Reading is one of the great mechanisms to occupy and entertain the mind, one which is especially relevant in times of such uncertainty. Brian Eno, a creative enigma whose influence in modernising music is impossible to measure, is a visionary artist has been at the forefront of music for over 40 years. He’s an operator like no other and, unsurprisingly, his taste in literature is equally as exquisite as the sweet music that he creates.
Eno, undoubtedly one of the most important figures that the British music scene has ever spawned, a huge instigator in the progression of popular and alternative music as we know it, who has worked closely with David Bowie, Roxy Music and countless other innovators, is also a supreme intellectual. When he’s not making magic in the studio, Eno has written many essays and contributes to the worldwide conversation with astounding ease, always flourishing a whiff of brainpower with a charming humility. The opinions that he has on the world are not simply generated from thin air, every comment, action and decision is well considered as and backed that his vast research.
Culture is an important currency to Eno, he wants to learn about how other people do things and challenge his own horizons — which is something that could also be said about his approach to music. There is one book, however, that he classed as being the most essential book to read; Alan Lomax’s Folk Song Style and Culture which was originally published in 1968. There was something about this work which sparked a feeling of connection with Eno, partly due to the parallels between his own life and the narrative which unfolds in his book.
“Alan Lomax’s father, John Lomax, ‘discovered’ Lead Belly and many other blues musicians, and made black American music something that people respected and imitated,” Eno explained to The Guardian in 2015 as he spoke at great length about Lomax’s offering.
“Alan spent a lifetime taking his research further afield, recording in remote corners of the globe. In so doing, he began to notice relationships between how people sang and what their societies were like. He noticed, for example, that polyphonic choral singing flourished in matriarchal societies, which also cherished purity of vocal tone.
“Male-dominated societies (pearl fishermen, native Americans), on the other hand, valued strong, harsh, single voices – individualistic narrative voices. Lomax also noticed that the more levels of social hierarchy a society exhibited, the more intervals (notes) in the musical scale they used (think of Indian singing versus pygmy singing).”
Eno continued: “I don’t know whether or not the methods of statistical analysis that underpin the book are sound, and to be honest I don’t really care. For me, it is a most provocative work in that it isolates a lot of the things that singers do in such a way that you can start thinking about them and pondering how they came to evolve and what use can be made of them. It makes you think about music in an entirely different way.”
The book is an analysis of humans more than anything else. It uses non-verbal forms of communication such as dance or song as a vehicle to view the way that we, as people, operate. The theme has been a constant source of inspiration for Eno over the course of his career, especially as an artist who is pioneering, bold and intent on bending generic conventions.