November 11th, 2011

composers as gardeners

Brian Eno on “the composer as gardener”:

Of course, I was also familiar with Cage and his use of randomness, and new ways of making musical decisions. Or not making them. What fascinated me about these kinds of music was that they really completely moved away from that old idea of how a composer worked. It was quite clear with these pieces, for example “In C,” that the composer didn’t have a picture of the finished piece in his head when he started. What the composer had was a kind of menu, a packet of seeds, you might say. And those musical seeds, once planted, turned into the piece. And they turned into a different version of that piece every time.

So for me, this was really a new paradigm of composing. Changing the idea of the composer from somebody who stood at the top of a process and dictated precisely how it was carried out, to somebody who stood at the bottom of a process who carefully planted some rather well-selected seeds, hopefully, and watched them turn into something. What we did have, though, was cybernetics. And I became very interested in the work of a cybernetician called Stafford Beer. In fact, I became friends with him, ultimately. Stafford had written a book called The Brain Of The Firm, The Managerial Cybernetics Of Organization, which came out, I think, in ’72 or ’73. And it was a very exciting book because it was essentially about this idea, again, unspoken at the time, of bottom-up organization, of things growing from the bottom and turning into things of greater complexity.

Now, you must understand why this was surprising at the time. It’s surprising for the same reason that evolution theory is still surprising to most Americans. Which is that the concept of something intelligent coming from something simple is very hard to understand. It’s not intuitive at all. The whole shock about Darwinian evolution is that simplicity turns into complexity. It’s not obvious that that should happen.

What happened in Stafford’s work was that he was talking about organization and how things organize themselves in this new way. And there was one sentence in the book which I think I still remember, he said ‘instead of trying to organize it in full detail, you organize it only somewhat and you then rely on the dynamics of the system to take you in the direction you want to go.’ And this became my sort of motto for how I wanted composition to be.

From a transcript of a talk found here in video & audio (via 3qd)


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