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Brian Eno: Visual Music

Rupert Loydell

Christopher Scoates

Chronicle Books, 416pp


Brian Eno first came into public view as the androgynous keyboard player in early Roxy Music. In feathers and plumes, glitter and make-up, he added futuristic noises and textures to their glam rock songs before he abandoned ship, leaving Bryan Ferry captain.

Since then he has invented ambient music, produced albums for a number of bands, including Talking Heads, Coldplay and U2, collaborated with a large number of musicians, made apps, composed the Windows start-up sound, founded a charity (Warchild), and has gradually entered the public's consciousness as a kind of amiable eccentric, a professorial boffin who tinkers with sound and can be relied on to theorise about anything. In fact if you read album credits, scientific or art journals, the more serious music press, or browse the internet at all, you'll find Brian Eno there.

What some may be less aware of is his visual art career, which is what this beautifully produced hardback book documents and celebrates. From early concrete poems and conceptual scores through experimental music videos to installation art and apps, Eno has always worked with image as much as with sound.

Lateral thinking and process are the key to Eno's artistic output. A large part of his music relies on simple systems to produce endless variations; a lot of his initial ideas come from taking a step back and reconsidering the ordinary. Early video art made in New York City used not only the primitive colour controls on Eno's camera, but also relied on the viewer turning the television sideways to make a different shape screen: this as a result of having filmed with the camera resting on its side! Later on, Eno became interested in working with light and realised televisions were easily available sources of coloured light: he laid them on their back and built sculptures on top of the screens, sculptures which glow and flicker and change, luminous in dark rooms. The app Bloom, which many readers will have on their ipad, uses simple geometric forms as a compositional tool to create slow moving music and slowly mutating art, whilst 77 Million Paintings, once installed on your computer, will generate an almost infinite number of slowly changing abstract images from its visual database.

This approach to making art (although Eno has also written and recorded more straightforward songs and music) is rooted in Eno's encounter with Roy Ascott who taught him at Ipswich art school. Ascott drew on the then emerging area of cynerbetics and applied it to making art, challenging students, through lectures, tasks and behavioural experiments, to think differently, to think hard, to consider how and why they made what they did rather than just make it. Eno also met artist Tom Phillips there; he introduced Eno to not only Dada and Fluxus, but to many contemporary and avant-garde composers' work.

Eno was particularly intrigued by Steve Reich's 'It's Gonna Rain', a composition which documents two identical tape recordings of speech slowly going out of sync with each other. This, along with minimalism, where repetition would allow small changes in music to become incredibly important, would prove endlessly fascinating to Eno. He conceived of a music that would change the environment, but also be part of that environment; a music as listenable to as ignorable. He would name this ambient music.

He would also draw on Dada concepts and the oracular I Ching, to allow chance procedures into his work-in-progress. This would often be in the form of collaborations, with other musicians given a free rein, or by using Oblique Strategies, a set of cards he co-authored, with often elliptical instructions on. Eno was one of the first musicians to seriously consider and write about the idea of the studio as a compositional tool, a place where music could be conceived, changed and adapted rather than just documented.

Eno's art is rarely exhibited in fine art galleries, or rarely in any expected or 'normal' way. He prefers to produce what he has called Quiet Clubs: contemplative rooms with light sculptures, ambient music and chairs to recline on. People stay for hours, rather than briefly glancing at paintings in exhibitions before moving on. Other installations, often smaller scale - perhaps just a few screens and speakers - have been placed in hospitals and airports, offering the public a place for reflection and escape along with visual and aural stimulus. In more spectacular fashion, Eno's light works have been projected on the likes of the Sydney Opera House and U2's giant stadium screens.

This superbly illustrated and thoughtful book offers readable and informative essays about, and images from, all of Eno's visual projects, as well as views of his sketchbooks and source material. It bears witness to the beauty, simplicity and complexity of Eno's generous and approachable visual art, and to intelligent and creative thinking.