I think there is much to learn from this year
A transcription of Brian Eno’s ‘looking forward and back’ session on BBC 6 Music on New Years Day 2021 )with Shaun Keaveny and Brian Cox)
On Technology and Zoom
Q: How can technology and screens be an advantage. 200 years where is this pointing. Do you think road pointing to being less social, people working from home or hurl ourselves more gleefully together after vaccine?
“At the moment I think it is working very well. I have spent the last nine months in Norfolk very isolated but having conversations with amazing people all over the world without going anywhere. Didn’t even have to get on my bike. I am talking to Yanis Varoufakis and Noam Chomsky…all sorts of people who are all sitting at home and I think that is incredible. I have been able to be at meetings with half a dozen people in six different places on earth who you would never have been able to get together in a room otherwise, it would have involved flights and hotels and arrangements and so on. It’s really fantastic.”
On lessons from Covid
“It depends whether we really look at 2020, the year that has just gone as a disaster or whether we think of it as a kind of learning moment and I think there is much to learn from this year and, in fact, perhaps I could just list a few of those.
For a start we have discovered that women tend to run countries better than men do. All of the countries that did really well in this pandemic are run by women and all of the ones that did really badly were run by very macho men, England, USA, Brazil, Philippines, India.
All of those are models of kind of male style government. They really made a mess of dealing with the pandemic. So it would be good if we learnt lesson that we don’t need macho men to run things. We need people who can cooperate and who are humble in the face of evidence, who don’t think they can beat it just by being he-men.
The other thing we can learn is who is actually important in society. We had this thing this year of discovering who essential workers actually were and also discovering that they were inevitably the people we paid least. So I think if we even just learned those two lessons, that we are rewarding the wrong people.”
On science and climate breakdown
Q: Can we see more youngsters going into science, science degrees, as superheroes …turning these vaccines around so quickly ?
“I think so, yes. I mean again respect for science which was starting to suffer because of people who still gave the impression that good old British common sense would be better than science. We just have to lose those ideas. But the rest of Europe, I think has realised a lot of things.
For instance, did you know that they have just almost finalised a European Green Deal which has a commitment to spend $7trillion in the next few years, pounds or Euros probably, on climate change. On dealing with climate change and all new European legislation has to be looked at through that lens. It has to conform with the Paris agreements. So this is an incredible step forward I think. Unfortunately, we won’t be part of it.”
“What we need actually are more people imagining. We need to be talking about educating people to be imagineers. That’s what Disney used to call the people who invented things for them. We need to be educating people to be able to imagine and you can either do that in the sciences and you can do it in the arts as well. They are both ways of getting people to use that facility that all humans are born with, but which requires constant practice and rehearsal.”
On Universal Dividend
Q. Millions of people have lost jobs and livelihoods. Universal basic income… was furlough a version of this. Is it a positive first step of levelling up?
“Yes, definitely. One of the other interesting things about this year is the proof that, quite contrary to what was said until this year, it is possible to create money when it is needed. There was all that stuff in the Press a couple of years ago when Corbyn was talking about various reforms and they were saying:
“Oh, so where’s the money tree, Jeremy? Where does it all come from?”
Well, it turns out it’s quite easy to create money, it’s just a question of deciding to do it. I think actually Yanis Varoufakis has a nice idea, which says it shouldn’t be called universal basic income, it should be called universal dividend. So the idea of that is we are in this society and all the wealth in the society has been created by all of us doing our different things and this is a dividend that we all get from it. So I like the idea it being something we deserve rather than something that is granted to us. And I think that solves a lot of the philosophical problem that people have with it that we don’t want a society of spongers. The first thing that would happen if you had a universal dividend is that people would spend a lot more time doing the kinds of things they want to do like building communities, making their neighbourhoods work, meeting up with each other. I think there would be a lot of energy for that.”
On the passing of time and the now
Q. You saw the rise of Donald Trump a long time coming? Tell us about the 10,000 year clock and the Long Now Foundation. It counters the basic idea of looking at things in four year snapshots if you are a politician… let’s start looking at things in a longer, deeper time.
“Yes, well politicians look in much shorter snapshots than that. They are looking at tomorrow’s opinion polls. They are looking at tomorrow’s headlines. So much of policy is dictated by what the press are going to say about it tomorrow. What happened the way the Long Now Foundation started was a few friends, mainly Americans except for me, were talking about how strange it was that we are now making computers that work in periods of time that are so short they are almost impossible to understand. Terra flops, and things like that are incredibly fast computers, so we are thinking in increasingly short periods of time.
And yet at the same time, we were starting to think this in the early 90s, we were coming up to the year 2000 as if that was the future and there was nothing beyond it. No one had any idea what would happen past that horizon. So Danny Hillis, one of our members, thought what we need is really a monument to Long Term Thinking. We want something that will put in people’s minds that humans might be here for another 10,000 years. If we know that and really believe that we are going to be inhabiting this planet for another 10-20-30,000 years, how does that change what we do now?
So we decided to build this 10,000 year clock in a mountain and it is nearly finished actually. It will be finished in January I think. Or it will be opened in January. It is a huge thing. It will be 580 feet high and it will be run for 10,000 years. It is made out of huge titanium gears and cogs. It’s a mechanical clock so it can be repaired, it resets itself according to the position of the sun, so if it gets ignored for 250 years it doesn’t really matter. As soon as it is wound up again it will know where it is. It’s built in a limestone mountain in Texas. It has a peal of 10 bells and it has a peal that I wrote, so every day for 10,000 years it will have a different combination of those 10 bells. It turns out that 10 bells, the factorial 10 is about the same as the number of days in 10,000 years. You can create 10,000 days worth of a different melody each day with 10 bells.”
