Born Brian Peter George St. John de Baptiste de la Salle Eno on May 15, 1940, in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England, Eno gained fame playing synthesizers for the British pop band Roxy Music, but has made his greatest artistic impact with his theory of “ambient” music and his tutelage of such pop musicians as David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo, and U2. For someone who describes himself as a non-musician, Eno has mastered diverse musical skills - composing, singing, playing the synthesizer, and editing and producing music for other groups.
Eno originally planned a career in art, studying painting in the late 1960s at art schools in Ipswich and Winchester, England. He felt his art resembled avant-garde music, particularly because he considered the execution of the work more important than the finished product. Eno told People contributor Arthur Lubow, “I found that I was considering the paintings more like performance pieces.” Eno once directed an artist colleague to paint a picture in his absence and then remove it from the studio; Eno then attempted to recreate the picture with the information at hand, such as the paint splashes on the floor and the testimony of bystanders. Ultimately, the paintings were displayed together. Despite the affinity Eno felt for avant-garde music, however, he did not seriously consider a musical career at that time because he did not play an instrument.
In 1971 Eno was invited by a musician friend to record music by a band led by Bryan Ferry; the art student’s manipulations of the band’s music with a tape recorder and a borrowed synthesizer led to his inclusion in the new group, Roxy Music. Eno first performed his manipulations in the audience, but when he began to sing backup he was such a distraction that the group decided to move him onto the stage. To overcome his unobtrusiveness there, he wore flamboyant sequined clothing with feathers, which magnified his small movements at the keyboard. Eno began to rival Ferry as the group’s focal point, which perhaps led to the former’s departure from the group in 1973.
Eno immediately launched a solo career, releasing several successful pop albums in the following few years. He also demonstrated his now well-established desire to create new sounds, experimenting with tape-echo and delay techniques in his collaboration with Robert Fripp on No Pussyfooting and anticipating punk rock with his 1974 single “Seven Deadly Finns.” At this time Eno also collaborated with John Cale and Nico, previously of the Velvet Underground, and Kevin Ayers, ex-Soft Machine member, on the live album June 1, 1974.
When Eno’s lung collapsed in 1974 on what was to be his last concert tour, the performer expressed relief that his frantic lifestyle as an up-and-coming rock star had been interrupted. Never comfortable on stage, Eno decided to concentrate on studio work. His next albums, Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) and Another Green World, were influenced by the work of minimalist composer John Cage. Tiger Mountain in particular received critical acclaim.
Struck by a car in 1975, Eno once again used his convalescence to reassess his career; while inadvertently listening to records someone else was playing, Eno developed his theory of “ambient” music, or subtle instrumentals that blend with the environment. Although sometimes referred to as glorified Muzak - elevator music - Eno’s ambient music is considered quite complex by many critics and thus worthy of close listening. Music for Airports, which played temporarily at La Guardia Airport in New York City, achieved the most widespread popularity of Eno’s ambient albums, selling over 100,000 copies worldwide.
Although Eno had always been considered an experimentalist in the music world, his work on ambient music led him even further toward the periphery of pop. Nonetheless, Eno’s influence on pop music perhaps increased during this period due to his production work with mainstream stars David Bowie, Devo, and Talking Heads, all of whom were inspired by Eno’s theories and techniques. His hallmarks can be heard on David Bowie’s Heroes, Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, and Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, all of which Eno helped produce.
Eno has always made great use of tape recorders, employing them to manipulate recording tracks that vary from traditional vocals to stones rubbing against metal. Talking Heads’ David Byrne told People contributor Lubow, “He doesn’t approach music in a traditional way – ‘We need a hook line here and eight bars there.’ He takes concepts often expressed in nonmusical terms and applies them to music.” Eno himself explained to Lubow, “Tape makes music into a plastic material, which is why someone like me can make music. Once it’s on tape, I can rearrange things, and I can make sounds that aren’t available from any instrument.”
Eno elaborated on this technique in the African-inspired My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a 1981 collaboration with Byrne. By stripping various vocal recordings of their context and combining them with instrumentals produced by everyday materials like ashtrays and lampshades, Eno and Byrne created what Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone called “the most compelling example to date of what might truly be called one-world music.” Loder also commented that “a major marvel of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is the way percussion and melody have been melded into a single, unifying force.” The African influence apparent on Bush of Ghosts prefigured a craze for what would several years later be termed “Worldbeat” music.
