Sitting in a room

Brian Eno’s “illustrated talk” was funny, interesting, and defiantly low-tech. These are the bits I can remember.

Disruptive Discoveries

“At the top, the Englishman. Then, in order, come horses, dogs, children. Then women, and after that – the French.”

He started by talking about three discoveries which disrupt the conception we have of our place in the Universe.

Heliocentrism was only the first step away from a cosmology in which we are at the centre of the world: the more we learn about the world the larger it is, and the more insignificant we seem in relation to it.

“The Origin of Species” demolished the chain of being comfortably enjoyed by the Englishman and we now see ourselves as only one among a huge diversity of organisms.

In the last century work on management cybernetics by researchers such as Stafford Beer has disrupted rigidly hierarchical models of how organizations, including armies, churches, and corporations, function in place of more complex, diffused and interactive systems. Apparently management cybernetics is not where they replace your boss with a robot but I’m not sure what it is.

“into one end, he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other, he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.”

How should we react to the gradual disintegration of these comforting certainties?

Generative Art

A common theme of 20th century art including cellular automata, the paintings of Mondrian, and minimalist musical compositions such as “In C” and “It’s Gonna Rain”: the generation of complex and beautiful patterns from simple initial conditions and simple rules governing the transformations.

Music in which not much happens, or things happen slowly and subtly, create a state in the listener in which small changes have a dramatic impact: the music becomes a collaboration between composer and audience.

Music as painting

it’s a bit like making soup from the leftovers of the day before, which in turn was made from leftovers…”

Eno sees the difference between performed and recorded music as analogous to the difference between theatre and film. A film can try to reproduce a theatrical performance by recording it, but it can introduce new effects via jump cuts, zooms, close ups, different points of view.

“I do not watch Romeo and Juliet from the pit, I look up to the balcony with Romeo’s eyes and down at Romeo with Juliet’s eyes”

With this technology a musician does not need to perform music in real time, but can produce music in the same way a painter creates a painting: editing, remixing, reworking.

Producers in the 60s like George Martin and Phil Spector understood how to use it in the background of their recordings: Eno was interested in the background: what would it be like to make the background into the foreground?

Control and Surrender

His work 77 Million Paintings is immersive in the same way his music is: more like a place than a painting. Eno watches people lose themselves in it.

He suggests that even as our increasing technical sophistication has given us more control over the world around us, the discoveries that accompany it have undermined the sense we have of our own significance, and our response to this is to practice surrender through art, religion, sex and drugs.


We went to see this talk back in 2011. This Arena documentary, made in 2012, covers a lot of the same ground.

Written on May 21, 2017