Seed, Flower, Fruit, Rot: Brian Eno Gives a Lesson on Gardening at the ISM Hexadome

Budges forward, farther under the table’s hard gum belly.
‘Hello, hello.’
A little louder, now. The mic cuts out the nudge of his tongue against his upper palate.
Silence on the terraces of turtlenecks and tortoiseshell glasses. A groupie posse here to be severe, to venerate a hero.
‘Shall I invite some questions, or would you like me to recite a poem?’

Brian Eno is seated in the austere theater of Martin-Gropius Bau to speak to a musical serial newly installed in the palatial atrium upstairs, among the mosaic arcades. It croons and drones on overhead, we suspect, as the polychrome circles gridded on the plastic sidings keep swelling and ebbing when there’s no one around to see them, like figures who go on living past a film’s last frame. Eno has coded the central musical phrase, the trunk of an amorphous and amoebic tree, as he so often does, to deny any passage repeats in its cycles. After a fashion, the music makes itself of its own, controlled accord, and every cycle gives rise to lively notes that are similar to, but not quite the same as, their forbears. Seed, flower, fruit, rot. Sew, bloom, reap, stink. Gestate, mutate, so on.

This greenhouse, as it were, for Eno’s madcap botanical engineering is an experiment unto itself of enormous proportions

‘Abstract Formalism,’ with a title as suggestive and evasive as its constitutive sound, will play tonight and tomorrow and the day after that, as the debut and marquee draw to the Hexadome. This greenhouse, as it were, for Eno’s madcap botanical engineering is an experiment unto itself of enormous proportions. Past the columns and the scalloping and the marble stairway of the entrance, visitors to Gropius step into a towering, seat-less, open-paneled hexagon, a little like a gazebo or a tent-frame fit out for giants. The skeletal, bolts-bare structure speaks to its founders’ aims to mobilize the installation and ship it overseas, to other hubs of music’s forward-thinkers. This pop-up quality, though, belies ISM’s commitment to principles and means of audiovisual richness. The hex showcases without boasting too loudly a fifty-two speaker acoustic arsenal, six looming projection screens, and a mandate to reconcile in some sense, amid the nostalgia of Renaissance revivalism, musical and visual oeuvres composed by radical hands.

His interest resides primarily in a showcase of color, of random pairings ‘that are so seductively beautiful that you can’t resist them,’ which disappear forever into an ether.

An hour in, the premiere has set a good tone for the weeks to follow. Eno speaks with a kind of calm passion, taking seconds-long pauses to weigh some phrase or discern a way to loop back into a previous thought. He has loads to say about the molten pot of noise, and the spaces within the noise, convecting slowly out of earshot. This, the fifth iteration of his commissioned piece, was first borne out on March fourteenth, the day that Stephen Hawking passed away. Eno, who counted the physicist as both a friend and a fan, fixed on the image of planets blooming bright out of the dark. It’s a little bit literal, given the rounds neoned against dark fields and light-ringed like eclipsing bodies, but he’s not rigid in the idioms of these pictures. His interest resides primarily in a showcase of color, of random pairings ‘that are so seductively beautiful that you can’t resist them,’ which disappear forever into an ether. In his eyes, their viewers are meant to treat these images, and paintings writ-large, in a manner a little more like the way that they listen to melody, so that over the course of moments, a picture’s dynamisms might curl, crescendo, and recede.

The tides of his synthesizers rely on the same logic. Eno calls it stochastic: he takes some leeway to set a probability distribution for a sequence, but refrains from designing sequences that are in any sense predictive. One gets the gist from an example of his:

So, for instance, to give you an example, let’s say I play a 3- note phrase – dum-dum-dum [ascending] – but then I put in a qualifier that says:

15% of the time, you can raise any of those notes by an octave
20% of the time, you can drop any one of them by an octave
11% of the time, you can raise any one of them by a fifth
14% of the time, you can drop any one of them by 3 semi-tones

And so on.

These blooms of sound awe, they pause just long enough to be internalized, they immolate. Sparse tones stretch unbroken like formidable rubber polymers and conjure likenesses to the listeners rayed all around the carpet: choral arias and gong vibratos, gothic organs detuned by dust, the transporter’s twinkling, ‘energize’ effect beaming up and down from Enterprise. They seem to warp and helix around a steady, two-tone axis that persists for minutes at a stretch, like paper-graphed math functions. Other branches budded from the stem are more foreign, tonal blips that lodge in the ear and shiver down the spine. Among the echoes of terracotta vaults and the outlay of stately speakers, the tremolo of notes over the nerves is eerie and easing in equal degrees.

