Eno is also a musical philosopher, someone whose interviews, critical writings and sundry musings about sound, art, and culture deserve to be compiled into a book. (His published diary A Year With Swollen Appendices was hugely entertaining but didn’t capture the full scope and provocative richness of his thought).
It could also be argued that Eno’s most creative phase of music-making, collaboration, and conceptualizing took place during a period in the late Seventies and early Eighties when he lived in New York. 1978-84 were Eno’s surge years, and New York’s art scene and music culture were the climate that stoked his ferment.
“I’ve got this feeling that I really know New York very well and will be at home there... I feel there are two places I’m emotionally based in... One is the English countryside, where I was born and bred, and the other is the heart of New York City.” So said Brian Eno on the eve of his first visit to the city, speaking to Disc magazine in October 1972.
As for Talking Heads, the first album Eno made with the group, More Songs About Buildings and Food, was recorded in Nassau. But the mastering was done in New York and Eno flew in on April 23rd 1978 to oversee the process. He planned to stay a few weeks, taking care of some other pending projects away from UK distractions, before heading home in time for his thirtieth birthday. But New York provided plenty of distractions of its own and as it turned out it would be seven months before he returned to Britain. Recalling, a few years later, this first substantial sojourn in New York, Eno admitted to enjoying the attention he received as a cult figure operating on the cutting edge of rock: “Everywhere I go, people are running up with cassettes... The first five weeks I was in New York this time I had 180 cassettes given to me”. But he spoke also of the stimulating conversations he was enjoying thanks to a cross-town traffic between different fields of art—music, painting, theater, modern dance—that didn’t exist in England.
In late 1979 Eno and Fripp closed in on the idea with a series of tracks called “Healthy Colours” that combined hypnotic drums and warped bass with vocal fragments from a radio program clipping in and of the groove. Although they were eventually released much later on the 1994 anthology Essential Fripp & Eno, the four-part “Healthy Colours” series was originally made for a never-completed album called Music For Healing.
Laswell and Beinhorn are actually given co-write credits for “Lizard Point”, On Land’s first track, but Beinhorn says “I can’t pick out a note that actually comes from me. Maybe it’s in there as half-speed tapes or processed in some way.” Most likely the co-credits are Eno’s way of honoring the first stirrings of a direction that developed during the month-long session. One thing that does definitely make it onto the record is the tape of frog sounds on “Unfamiliar Winds (Leek Hills)”, which came from Laswell’s friend Felipe Orrego, who recorded them in Honduras.
Beyond musical affinities (Material’s own avant-funk evolution paralleled Bush of Ghosts) Eno had opted to work from the group’s base in Gowanus in part because of a longstanding inclination to avoid expensive recording studios, where time-is-money pressure could paralyze creativity. The cheque for a month’s time in advance Eno gave Bisi actually enabled the aspiring producer, then only 18, to equip the place. After that session, however, Eno created his own workspace in his new apartment, a large loft on Broadway and Broome that he bought and moved into with his girlfriend Alex Blair and their cat Poo-Poo. Although there were other sessions at proper studios-- in New York, in Ontario, in London—much of the work for On Land was done in this mini-studio.
Upon its release in 1982, Eno described On Land as an attempt to conjure up the atmosphere of the Suffolk countryside of his childhood: desolate and melancholy, but also familiar and comforting, “a nice kind of spooky”. He told Musician, “that mood is very much a feature of the environment where I grew up. It's a very bleak place and most visitors find it quite miserable. I don't think it's miserable but it's definitely a sort of lost place in a lost time--nothing has changed in this part of England for many hundreds of years.” His goal was to create a heightened version of this landscape of memory, partly by using audio-tricks that were non-naturalistic (a 70-second echo, for instance). He titled “Lantern Marsh” after a phosphorescent marsh in East Suffolk that he had seen on a map but never actually visited. Other titles and sounds had actual memories attached to them. Leek Hills, as in “Unfamiliar Wind (Leek Hills)” was a wood in which he used to play, while “The Lost Day” featured a “little bell sound” that worked on Eno like the audio counterpart to Proust’s Madeleine cake. On a Christmas visit to his parents in Suffolk he discovered the reason why it attracted and affected him so much: he went for a windy walk along the river Deben and heard the sound of “the metal guy wires banging against the [metal] masts of the yachts”. It was virtually the same sound that he’d generated using a Fender Rhodes electric piano played extremely softly. A sound that tugged at his buried memories with uncanny power. Hence the title “The Lost Day”, so close to Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.
Some of On Land’s glinting, diaphonous music soundtracked his first major video work, Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan, which comprised glacier-slow images of the New York skyline at sunset captured from the window of his downtown apartment. Both the audio and video reflected a desire to slow down the city’s hyped-up metabolism, transform New York against its will into a more tranquil and ethereal place. “Medieval” was a sideways allusion to an experience of culture shock and stimuli-overload in Chinatown, when his senses were assaulted by strange smells and sounds. Eno decided that to survive in the city he needed to imaginatively transform the place into something less overwhelming for a Suffolk native raised amid the “aloneness” and “very slow pace of things” that characterized that unpopulous coastal region of Eastern England. The idea of New York as a “strange, medieval, huge complex town in the middle of nowhere ... suddenly it made the place tolerable for me.... You can easily live in New York and just see the mess of it. I wanted to make it mysterious again.”
Eno had started messing with video back in 1979. His first installation was accompanying a Frippertronics performance at the Kitchen (Fripp dubbed it “video Muzak”). The early roof-scape work was also shown at Grand Central in early 1980 and at La Guardia to accompany an airing of Music for Airports. Eno also used a Polaroid snap of “video feedback”, created by pointing the camera at its own monitor, as the cover for Bush of Ghosts. His interest was to create what he call “video painting”: something that could be left playing in someone’s living room, watched inattentively or not at all, working (like ambient music itself) as a tint in the environment, closer to perfume or incense than a narrative-based artform. The concept was hatched partly in opposition to how rock videos had evolved. Pop promo directors “all think if we want to make a thing interesting we've got to put more and more action into it. But that just gives you a blur which takes maybe five watches to work out, and after that you don't want to see it again. My solution to this problem was to take the video away from being a short film, a little story and turn it into something beautiful to look at, like a picture.”
His last North American musical projects—Apollo: Atsmopheres & Soundtracks, made to accompany Al Reinert’s film about NASA and the Moon landings, and The Pearl, made with Harold Budd and Daniel Lanois—were both recorded in the relative seclusion of Hamilton, Ontario. There was also a video painting of a nude woman, shot in San Francisco, and designed to accompany his most vaporous ambient album yet, Thursday Afternoon.