Roger Eno

Ambient composer Roger Eno, who has recently released a new album, ‘The Turning Year’, talks about cultural awakenings, blissful pottering and the beauty of stillness

photo: cecily eno

A CHANCE MEETING

“I failed the 11+. That meant going to a school for people who lifted heavy things – basically a blue-collar place. I was in tears. My dad and I went to a comprehensive school for a visit. In the music room, there was a cornet on the table. I picked it up and instantly knew I was going to be a musician.

“When it came to finishing secondary school, I was in a quandary about what to do. There was a geography teacher who happened to be a tuba player and he said, ‘Well, have you thought about going to music college?’. No one had mentioned that in all the time I’d been at the school.

“At college, the world opened up for me because I discovered literature, poetry and art. I met people who thought about interesting stuff. It was purely due to an accidental conversation in a corridor. Without that, my life would have been completely different.”

GOIN’ TO THE CHAPEL

“I try to leave where I live as little as possible – I’m completely at home here. The area is full of hundreds of remote medieval churches. You’ve got wall paintings dating from the 14th century and all these fragments of history. The Reformation whitewashed over all of them, but there are parts where the whitewash has come off and it’s not been restored, so there’s a ghost of the past in these places. You can turn up at St. Ethelbert’s and just go in and ring their three handbells. It’s as close to the Middle Ages as you can get. This is a huge influence on my work.

“It’s the concept of becoming isolated ‘in a place where prayer was once valid’ – to use TS Eliot’s phrase – it’s almost like something beautiful is in those walls. Much of the time I’m either on my own or with my dog. We can be there in stillness. The idea of stillness is getting somewhere where you can be comfortable with yourself. You can close down for a bit and not have your thoughts guided. They can just ramble on.”

ON TWO WHEELS

“I ride a Kawasaki W650 motorcycle. I didn’t buy it for speed – I had a Yamaha 600 that went faster, but I didn’t like the sound of the engine. The Kawasaki’s just got a really comfortable sound, and is a delight for the area that I live in, right on the border of Suffolk and Norfolk. There are lots of hardly used roads and narrow lanes nearby. I putter around looking at primroses growing with this nice little noise under me.

“I also love cycling really slowly in the countryside. When you cycle, you can just look over the fields and be in the place with no motor noise whatsoever. I hate rushing around. I’ll often take our Bearded Collie Ted out for a run beside me. I live a sort of blissful existence, and I want elements of that to transmit to other people through my music.”

SATURNINE LIVES

“One of my favourite books is ‘The Rings Of Saturn’ by WG Sebald, from 1995. I re-read it every summer. It’s about a walk that Sebald took in the area I live in, so I know all the places he visits. He got a train from Norwich to Lowestoft and started walking inland from the coast.

“At its heart, the book is all about death, transience and decay, and how pointless it is imagining that whatever you’re doing now will have any effect in the long term. It’s human arrogance making us think we might have any real impact on a serious future. I’m constantly thinking about passing time, realising that I can do nothing.”

STAYING ON POINT

“I like the form of poetry, where you have to keep everything succinct. If you try to describe something, you’ve really got to get it right, because it isn’t a novel. Cutting down on your weaponry, in order to target things properly, is a notion that intrigues me and one that I constantly use in my music.

“Most of my compositions start from improvisation, and then I’ll realise there are a load of unnecessary notes. A lot of my work is really subtracting rather than adding into it, to the level where I call myself a ‘decomposer’. I think that might go on my gravestone.”

EASTERN PHILOSOPHY

“At some point in my life, I began to get interested in Eastern thought, in particular one part of Japanese philosophy, which basically says that emptiness is a thing in itself. If you draw a circle on a piece of paper, Western eyes will instantly see the ring that makes the circle, whereas Eastern cultures are much more likely to see the void than the line that delineates it.

“There’s also the beautiful Japanese concept of kintsugi. If you drop a china pot, you don’t throw it away, you repair it with gold to show where it has been broken. So, you make the break a feature and beautify the fact that this object has changed. I think that’s a really remarkable way of looking at things.”

MIND THE GAP

“In a lot of my music, hardly anything happens. You can view that either as being open or as being vacuous. The person’s opinion is critical to how that piece appears to them. Not all of the information is given – there’s a lot less there to help the listener decide what it’s actually about.

“Hence, I leave space and use it as a compositional tool. Space has a specific timbre – there’s this big gap with nothing happening. The listener has to think, ‘How do I feel about this? What does it mean?’, and that’s when they take over and have a say in what the composition is.”

‘The Turning Year’ is out now on Deutsche Grammophon

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