time to do another one — not much time, but a little time!” Eno said with a laugh, peering out from behind black-rimmed glasses.
Across two video interviews this fall Eno promised new (but different) work to come, and spoke thoughtfully about technology, composition and the odd drift of music through a listener’s everyday life. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
In that moment of mass anxiety at the beginning of the pandemic, I saw a lot of people suggesting listening to to ambient music, or simply your music, to calm nerves. What was your reaction to that?
When I started making ambient music, I was very conscious that I wanted to make functional music. At that time, functional music was almost exclusively identified with Muzak — it had a very bad rap. Artists weren’t supposed to make functional music. So, I thought, “Why shouldn’t they?”
And I thought, “What do I do with music?” Well, I use it to make the space that I want to live in. What I generally wanted was an atmosphere. That might be an “up” atmosphere, like sometimes all day I would have Fela Kuti playing. But then sometimes, I would listen to only the slow movements of string quartets. So I started to think, I imagine a lot of other people are doing this as well. Ambient really was a way of saying, “I’m now designing musical experiences.” The emphasis was on saying, “Here is a space, an atmosphere, that you can enter and leave as you wish.”
That was a unique idea at the time that now feels very contemporary, especially with the popularity of streaming playlists. My Spotify home page includes “Music for Studying” or “Music to Clean To” — which of course made me think of “Music for Airports” or “Music for Films.” How has it been to see much of what you envisioned come to pass?
What I’m often surprised by are the things that I didn’t predict. For instance, when I lived in New York in the early 1980s, I remember seeing this composer, Rhys Chatham, walking down the street with a Walkman. It was the first time I’d ever seen a Walkman. And I thought, “That’s a stupid idea. That’s never going to last.” [Laughs.] “Why would you want to walk down the street and not listen to the street?” I completely failed to grasp that one.
When did you change your mind?
Well, in a way, I never have, personally, because I just can’t bear walking around with headphones on. I don’t like it. It cuts you off.
Something that kind of disappoints me is that most of the new technology from the ’80s onwards has been about the atomization of society. It’s been about you being able to be more and more separate from everybody else. That’s why I don’t like the headphones thing. I don’t want to be separate in that way.
I think one of the great drivers of the mess that we’re in now is the increasing atomization of society into more and more individuals and fewer and fewer communities. I want to see ways of communities being built again. Now, of course, the internet has created new types of communities. But unfortunately, it’s done it in connection with social media, which has meant that there’s this sort of … it’s like a very intense form of masturbation. Where everything is self-referential and it’s possible to create communities that are so sealed off from everybody else that they become convinced that the whole world is clearly how they see it.
What do you think is the role of an artist in times like these?
Well, the question of course one always asks oneself is the role to just give it all up and do something useful with your time? [Laughs] Like campaign or become a political activist. So that is a continual question in my mind. But my response to that is to say that it’s not only the immediate future we have to think about, but also the long-term future and what we want that to be like. So I think what artists do is generally a contribution in the long-term rather than the short-term. There are short-term contributors as well, I’m not sure that I’m one of them.
Did you have any formative moviegoing experiences where you were first struck by what a score or a soundtrack could do?
The one I always mention was Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits.” I love the film, but so much of the mood comes from the music. I think it was the first film soundtrack that I bought, actually. And I remember listening to that and thinking music that goes with a film is a different kind of music. It can’t be overspecific. It can’t paint the whole picture. Because it has to make room for the picture! So, it can’t fill in every detail, and film music that tries to do that, that tries to be sort of orchestral music, never works very well for me. Listening to “Juliet of the Spirits,” I thought, this is a new way that music can be.
After that, I was working in studios and starting to paint my own pictures with music, and finding that leaving stuff out was actually the key. Not filling in everything, but leaving certain things ambiguous and vague. That took me into a kind of music that I wanted to make.
Is it true that you don’t like composing to picture, when you’re working on film music?
I’ve nearly always worked by hearing a description of the film, and then starting to work. Quite a few of the films I’ve made music for, I never saw the picture before I finished all the music. And I like that, because I don’t want the music to map totally onto the film. I want the music to suggest — to increase the ambiguity, basically. To expand the film a bit. Not to underline it. Often, and especially with Hollywood soundtracks, the whole point of the soundtrack is to tell you, the dumb sod watching it, “Now you’re supposed to feel sad. Now it’s funny. Laugh! Go on!” And I just don’t want to be in that business of underlining things.
