brian eno on ‘structuring ideas’ in improvising

Warren Ellis posted a compelling chunk of Pitchfork’s long interview with musician Brian Eno about the value of “structuring ideas” in improvising. (We’ve added a paragraph from earlier on in the interview…) To listen to Eno’s ‘In Dark Trees’ while you read, click here:

“… we have two different ways of working. One is completely unstructured where somebody just starts playing and somebody joins in and then the other person joins in, and something starts to happen. That’s occasionally what happens. What more often happens is that we settle on some sort of– a few sort of structural ideas, like, “Okay, when I put my finger up, we’re all going to move to the extremes of our instruments. So, that means you can only play either very high or very low or both. And we’re going to stay there until I take my finger down.”

The problem with improvisation is, of course, that everyone just slips into their comfort zone and does sort of the easy thing to do, the most obvious thing to do with your instrument. Luckily neither Leo [Abrahams] nor Jon [Hopkins] are that kind of person. They like going somewhere they haven’t been before. So, I try to make up rules that encourage that. And then of course these improvisations were done to multi-track– we’re working, actually, on Logic– so, sometimes what we would is we would improvise together for a while then we would listen back and find a section, which may be only a minute long, perhaps, and we’d say “Okay, let’s play over that one minute. Let’s maybe put that one minute down five times and use that as the basis over which we work.” We’re improvising, but we’re using some sort of structuring ideas as well.

And some of the other structuring ideas are completely conceptual in the sense that I might say, “Imagine it’s the year 2064 and all digital music has been destroyed in a huge digital accident, an electromagnetic pulse or something like that. So, all we know about the music between 2010 or 2030 is hearsay. There don’t exist any recordings. We’ve read about a kind of music that existed in the suburbs of Shanghai in 2015 to 2018, and this music was played on–” then you specify a group of instruments– “was played on, say, industrial tools, such as steel hammers, and augmented with samplers and various electronic versions of some Chinese instruments. And it was intensely repetitive and played at ear-splitting volume,” for example. So, we then, taking that brief, try to imagine what that music would be like, and we try to make it.”

The gist: that constraints and parameters (what you HAVE to deal with or what you CHOOSE to deal with) can be used as structuring ideas that inspire improvisation…

To sample Eno’s music, click here.

Thanks Lydia Wills!

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