Q. So it’s now time put some of our smaller differences aside and work towards a more collegiate togetherness …?
“That’s the hope I think - and I think again the experiences of this year have shown us that this is not optional, this actually what we have to do. Brian Cox as an astronomer will know a lot about zooming out. Not a lot of humans know that much about it and don’t do it that often.”
Photo : Cecily Eno
Q: The great lives of some of our musical heroes. Who’s life would you want to find more about?
“You know somebody I have been finding more and more engaging recently is Joni Mitchell. I realise that, in a sort of sexist way because she was a woman, I didn’t take her completely seriously in her heyday. I now think that she was probably the greatest songwriter of the 1970s. Although I loved her records and so on, I didn’t put her on the pedestal I think she deserved. I think her body or work is so powerful and so strong, so I would love to know more about her actually.”
Q. Work: just to quickly talk to Brian about you and your brother Roger’s ‘Mixing Colours’ together: Roger would compose pieces using media technology and he would send you the files and then you would retrofit the sounds and produce the music years after he had written it. Is that basically what you did?
“He would send me midi files. For people who don’t know midi is it’s basically a little piece of information which says what his fingers did, when they did and how hard they did it. That’s basically midi information. Once you know that you can apply that to any electronic keyboard or any electric instrument. So he would send me the file of him performing one of his pieces and then I would take the file and create the sound that he was playing and sometimes I would reverse the file or turn it upside down or change all the Es to F-sharps, or something like that. It was really nice and something I used to do on train journeys. I can work very well on the train on the computer and I used his pieces as a way of passing time on train journeys and the record came out right at the beginning of the pandemic, lock down, and I think it was a very good record to appear at that point in time. People enjoyed it I think.”
Q: Wasn’t it true also that people retro-created film pieces to go along with the music?
“That was so nice. When we released the album I had already made a few films looking out of the window of trains so I would put my phone up against the window of the train and film in slo-mo part of the journey. So when we released the album we put those films out as well and then we thought what about having a kind of competition where we say to people “what about you make some films” and so we put that word out and we received something like 1,800 films and some of them are so beautiful, so gorgeous and as we had decided to run it as a competition, I had to sit and watch 1,800 films.”
Q: It’s like making music for a film that hasn’t been made yet. Like the cart before the horse?
“Yes, doing it the other way around.”
Q: Brian, you played the Hollywood Bowl didn’t you?
“Do you know what, when we toured America, this was in the early 70s, I have such hazy recollections because I was always paired at all times with other bands so we were always the support band in those early days and we were supporting kind of strange, inappropriate companions like Jethro Tull and Humble Pie. The audiences were people who had come to see those bands and they would often throw cans and bottles at us. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience really.”
“I can remember we once in 1972 we played in Charlotte, North Carolina and before we went on stage the promoter said that do you know this has the highest homicide rate of any city in the world, in the world! We went on stage and there were armed policemen each side of the stage looking at us playing and they were there to escort us on and off. It was pretty frightening.
Q: Did you not feel like taking all the gold and make up off and wearing just lumberjack outfits and playing rock and roll?
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the lumberjack outfits with us. It was only feathers and sparkly things.”
Q: Did you feel that you were having to fit into a record company’s vision of what you should be or did you manage to resist all that?
“We were very lucky in the sense that we were what we were right from the beginning and we were signed up on that basis. I never felt that there were compromises and I haven’t really done, at any point in my career, I have just carried on doing what I like doing and luckily people have accepted it. It hasn’t done too badly so the ball keeps rolling, you know.”
On a Better Future
Q: Can we all harness the power of our subconscious minds and intentions to create a better future?
“One of the lessons of the pandemic time is a lot of people have discovered that they are a lot more creative that they thought they were. They have suddenly had a chance to do it and in fact a reason to do it because there was nothing else going on. People had to start inventing things, doing things, cooking, making things, entertaining each other. So I think there has been a really interesting unleashing of normal creativity, people suddenly being galvanised into action. I think it’s connected to something I said earlier that we are in the middle of the biggest social movement in human history. The first time ever that so many humans have been engaged in the process of trying to imagine a new future a different future instead of just being caught up in the momentum of whatever was going to happen anyway. For the first time ever millions of people are thinking, ‘hang on, we have to take control of this to some extent, we’ve got to start making decisions about it’. It’s what the whole climate change movement is about. It’s about saying we don’t accept the logic of the momentum of the way things are.”
On hopes and wishes
Q: You have to have hope. You have to project into the future positivity. These things are not namby-pamby, they are serious aren’t they? You have to have a positive attitude about life even when it is bleak…
“Yes, well I must say my attitude is more positive now that it has been for quite a long time because I am aware of so much new stuff going on that is really, really thrilling. I’ll just give you an example of a story from this year, 2020 that is interesting. There is an organisation called Client Earth, which is an environmental organisation, a group of lawyers, I’m a trustee for it, and one of their missions is to stop coal-fired power stations. There was a huge one going to be built in Poland. It would have been the biggest coal plant in the world, and two of the lawyers of Client Earth in Poland bought 70 Euros worth of shares in the company that was building and then they went to the shareholder meeting as they were entitled to do. They presented a report they had written to show that coal was an unviable investment in the future and they managed to stop that power station being built. Isn’t that an incredible thing? It’s just fantastic and I think more and more people are cottoning on to this that we don’t have to act through Government every time, but we can do these things as individuals, so I am looking forward to seeing a lot more of that kind of thing.”
Q: Wishes on a personal level?
“It is something I have done before but quite a long time go which is I have started writing songs again which I have not done for a fairly long time so I am not saying this is anything world-changing but I want to see whether you can write songs now that say something to now.”
Q: Will they be vocal and lyrical?
“That’s the idea. Perhaps I should not talk about it too much until I get further with it but that’s the hope.”