On “Mixing Colours,” Composers Brian and Roger Eno Paint a New Sonic Landscape

Published April 3, 2020

Photo by Cecily Eno.

As brothers and fellow composers, one might suspect that Roger and Brian Eno have been lifelong collaborators. Not so. Both well-known in their field independently—the older, Brian, has been revered since 1978 for his Ambient 1: Music for Airports, while Roger contributed sparse, atmospheric tracks to films like Dune—their latest release, Mixing Colours, marks their first mutual venture. Mutual is a complicated term here; as Brian and Roger tell the pianist Vikingur Olafsson, this album came into being in a comfortably transactional manner, with Roger sending Brian Musical Instrument Digital Interface files and Brian turning them into full-fledged tracks, sometimes without ever consulting his brother on the final piece.

Still, there is a pleasing unity to the record. And although both Brian and Roger are interested in musical timelines—they claim to work in inverted temporal strands, with Roger preferring to pull the past into the present and Brian grasping toward the future—this gorgeous, winding album meets somewhere perfectly in the middle. The 18-track record feels innately suited to drowning out the chaos just outside our windows, painting a colorful musical landscape entirely unmarred by the anxiety of our present moment. Here, the Eno brothers take a break from thinking about the future for a nostalgic look back: at their shared childhood influences, their preferred musical formats, and their distinct but intertwined creative processes. —JADIE STILLWELL

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VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: It’s fantastic to come here and to be on the other side of the camera for once and ask you some questions. As brothers, you share similar DNA. Does that translate into a similar musical DNA? And how does that affect your work together?

ROGER ENO: I think it does, actually. I’m considerably younger than Brian, 11 years, but even with that gap, I find myself arriving at points where he has been or is at the moment. So there is a sort of commonality there. Also in our books, in our reading material, there’s a huge commonality between what we’re interested in, and so there is something familiar, I suppose. Plus, of course, we have the same parents, which means there’s a kind of—cultural is too big a word really—a legacy there. Certainly a musical legacy of what our parents were listening to.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: Why have you not done a full album until now between 2000 and 2020? You’ve known each other your entire lives. Of course, you’ve done work together, but not a full duo album such as this one. Is this your combined debut album, shall we say?

BRIAN ENO: Well, I think it was partly due to discovering this way of working together, which really depends on a particular set of technological possibilities which didn’t really exist 30 years ago, which is MIDI: “Musical Instrument Digital Interface.” Essentially what Roger sends me—to give you an idea of the story of how this record came into being—he plays pieces on a MIDI keyboard. And the MIDI records a track of where his fingers go, and how hard they go, how hard they hit the keys, and how long they stay on the keys. Those are the four things that MIDI records. I often don’t even listen to his piano version of it. I just put the MIDI into my computer and then start thinking, “What sound would work for this?” So we had a very interesting and clear distinction of jobs, which is that he writes the original pieces and then I find the sound for them. And occasionally there are tracks where something a little bit more ambitious happens, like I’ve changed the mode that he’s playing in, so all his E flats become Es or something like that. There’s one piece where I actually reversed the MIDI completely.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: It’s a musical back and forth. Are you really trying to tell me that you did not have one fight in the process of making this album? That you changed things completely and Roger would just find it better? What kind of utopia is this?

BRIAN ENO: A very pleasant one. We didn’t have any arguments at all. In fact, there wasn’t really back and forth. It was just from him to me. And that was it. I never sent it back. Well, I’d send them back sometimes, months later, years later. But I don’t know whether he even listened to them, or if I sent them back.

ROGER ENO: I did listen to them. I can’t speak for Brian, but I have great admiration for what my brother does. I genuinely like his art, both visually and musically, so it’s very easy for me to trust him. I wouldn’t just give them to anyone. “Could you polish this a bit?” It wasn’t like that. There was a piece that I knew Brian was going to add this great weight of beauty to. So it’s very simple for me.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFFSSON: How long did it take to create this album?

BRIAN ENO: Some of these pieces started in about 2005 or 2006. And quite a few of them I returned to a few times over the years. I would find the MIDI file again and try something different with it. So for instance, on the album, there are three tracks that all use the same original MIDI performance.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: “Spring Frost,” “Verdigris,” and “Cerulean Blue.”

BRIAN ENO: Yes, that’s right. All those blue ones used the same MIDI file, that one I first worked on in 2006 I think. I always work on these things on the train. Nearly all of the work on this album was done on trains. It’s because, on a train, I can sit there with my computer and headphones. These pieces are absolutely perfect train music for me. I really enjoy going through the countryside. I’m going through that landscape and then playing with sounds and making these little worlds.

ROGER ENO: The other thing Brian didn’t mention is that when we started this, we didn’t think of an end result.

BRIAN ENO: That’s true.

ROGER ENO: I’ve got my studio upstairs. What my process was is that I’d wake up, go straight upstairs. Put my equipment on and improvise, before you completely wake up it’s quite a good time for that. You know, you’re talking about Chopin, that’s his “opium hours.” That was quite a good time for me. And then I just sent things to Brian that I thought he might be interested in: “This is what I’m up to at the moment. Just little bits like this.” And then he asked me to send the MIDI file along as well, which allowed him to alter it. I don’t know if it was yours or someone else’s suggestion, to make a compilation of these.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: I really didn’t know what to expect, and then I press play and what I hear is this incredible, almost Schumann-esque nostalgia. It’s gorgeous miniatures. Why did you do an album that is essentially a very sort of post-Romantic album and not going in the many other directions that you could have gone?

