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Tribute to J.G. Ballard & Brian EnoAuthor: Simon Sellars • Jul 16th, 2008 •
ABOVE: Ballard, late 60s. Photo via The Terminal Collection.
Vermilion Sands is a kind of cross between Palm Springs and Juan-les-Pins, a version of the leisure society we were about to enter, though for some reason we stopped and turned away at the door. Music by Brian Eno, metal foil architecture by Frank Gehry, dreams by Sigmund Freud, decor by Paul Delvaux.
J.G. Ballard, Literary Review, 2001.
Vermilion Sands is a synthetic and synaesthetic landscape of psychotropic houses that respond to their inhabitants’ desires and fears, singing sculptures, and a place where everything in sight seems to glitter, to take on the qualities of crystal, a flickering chromaticism suffusing everything from stairways to hair colour and eye pigments… could there be here a sort of affirmative retort to the insistence that all Modernist or utopian communities inevitably end up in dystopia?
Owen Hatherley, ‘Ballard’s Banlieue Radieuse’.
It is a great injustice that Eno tends to be best known for either the “invention” of ambient music or for putting a slightly avant-garde gloss on sundry rock superstars. His records, and attendant theories, in the decade from 1972 to 1982 exhibit an astonishing range of modes and ideas, from the preening glam rock of Here Come the Warm Jets to the opiated drift of Discreet Music, the apocalyptic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts to the deliberate blankness of Music for Airports. Without Eno as catalyst and protagonist, the landscape of popular music would be a far less interesting place: he popularised, through his own records and work with Bowie, Talking Heads and others, noise, sampling, studio-as-instrument, surface over “depth” and manifold other strategies against what was, by the early 1970s, a form in danger of becoming a hidebound arena of proper songs played on real instruments.
Owen Hatherley, ‘Father of Invention’.
ABOVE: Dionysian Eno. Photo via Kontrapunkt.
In another corner of his mind [Eno] was inventing ambient music. Recuperating from an accident, he asked a friend to leave a harp record on, and the one working speaker let its faint strings blend with wind and bird-song. Subliminally, he recognised that this was music. Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) announced a theory with, as the title suggested, much in common with JG Ballard’s eerie mundane modernity.
Nick Hasted, ‘Brian Eno, the professor of rock’.
SIMON SELLARS: You casually injected something interesting into our correspondence — that you see Ballard and Brian Eno as ‘the two greatest British thinkers of the second half of the 20th Century.’ I’m now going to pin you down and ask you to elaborate.
SIMON REYNOLDS: That’s slightly over the top, isn’t it? I wonder if it really stands up. Then again, as thinkers specifically about culture, in the British context, I can’t honestly think of too many rivals. Certainly as people who came out of the Sixties but came into their prime – as artists and as influences – in the Seventies, they are these towering figures, I think.
One of my fantasy projects that I toyed with for a while was a book on Ballard and Eno. They do seem of a type in some ways and they are patron saints of postpunk to an extent. But the project founders immediately owing to the fact that they are so eloquent about what they do and such brilliant writers, that there’d be zero role for any critic or commentator. There’d be very little to mediate or interpret, as they’ve said it all, so much better. They know what they are doing. I suppose you could historicize them, contextualise them. Ballard with the milieu he emerged out of in the Sixties, which was based around the ICA, right? And Eno with the UK art schools.
In some ways the affinity seems as much temperamental as anything ideas-based. There’s this wonderful Englishness. You imagine they would get on like a house on fire, trading ideas over whisky and soda in the Shepperton living room. One thing they both do is take ideas from science and set them loose in culture, find applications. Ballard is like a British McLuhan, except much better because he’s a far better writer, and a better thinker too – more original, more convincing. Eno is almost like a British Barthes, in some ways.
ABOVE: Ballard, mid-70s. Photo via The Terminal Collection.
SIMON SELLARS: When I interviewed Simon Reynolds, he said that Ballard and Brian Eno are ‘the two greatest British thinkers of the second half of the 20th Century.’ Given that Ballard and Eno are two of your major influences, do you agree with him?
COUSIN SILAS: I’ve never really considered Ballard or Eno as thinkers. To me one writes incredibly atmospheric music, the other writes incredibly atmospheric fiction. Both Ballard and Eno are probably my strongest influences, but their influence is very tenuous, difficult to explain. They both invoke that certain mood of isolation. Isolation is a funny thing: it can be forced upon one, or be self-invoked. It seems in today’s world, the last thing you’d really expect is isolation, and yet even in the busiest of places, there are attributes and situations where one can feel it totally. Self-invoked isolation is where the person chooses to step back, away from all the social interaction and so on, to become, in some respects, a suburban exile. I can relate to a lot of Ballard’s fiction and it’s much the same with Eno’s music, although to a lesser extent — Eno isn’t as consistent, and his vocal albums are something else. I don’t mind them, but for me it’s stuff like Music for Films, Apollo, Another Green World, plus a couple of his ambient albums and the two he did with Harold Budd that contain some of the most moody and atmospheric music there is.
ABOVE: Eno in 1975. Photo via Creative Technology.
SIMON SELLARS: How successful do you think Brian Eno’s Music for Airports was in providing a soundtrack to Ballard’s ‘future cities’? Eno wanted – in part — to reassure travellers who might be contemplating their death in a possible air crash, although Ballard seems to see the modern airport as a self-sufficient organism that already possesses this inbuilt function.
MIKE RYAN: If no airport is using his music, then I guess it was not successful. I own that CD, but I’ve never sat through the whole thing. I just get bored with it. If I want to contemplate death, I want complete silence, which of course we never can achieve. John Cage once recounted his experience in an anechoic soundproof chamber. When he was in there he asked the sound engineer what all that whooshing and thumping was that he could hear. Turned out that it was the blood rushing through his veins and his heart beating.
In regards to ‘future cities’, judging by recent articles by Nick Tosches and Mike Davis, it sounds like Dubai is the city of the future. Eno should do ‘Music for Dubai’ and see if it catches on. Maybe he could be the first Dubai superstar in the post-Las-Vegas world.
ABOVE: Ballard in 1991. Photo by Craig McDean.
ABOVE: Appollonian Eno. Photo by Tom Pilston.
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