Years ago in Montreal, I visited an installation by Brian Eno called the Quiet Room. It was a darkened space in which ambient sound and projected light were continually changing, while remaining more or less the same. Soft chairs and objects from a more natural environment (mainly logs and stones) were arrayed in comfortable clusters through the gallery. It was like an interior park for rest and contemplation.
The most striking thing about the Quiet Room was what happened to people when they came into it. They walked in with the agitation and energy of the street visible in their bodies. They would glance around, walk more slowly, look and listen some more, and then sink into one of the chairs. As the tensions of the day drained out of them, you could actually see them getting the point of Eno's environment.
"I thought it would be lovely to have a place like that in every big city," Eno said yesterday, at the end of a visit to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. The Quiet Clubs (as he prefers to call them now) would take over the function that used to belong to parks and churches, before they got too noisy or too charged with conflicted meanings.
Eno's enthusiasm for the Quiet Club has so far resulted in several other gallery installations, but only one nearly permanent site, in a museum near Innsbruck, Austria. In the decade it has been running, about 2.5 million people have gotten quiet with Eno's help.
The Quiet Club may be the least-known part of Eno's career, which has involved collaborations with U2, David Bowie, David Byrne and Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, and Roxy Music, the art-rock band with which he made three influential albums in the early seventies. But Eno's installations are perhaps most representative of his desire to change our relationships with music, and with the world.
His lecture on Tuesday at the Perimeter Institute (a physics think-tank initiated in 2000 with $100-million from Research In Motion founder Mike Lazaridis) focused on what those relationships are, and could be, expanding from music and visual art to include every part of the culture.
"Culture is everything we don't have to do," he said. Eating is necessary, but cuisine is culture. Clothes must be worn, but couture is culture. Haircuts and Shakespeare and early Saxon burial poetry all pose some kind of unnecessary order, he said, that we accept because it stimulates our most distinctive faculty.
"Imagination is the only thing we're really good at," he said. "What we're doing [when we're engaging with cultural objects]is exercising that part of our mind that makes it possible to imagine things being ordered differently, and most importantly, to imagine what's in other people's minds. . . . If something is possible in art, it's thinkable in life."
Eno's sense of the possible has straddled the often antagonistic worlds of popular culture and the kind made for art galleries and concert halls. In all his roles as musician, producer and creative midwife, his most essential trait has been his ability to broker the transfer of ideas from cloistered cultural spaces to forms and media that can engage a mass audience.
He's very open about what he has borrowed, from open-form musicians such as John Cage and Steve Reich, and from extremely orderly painters such as Piet Mondrian. A tiny reproduction of a canvas by Mondrian, given to Eno when he was 10, sparked his interest in art, he said, and became a symbol of the work he most likes to create.
"A lot of my music is very minimalistic, in the way that Mondrian was," he said. "What I like to do is to see how much I can take out, and still have some sort of charge."
One of the big things to be taken out was the idea that the work should be under its maker's control. Eno has made some beautiful music by setting a few simple repeating elements in motion, and letting the irregular cycles of the repetitions construct the piece moment by moment.
"Essentially, the piece makes itself as it goes along," he said. "It could run for several thousand years and it wouldn't repeat. Or it might, and you wouldn't know."
Another deleted item is the notion that attention is expected or required. Eno's Music for Airports (1979) assumes that the listener's attention is a permeable field, with many degrees of intensity. In any case, the spontaneous combinations of a finite number of elements in Eno's ambient works make sustained attention unnecessary. There's no narrative to follow, no climax to expect.
"The whole history of music has had to do with synchronizing sounds, of things happening together," he said. "I think it's more interesting now to reverse that, and to desynchronize sounds."
Tightly organized pop songs are still possible, whether for U2 (whose recent chart-topping album shines brightest on the tracks produced by Eno and Daniel Lanois) or under his own name. Just don't expect him to talk about them, especially not the album of solo songs he'll release on Hannibal/Ryko this summer.
"It's a record of songs, and that's all I've got to say about it," he said. "It's absolute torture talking about things that don't exist for other people yet. . . . I think that music as a sensual object ultimately speaks for itself. I like talking about the ideas, because I think those are transmissible. The ideas I use are very available, and may be used to create other things."
Some of those things may be heard soon in Kitchener-Waterloo, where the Bang On a Can All-Stars play parts of Music for Airports today at Perimeter Institute; and next week, during the city's annual Open Ears Festival, at various locations. This year's festival (April 26 through May 1) includes appearances by the perennially subversive Negativland, post-rock diva Diamanda Galas and the Penderecki String Quartet, as well as a new opera by Tim Brady and John Sobol. For more information, check http://www.openears.ca.