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"



  1. Stupid question: Does anyone know how tall Brian Eno is?  He looked really short on Colbert recently, and he was standing on something.

    Also, his “My life in the bush of ghosts” with David Byrne is pretty awesome.  Excerpts at

  2. This only reinforces my desire, deeply held since the late-’70s, to bear Mr Eno’s love-child.

    Pity I’m a 53 yr old male.

  3. That photo…

    Press photographer: “Ok, great, stand right there so we can get a good shot of all those keyboards! Put your hand up so it looks like you’re playing the DX7. But face the camera though! Like that! That’s it!”

    Eno (thinking): “Please just die you fucking idiot.”

  4. One of the great things about Brian Eno:  He always explains what he’s up to — which may be exceedingly technical in nature — in language that anyone can understand.  Even though I am a music tech-nerd, I greatly appreciate this aspect of his personality.

  5. Ever since I heard “Music For Airports” back in the mid-eighties, Mr Eno has been a personal favorite, a fondness that only grew as I later discovered his extraordinary solo albums “Another Green World” and “Before And After Science”, as well as how Brian’s imprint was all over so many things I already loved (David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo, etc).

    Many may call Mr Eno an egghead, but as it turns out, he has a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor that can be appreciated in a short “interview” with Dick Flash from Pork Magazine (the segment is titled “Talk To Pork”), concerning Eno’s 2010 solo release “Small Craft On A Milk Sea”, see if you can detect the Easter egg:

  6. Odd video that – all but the first few seconds is a direct lift from Godfrey Reggio’s  Koyaanisqatsi which was scored by another minimalist music pioneer – Phillip Glass (and his music naturally fits it an awful lot better). Would have hoped that whoever put the video together would make more of an effort.

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