BRIAN ENO interview
Sight and Sound, Winter 2020/2021
by Simon Reynolds
Brian Eno has been fascinated by the relationship between film and music for nearly half a century. In the early Seventies, he started buying soundtrack albums, in particular Nino Rota’s Fellini scores. The open-ended quality of film music when heard separate from the visuals became a kind of aesthetic ideal, encouraging Eno to drift away from the song forms of his early solo albums towards the sonic watercolours of Another Green World and then onto the instrumental moodscapes of his ambient records.
“Listening to soundtracks changed my ideas about what music was allowed to be,” says Eno via Zoom from his second home in Norfolk, where he’s been sequestered during the pandemic. After leaving Roxy Music in 1973, he and engineer Rhett Davies would work in the recording studio all day. “Just before it was time to go home, I’d say, ‘let’s do the film mix’. And that meant ‘take this material somewhere else’. We might remove most of the main elements – the voice, or the drums - leaving a few elements that were now suspended in space. We might change the speed, slow it right down, or put a really long reverb on the sounds. We never spent very long on ‘the film mix’ but often, at home later, I’d think, ‘that was the best thing we did today’”.
In 1976, some of these ‘film mixes’ were collated for an LP Eno pressed up in a limited edition of 500 and sent out to screen production companies as a “use me please” calling card. Two years later, the album was officially released, with a slightly different track list, as Music For Films. “If you listen carefully, you’ll notice there’s tracks from Another Green World but slowed down to one-third speed,” Eno laughs.
By 1978, Eno had already scored a “truly terrible horror movie” titled, in the U.K., The Devil’s Men, and formed a productive collaboration with Derek Jarman. Used in Sebastiane, “Final Sunset” is the only track from Music for Films that also appears on his new career-spanning collection Film Music 1976-2020. Ranging from a lovely rendition of “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, the William Bell soul song best known in its countrified version by The Byrds, to the glitchy disorientation of “Design As Reduction”, a piece made for a documentary about Dieter Rams, the seventeen tracks have been sifted from some 180 projects for movies and television Eno completed over the past four decades.
Always an early adopter, Eno realized a long time ago that film work might be one of the main avenues through which an experimental musician like himself could get exposure and sustain a livelihood. In recent years, the insatiable appetite on the part of the new streaming services for adventurous television has fostered an equally strong demand for adventurous sounds, making the music supervisor an increasingly creative and crucial figure. It’s been a godsend for musicians impacted by the erosion of record sales, especially the kind of musician who can’t rely on live performance as an alternate source of revenue.
“It’s one of the places that people can do things that wouldn’t ever get played on the radio,” says Eno. “As a composer in the popular music world, you’re always fighting to get anything heard if it doesn’t have a song or a beat. Films are the place where suddenly all the things you dreamed about doing, they can be done. It’s true for orchestral music too. Most orchestral music that is recorded now is for films. Quite a few studios, like AIR in London, survive pretty much on recording big orchestras for movies.”
Eno estimates that 15 percent of his income comes from film and TV work. Sometimes this will be commissioned; other times it’ll be the use of a piece from one of his earlier records. In one case, included on the new collection, it was both: “Deep Blue Day” was originally made for Al Reinert’s 1989 moon landing documentary For All Mankind, but is better known from its 1996 repurposing in Trainspotting, where its dreamy drift incongruously accompanies the junkie Renton’s dive into a toilet bowl to recover some opium suppositories.
“Deep Blue Day” and the other For All Mankind pieces actually came out several years before the Reinert documentary reached screens, as the 1984 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. “The story Reinert told me that got me really excited about the project was about how each of the astronauts was allowed to bring one cassette with them, to listen to during the considerable down time you have traveling through space. Nearly all of them chose country & western music. I found this so charming - people right at the cutting edge of technology, pioneers at the edge of the frontier, playing what was basically Earth frontier music.” That idea led Eno and his collaborators (his brother Roger and U2 co-producer Daniel Lanois) to the sound of “Deep Blue Day,” which entwined shimmering ribbons of pedal steel guitar around a slowed-down Western Swing rhythm, a preset on a device called the Omnichord. Without that snippet of information from Reinert, says Eno, the soundtrack would probably have consisted of “just space music” - amorphous, abstract, absolutely predictable. “It gave us a completely different direction.”
Starting with a kernel of inspiration is how Eno likes to approach composing for film. “Quite often, I will get started on it before I’ve seen anything at all. Before I’ve even read the script. I’ll just have heard the briefest description.” Although he’ll sometimes stick photographs of the movie set (as with Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones) or still images (NASA shots from the lunar missions, with For All Mankind) up on the studio wall, Eno never writes to the film itself. The idea of composing music tailored to precise allotments of time or specific scenes is alien to him. If anything, he’ll operate the other way around, generating a large number of underscores and inviting the film makers to pick as they see fit.
Eno goes one step further with his music for Series 4 of Top Boy, the formerly Channel 4, now Netflix drama about gang life on an East London council estate. “That’s what I was working on this morning. They start shooting next week and this time we’ve decided to try having the music available when they’re shooting. They can use it as a scene setter.” He pauses and chuckles wryly. “We’ll see how that works out.”
SIDE BAR - ENO’S PANDEMIC VIEWING
“I haven’t been watching much at all, but I do like this Japanese program, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories [MBS / Netflix]. It has such an unusual mood. It’s all set in a small Tokyo restaurant that opens from midnight until 7-AM. Each episode is only half-an-hour long and it’s essentially one person’s tale - some odd little story of life, often nothing dramatic. There’s something so calmly human about it. It’s extremely heartwarming and comforting. Everything is at kind of a slow pace. And the production values look like a film I could have made. I don’t think there’s any music in the program itself aside from this song at the beginning of each episode ["Omoide (思ひで)", by Ludens]. A song in Japanese, sung by this rather faltering male voice. There’s something so touching about it, because it’s not a polished, pro voice. Well, he may be a great pro singer for all I know, but somehow he’s managed to project this persona of real innocence. It’s beguiling. The song is such a great mood setter for the program.”