The rapid development of studio technology in the 1960s could seem like something of an avalanche, started, say, by Phil Spector, expanded by Brian Wilson, who spurred the Beatles and George Martin, who inspired dozens of artists to experiment in the studio, including Jimi Hendrix. By the time we get to the 70s it begins to seem like one man drives forward the progress of studio as instrument, Brian Eno—from his work with Robert Fripp, to the refinement of almost fully synthetic ambient music, to his groundbreaking work on David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light in 1980.
Eno called himself a “non-musician” who valued theory over practice. But we know this to be untrue. He’s a profoundly hypnotic, engaging composer, player, and even singer, as well as a virtuoso practitioner of the studio recording arts, which, by 1979, he had honed sufficiently to expound on in a lecture titled “The Recording Studio as a Compositional Tool.” By ’79, when Eno delivered the talk captured above at the Inaugural New Music American Festival in New York, he had already done so three times. In 1983, Down Beat magazine published the influential lecture (read it here).
Eno displays the critical acumen of Walter Benjamin in discussing the history and cultural significance of his art form, with philosophically punchy lines like his take on jazz: “the interesting thing about improvisations is that they become more interesting as you listen to them more times. What seemed like an almost arbitrary collision of events comes to seem very meaningful on relistening.” A very Eno-like observation, underlining his central thesis, which he delivers in a measured series of clauses to construct a sentence as long as some of his compositions, but one, nonetheless, with perfect clarity:
In this lecture, I want to indicate that recorded music, in certain of its aspects, is an entirely different art form from traditional music, and that the contemporary composer, people like me, those who work directly in relation to studios and multi-tracking and in relation to recording tape, are, in fact, engaged in a different, a radically different, business, from traditional composers.
How does Eno make his case? Recorded music substitutes the “space dimension” for the “time dimension,” and thus has a “detachable aspect,” it’s portable—and never more so than now. Eno seems to anticipate the current technological moment in 1979 when he says, “not only is the whole history of our music with us now, in some sense, on record, but the whole global musical culture is also available.” This results in a break with the European classical tradition as composers acquire “a culture unbounded, both temporally and geographically.”
Before the development of recording technology in the late 19th century, limitations of time and space ensured that every musical performance was a one of a kind event, over forever when it ended. In the 20th century, not only could recording engineers reproduce a performance infinitely, but with the medium of tape, they could cut, splice, rearrange, manipulate, and otherwise edit it together. With multi-tracking, they could create a unified whole from several disparate recordings, often from different times and places. And, as the audience for recorded music was a mass consumer market, popular musical tastes, to some extent, began to shift the kind of music that got made. (Eno has since expressed highly negative criticism of contemporary music that relies too heavily on studio technology.)
Eno begins rather drily, but once he gets going, the lecture becomes totally engrossing. He covers the mixing of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh, discusses Sly Dunbar and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s studio inventions, and those of his own Another Green World and Music for Airports. He offers a crash course on basic studio technology, and describes owning a recording of a recorded telephone message from Germany that sought apprehension of the Baader Meinhoff gang by playing a recording of one of their voices. He may be one of the most coolly dispassionate artists in modern popular music, but Brian Eno is never boring. Read a transcript of the lecture here.