These blooms of sound awe, they pause just long enough to be internalized, they immolate.

The arcs of Eno’s thinking mirror in small measure the geometries of his music. Within and between his soliloquy answers, he orbits the gravity of some theme, breaks free of said theme to uncoil an out-of-the-way tangent, and just at the moment when it seems he’s gone too far, stretched the thread too thin, he spools back around the massive center. Those meanderings, it becomes apparent, are meant to trace the peripheries of a couple of core ideas, in the way that a regular polygon, as one multiplies its lines, come to reveal a circle.

Clearer to his purposes among those ideas is the self-generation that has come through its recurrence to define his musicianship. Having passed a half-century in designing autonomies in analogue and algorithmic machines, he makes, as above, the process sound fairly simple. Plug in the variables, establish some parameters, press play and let the tape run until infinity or the power goes out. The disposition is clearest when he alludes to other productive works. Some composers, he says are like architects: ‘The architect has the complete plan of the building, and then the builders go and put it together.’Eno prefers to compare his own manner to that of a landscape gardener:

When a gardener works…what they do is they imagine, ‘Well, it would be quite nice to have a plot of Hamamelis over there, and it would be lovely to have Cistus over there, and rhododendrons at the back, there.’ But that’s about as precise as you can become. What you then do is plant the garden, and something comes up, and it isn’t exactly what you expected. And next year, it won’t be the same either, it’s constantly changing.

In addition to the motives for his methods, it’s clear to Eno that such an approach can have radical consequences for one’s politics. Architects carry a whiff of totalitarianism about themselves:

I imagine the society that I would like to see for the future, and then I build it, I put everything in place, and I say, the Council office have to go there, and the police force has to do this, on and on. So it’s built top-down.

Eno, by contrast, prefers to acknowledge the hiding-in-plain-sight reality of social organizing, and he identifies as follows the central conceit of the political:

It’s a constant mess, and what we’re constantly doing is trying to change the conditions at the bottom of the mess, where we live, to make a better mess, and that’s about the best you can do in politics, really, is to make a better mess.

Eno’s appreciation for the imaginative possibilities of anarchism, in music as in decorative arts as in the polis, is broadly linked to an emphasis he places on twinned human capacities for patience and surrender. There is meaning to be made, he suggests, in forfeiting control and being made to wait; it may not matter if Godot ever arrives. The physical spaces where his pieces play map broadly onto the kinds of psychological environments that his music intends to to seed and germinate; unexpected sonic and sentimental arpeggios intrude and recede in parallel. The critical, fertile variable, the mineral that brings the sweetest fruits, is patience:

So the story goes, we’re all losing our ability to concentrate. We’re losing our ability to slow down. One of the things I like about these shows is that they absolutely disprove that. Sometime I have shows where people come in and sit for four hours. Nothing happens, there’s not much going on there, there’s no story. You’re not going to get any surprise. You know that in ten minutes, it’s going to be pretty much the same as it is now, or as it was an hour ago…I want to create situations where you’re quite happy to sit still for a long time, not think about anything in particular, not be told a story, not wait for the next part, because it’s going to give a solution, or whatever, or she will fall in love with him, or they’ll find out who the murderer was, none of that. There will be nothing in the future that different from what’s in the present.

There is meaning to be made, he suggests, in forfeiting control and being made to wait; it may not matter if Godot ever arrives.

This waiting, this steeping, finds ready reception in two passive neural structures that he remarks upon with some reverence. REM sleep and the parasympathetic nervous system provide regular and ample opportunity to further the re-combinatory processing of random variables, to fit the impressions of yesterday (a note played minute ago) and last month (a movement passed an hour ago) into schemata that harmonize conceptual discords or resolve into new forms of sense entirely. Beside the biological heritage of waiting, he suggests as well a ground of his mission in the lore of society:

I think that’s a state of mind that we, historically, do well with. If you think of early humans, that must have been a lot of our experience. Just think of the long nights of Northern Europe. Just darkness for fourteen hours. And all you can do is have sex, and when you get bored of that, you start writing poems.

The black box of mind, as the dark behind the screens of the Hexadome, is all the time making somethings out of nothings. Pyriscenct plants open their seeds in response to heat, as a propagation by forest fire; the soil of Naples, amid the brittle limestone of Southern Italy, owes its richness to Vesuvius; glacial tills, deposited in the trail of slow-motion wipe-outs, are much the same. The synth-wizard titan departs on a round of applause and leaves among his apostles a silence. What might be born in his wake?

I, for one, am waiting still to hear that poem.


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