Brian Eno's New Album is a Compilation of 50 years of His Film Music

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Cecily Eno

Fifty years ago, a young and unknown Brian Eno, fresh out of the Winchester School of Art, scored his first movie: a six-and-a-half-minute experimental short by artist Malcolm Le Grice called Berlin Horse. It had no story and was constructed entirely of two short pieces of film. Which was perfect for Eno.

"It's essentially two loops that are running out of sync with each other and projected on the top of one another," he says. "This is what I was doing in music at the time. [The score] was exactly like the film, where it was one loop superimposed on another, two loops not of commensurable length so they don't fit together in the same way. They keep generating different clusters." The music, sort of a fractured calliope tune, has most of the elements that have characterized Eno's long career as a self-described "non-musician" ever since: simplicity, repetition, randomness and fascination with technology plus a willingness to try anything.

A few years after Berlin Horse, Eno would find fame first as a member of Roxy Music and then as a groundbreaking solo artist and producer/collaborator for acts like Talking Heads, Devo, U2, David Bowie and Coldplay. Through all that, though, Eno kept making soundtracks. Now his soundtrack work has been assembled for a new compilation titled Film Music 1976–2020 (due out digitally on November 13 and physically on January 22). The selections draw from such films as Dune, Heat, Trainspotting and a new documentary We Are as Gods about Whole Earth Catalog editor and cyber visionary Stewart Brand.

"I've always liked composing with films in mind," Eno, 72, told Newsweek recently, adding with a laugh, "It's quite late in my film soundtrack career to finally release an album."

Film Music moves seamlessly through different moods of beauty, melancholy, foreboding and tension. Throughout, the delicate, ambient atmospherics of tracks like "Ship in a Bottle" (from Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones) and "Top Boy (Theme)" (from a British TV series) dominate the compilation. But Film Music also contains a few outliers such as the upbeat and rhythmic "Under" (from Ralph Bakshi's Cool World) and a cover of William Bell's 1961 Stax hit, "You Don't Miss Your Water" (from Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob), featuring a lead vocal by Eno. In compiling the album, Eno says he wanted variety—but not too much. "There was attention paid to making it a listenable record," he says, "I never like to make records where it's completely unreliable about what's going to happen next, where it jumps back and forth too much. But there was a lot to choose from, so we had a pretty big menu of stuff to look at."

Eno has long been interested not only in actual soundtracks, but also in the idea of "movie music" as its own genre, music designed to create or enhance a mood while also somehow not calling too much attention to itself. While recording his 1970s art pop albums Here Comes the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and his 1975 masterpiece Another Green World, he began exploring "ambient music"—hypnotic, minimalist soundscapes. These explorations would serve as the basis for his 1978 album Music for Films, ambient tracks for movies which didn't exist (although several of the tracks on the record had actually already been used in real movies).

"In the studio I used to be working on a song all day," he recalls. "And then at the end of the day, I would say to [engineer] Rhett Davies, 'Okay, let's do the film mix.' Doing the 'film mix' meant leaving out many of the more tangible and figurative elements of the music and seeing what kind of sound world you could create from what's left, then slowing the tape down a lot and bathing it in some odd-sounding metallic echo."

"That fed into this notion of ambient music: music that wasn't strictly narrative or constructed around a kind of teleological progression. I think film music for me became a kind of alibi. It said: You don't have to make music that has a center to it. The film will be the center."

Like traditional Hollywood soundtracks, however, the music Eno has made for actual films is intended to fit the movie, however loosely. For instance, when working with the late director Derek Jarman on 1976's Sebastiane about the Christian saint and martyr, Eno drew on early church music. For "Final Sunset," which is included on Film Music , he says, "I just started that piece out with this little bell "'ding,ding,' which just kept time." He adds, "One of the things I'm impressed about when I hear church singing is that the construction is completely dictated by the words, so the length of those notes is dictated by what has to be said within them, and therefore you get very peculiar constructions. So I thought, I'll try something like that with this."

Also on Film Music is the electronic and futuristic sounding "Dover Beach," which was used in Jarman's 1978 dystopian punk-rock fantasia Jubilee. Eno was inspired by the lines from Matthew Arnold's poem: "And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash by night." Eno says that while he recorded the track before Jarman made his movie, "I so much thought the message of that film is of young people being trapped in a turmoil that they can't understand, which they, of course, nonetheless react to. So [it] seemed to fit."

Another Film Music track, "Deep Blue Day," a serene waltz featuring pedal steel guitar, was composed for Al Reinert's 1983 space documentary For All Mankind (it was also later used for the infamous toilet scene in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting.) Eno says the idea was inspired by Reinert telling him that several Apollo astronauts were country music fans who brought cassette players along with them. "I thought that was such a fantastic image," he says, "these guys in this tiny machine, and they're drifting out in space 200,000 miles from the Earth listening to Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. It seemed to be so kind of heart-warmingly American."

Eno says, however, that while he wants to know something about a film's story and setting ("Is it gritty, is it urban, is it pastoral, is it wet, is it sunny?"), he prefers not to watch a rough cut: "Sometimes you make much more interesting music when you don't have a very clear idea of what the music is going to be connected to."

Eno says an early inspiration for that approach was the Italian composer Nino Rota, who scored several of Federico Fellini's classic films as well as The Godfather. "He didn't do the Hollywood thing of really making the music fit to the film," Eno says. "What I really liked about the Fellini films was that the music was another parallel dimension somehow. Sometimes they don't even fit together very well, in the sense that the emotion of the music is almost randomly connected with the emotion of the film. I found it very interesting that you could create these kinds of strange new emotional flavors when the film was doing one thing and the music was doing another."

"It's a little bit like what I was saying at the beginning about being interested in what happens when you don't try to control the combination too perfectly. If you put this piece of music next to this piece of film, something always happens. And if you put a different piece, something else happens."