Brian Eno: Composers as Gardeners


At the always-provocative Edge site, Brian Eno presents his lecture on a shift from the composer as an architect "who carries a full picture of the work before it is made', to 'gardener' standing for 'someone who plants seeds and waits to see exactly what will come up'." It's been years since I saw Eno lecture or read his fantastic book "A Year With Swollen Appendices," but he never fails to tell provocative stories that draw from history, philosophy, and art to shed light on not only his own musical evolution but cultural evolution overall. In this essay, Eno talks about the influence of Steve Reich's pioneering 1965 tape music piece "It's Gonna Rain" and Terry Riley's groundbreaking minimalist 1964 composition "In C," so I've embedded those above and below. (The imagery isn't part of Reich's original work.)

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From Edge:

About the time when I first started making records, I was also starting to become aware of a new sort of organizing principle in music. I think like many people, I had assumed that music was produced, or created in the way that you imagine symphony composers make music, which is by having a complete idea in their head in every detail and then somehow writing out ways by which other people could reproduce that. In the same way as one imagines an architect working. You know, designing the building, in all its details, and then having that constructed.

In the mid-'60s, there started to appear some music that really wasn't like that at all. And in fact, it was about the time I started making music, and I found that I was making music in this same rather unusual new way. So that the music I was listening to then in particular, in relation to this point, was Terry Riley's "In C" and Steve Reich's famous tape pieces, "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out." And various other pieces as well.

Of course, I was also familiar with Cage and his use of randomness, and new ways of making musical decisions. Or not making them. What fascinated me about these kinds of music was that they really completely moved away from that old idea of how a composer worked. It was quite clear with these pieces, for example "In C," that the composer didn't have a picture of the finished piece in his head when he started. What the composer had was a kind of menu, a packet of seeds, you might say. And those musical seeds, once planted, turned into the piece. And they turned into a different version of that piece every time.

"Composers as Gardeners"
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