In the 1980s Eno concentrated primarily on his ambient music, which he released through Opal, a label he and his wife, Anthea Norton-Taylor, created. He was associated at this time with a variety of musicians, including his guitarist brother Roger and pianist Harold Budd, both of whom worked with Eno on The Plateaux of Mirrors. After glasnost, the Soviet Union’s late 1980s policy of cultural openness toward the West, Opal also issued works by Soviet avant-garde musicians.
Eno has continued to influence pop and rock groups through his production efforts, most notably his collaboration with producer Daniel Lanois on U2’s popular releases The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby. Some musicians who have worked with Eno have complained that he focuses too narrowly on creating individual sounds - one instrumentalist told People’s Lubow that Eno “spent three days twirling hoses.” But in an article Eno wrote for Rolling Stone about his work on 1991’s Achtung Baby, he said, “It’s easy to get stuck in the detailed work of overdubbing, fiddling, and tweaking, but it often doesn’t get you far from where you started. Bigger jumps take a type of nimbleness, the agility to switch back and forth from detail to big picture, from zoom to wide angle.” Of Achtung Baby, Eno revealed that Berlin, where much of the record was recorded, was used as its conceptual backdrop: “The Berlin of the Thirties - decadent, sensual and dark - resonating against the Berlin of the Nineties - reborn, chaotic and optimistic - suggested an image of culture at a crossroads. In the same way, the record came to be seen as a place where incongruous strands would be allowed to weave together.”
Eno’s own release from that period, 1990’s Wrong Way Up, was a collaboration with John Cale that featured Eno’s first songs in thirteen years. This return to mainstream rock seemed unusual for a musician so determinedly experimental, but Eno revealed that he had been recording songs for several years and simply not releasing them. In Down Beat Marc Weidenbaum described Eno’s singing on the record as “deadpan, nearly nasal, ... reminiscent of [his] ‘70s pop albums.” Still, Weidenbaum allowed, “For all its affinity with both Eno and Cale’s early solo work, Wrong Way Up is also uproariously contemporary, and sounds fine on a party tape right alongside the Fine Young Cannibals.”
Eno remained prolific during the 1990s, extending his influence over the expanse of several mediums. In 1993 he released Neroli, an effort Keir Langley of All Music Guide called, “as beautiful and sparse as anything [Eno has] produced to date ...” He composed the soundtrack for director Derek Jarman’s film, “Glitterbug”, in 1994, collaborated with artist Laurie Anderson on a multimedia project titled, “Self-Storage”, in 1995, and published his diary, The Year of the Swollen Appendices, in 1996.
In 2001 Eno designed the “Compact Forest Proposal” for the Museum of Modern Art. A visitor to the project would enter a dark room, “...lit slightly by strings of lights that bring trees to mind, crawling to the ceiling,” wrote Brad Kava in Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. Inside the room, one experiences an electronic fugue composed of gongs and distorted voices, and emanating from eleven compact disc players. “When I started doing what I called ambient music in the ‘70s,” Eno told Kava, “people thought it was ludicrous....” Now, he explained, “it just sounds like normal music.” In 2004 Eno founded a cutting edge digital music service with musician Peter Gabriel.
Although Eno has not achieved the same fame as some of the groups for whom he has done production work, he has played a pivotal role in rock music’s evolution. As Mark Sinker explained in Spin, “Sound-as-pleasured-complicity and sound-as-violent-refusal became the poles of the universe he birthed; the universe that all of us live in, from [U2 lead singer] Bono victims to world-beat converts - Eno invented U2 and Africa, of course.”
In 2000, he teamed with German DJ Jan Peter Schwalm for the Japanese-only release Music for Onmyo-Ji. The duo’s work got worldwide distribution the next year with Drawn from Life, an album that kicked off Eno’s relationship with the Astralwerks label. The Equatorial Stars, released in 2004, was Eno’s first work with Robert Fripp since Evening Star, the 1975 follow-up to No Pussyfooting. His first solo vocal album in fifteen years, Another Day on Earth, was issued in 2005, followed by 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, another collaboration with David Byrne. In 2010, Eno signed to the Warp label, where he released Small Craft on a Milk Sea.
Lux (2012) is one of Eno’s most ambitious works to date; it is a 76-minute composition in twelve sections that evolved from a work currently housed in the Great Gallery of the Palace of Venaria in Turin, Italy. The album is Eno’s third for Warp, following Small Craft on a Milk Sea (with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams) and Drums Between The Bells (with Rick Holland).