Have any of the filmmakers you’ve worked with pushed back on that process?
When I worked on “The Lovely Bones,” there was quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between me and the director, Peter Jackson, where I would send things and he would say, “Yes, that kind of works, but something has got to happen at two minutes, five seconds.” So that was probably the most specific working relationship I’ve ever had.
But the problem I have is that I have no ability to extrapolate from the early stages of a film to its finished product. Whenever I see films in their early stages, before they’ve been color-graded and everything, I always think, “Jeez, that looks really bad.” I just don’t have that imagination. And I know the same thing happens when I play pieces of music in their early stages to people, and I can see them going, “Huh.” I think, of course, they don’t realize that I’m going to make this do this, and that’s going to be more subdued — all the things that I kind of know you can do with music. So I’m used to listening to music in its crude, early stages and filling in the gaps. But I can’t do it with film at all.
This collection includes “The Prophecy Theme,” which you, your brother Roger and Daniel Lanois wrote for David Lynch’s “Dune.” I’ve read some rumors that you actually ghostwrote the “Dune” score, though it’s attributed to Toto. Is there any truth to that?
I didn’t ghostwrite anything. The only thing I wrote was that piece. This was in the days when people used to fly you everywhere — ugh, I’m glad those days are finished — but David [Lynch] flew me to Los Angeles to see “Dune,” as it was at that point. It wasn’t finished then. And I don’t know whether his intention or his hope was that I would do the whole soundtrack, but I didn’t want to, anyway. It was a huge project, and I just didn’t feel like doing it. But I did feel like making one piece for it, so that’s what I did.
It seems like the material from “Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks” has been used quite a bit in film, beyond just the documentary you wrote it for, “For All Mankind.” Why do you think it’s been so resonant? Do you think it’s become overused?
It’s an interesting question, this one of overuse. Another piece that I co-wrote, “Heroes,” with David Bowie, has been used such a lot and I used to think, “Oh, dear, it’s going to wear it out. It’ll lose its specialness.” But actually, it doesn’t seem to have done that. I suppose I think that one of the most fascinating things about music is its flexibility, about how amazing it is that a piece that was written, in the case of “Deep Blue Day,” to go with a scene of approaching the moon in a spacecraft and flying under the moon, how that actually can also work for [the scene in “Trainspotting” of] somebody diving into a toilet in the search of his drugs. [Laughs] It’s absolutely amazing that the piece can have that flexibility. And I am very happy that it can.
“An Ending (Ascent)” is probably the most used of all my pieces in terms of soundtrack usage. I went through a phase of thinking, “I’ve got to stop having this thing turning up anywhere.” But I’ve stopped thinking that now. I think, well, it works, and it still sounds pretty fresh.
Legend has it you thought up the concept of ambient music during a period of convalescence. Have you had any conceptual breakthroughs during this quarantine?
Actually, when I came here in March, I didn’t do anything musical for about two months. I did think, “Shall I just accept this Covid thing as a kind of deadline and say, ‘Well that’s it, I’ll now retire and do something else instead?’” That’s still an attractive thought. It’s quite nice, the idea that you just finish doing something rather than peter out, which is what normally happens. You just make a decision and say, “That’s it. Now I’m going to work on other things.”
Wow. What would those other things be?
The thing I always sort of put on the back burner, which I like doing and I think I do quite well, is theoretical writing. I’ve just started an essay in the last few days called “Inevitable-ism.” And this is about what I think is the sickness of utopian thinking, this idea that history has an inevitable direction. I’m fed up with inevitable-ism.
But you did start making music again at some point in the pandemic.
When I’m in London, I have my studio there, and I go into the studio every day. But I thought, maybe I should get some of my gear from London, so a friend of mine drove some stuff down. I still haven’t been working as much as I normally do, but it’s sort of ramped up recently.
What I’ve found is that I’m listening much more. I always work a lot, I’m pretty compulsive with working, but I don’t spend that much time listening. I have this huge archive of unreleased material. It’s enormous. And I’ve started listening to things again, some of these pieces are 20 or 30 years old. I’ve started hearing them in a different way. So one of the things I’ve been doing here is taking pieces from the archive and actually working on them further. Suddenly diving back into a piece that I’d completely forgotten about from 16 years ago or something like that. It’s so unfamiliar, like a piece by another person, actually. So I feel I’m sort of collaborating with my various old selves. These sort of enthusiastic strangers who walk into the studio from 1995 or something like that.