ROGER ENO: I play lots of different music at home, but there are certain points where I want to release a certain sort of music. So, for example, one album might be folk-influenced, another might be classically influenced. This, I thought, has real staying power. The more you listen to this, particularly with the fabulous worlds that Brian has created, you can really walk into this enormous landscape and stay. That’s why I wanted this out, because I think it’s substantial.

BRIAN ENO: But also I think, because of this way of working, the mood, the sort of emotional landscape of these things is very much dictated by the original keyboard performance. It would have been possible to put howling electric guitars in, but why? I like these moods that he creates, and I just felt that I was “painting them in,” if you like.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: Are you looking back or forward with this music?

ROGER ENO: That’s an awkward one. There’s a timeline we both follow. But I’m interested in the past to the present and Brian’s interested in the present to the future. So that’s why this works, because I’m kind of drawing on definite harmonic, melodic influences like Schubert, I’d say, more than Schumann. And Brian then takes that narrative and puts it somewhere that people can kind of get to.

BRIAN ENO: What’s interesting is when you are in both of those places, the past and the future. What has happened in the last 50 years of electronic music is that there’s been a huge emphasis–exploited almost entirely by pop music and hardly at all by classical music–on the new possibilities of instrument color, timbre. If you think about classical music, the clarinet represents this tiny little oasis of sound and the viola is another thing and the piano is another, but nonetheless there are little islands in the world of all the possible sounds that you could make. What’s happened with electronics is that all those spaces in between have been filled in with new sounds that never existed before, and lots of others that nobody even imagined. So suddenly there’s this huge palette of colors. It’s a little bit like if, from say the 1950s onwards, there had suddenly come into existence thousands and thousands of new paint colors. Can you imagine that you go down to the paint shop and there’s a color you’ve never seen before? It doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t look like anything else. Sort of browny, pinky, greeny, bluey. It’s only in pop music that that has been recognised, that the material of contemporary music more than anything else is timbre. It’s not really melody. It’s not really structures. It’s beats.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: Working with incredibly beautiful electronics. I suppose that’s a small niche of the whole, that I know…

BRIAN ENO: But they’re part of the world I’m describing. I mean, they’re not pop music. I admit, they’re not really classical music either. They’re recognizing that the paintbox is suddenly infinitely larger than it has ever been before. Every day I read about new software, or I help develop new software, which is expanding this ever-growing field. It’s like a universe is opening up. To take all of those techniques that have really been developed in pop music and then apply them to a beautiful, calm, rather nostalgic music like this, I think is unusual and produces a very interesting result.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: I did some research before this interview. There was a very nice podcast radio interview with you, Brian, from 1988 where you’re talking about the cassette and how you dream that you know you would not be confined by the limits of the 70-to 80-minute format that the CD has. Here we are. You said you wanted to have the possibility of releasing eight-hour-long music works, and you’ve just released an album that’s a little bit shorter than a lot of CDs. Are we still being confined by the limits of the format, or is there some other reason why people are still releasing works that are more or less fitting on an LP or CD?

BRIAN ENO: Well, first of all, no format becomes obsolete, really. Every format has its place. If you want to listen to an eight-hour-long piece of music, you can come to my studio and do so. There are ways of doing that, but the concept of a very long piece of music doesn’t get rid of all short pieces of music. And it doesn’t get rid of your desire sometimes to have a 20-minute listening experience, or a three-minute listening experience, or a two-hour listening experience. So all of those old formats survive. Of course, whenever a new format appears, people get very excited about it because there are new possibilities there. People write about it as though everything else is now old-fashioned and you don’t have to think about it anymore. But actually nothing goes away. New things just keep getting added.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: We haven’t even discussed the obvious point: Mixing Colours. These are very, very specific colors. Do you guys have this sense of synesthesia? Do you associate pitch with specific colors or single colors?

ROGER ENO: No, I don’t. I like the idea of having names of colors that you don’t have to associate a phrase like “the old road” or something with. That you then focus on and that would be your mental vision. When you have the name of a color, you have a kind of atmosphere, but it’s a non-specific atmosphere.

BRIAN ENO: In fact the main title, “Mixing Colours,” was the title of one of the pieces that Roger sent me, so that’s where that title came from.

VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON: Do these two paintings on the artwork have a special significance for you? Why did you choose them?

ROGER ENO: The artist is a friend of mine, now a friend of Brian’s, who lives very close by, and who I’ve known about 20 years. He’s one of my favorite painters. His name is Dom Theobald. I wanted to get Brian a present one year, and I thought one of Dom’s paintings would be good. I said, “It’s best that you choose it.” So Brian chose one of these paintings on the cover of the album. It’s one of those images in Brian’s house. I like Dom’s work because it’s kind of like you can see something’s going on there, but it’s abstract–he uses cartoon images of shoes and boots and chairs and all these sort of things, but you don’t quite know what the story is.