Brian Eno on Looking Back at Old Work

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In a must-read New Yorker piece, writer Sasha Frere-Jones profiles electronic music maestro Brian Eno. The interview takes us through Eno’s career from art school, to his ambient masterpieces, to his work with Talking Heads, and beyond. As I said, it’s a great look at a brilliant artist, and I highly recommend checking it out in its entirety, but I wanted to bring this excellent bit — which Frere-Jones pulled from Eno’s chat at the Red Bull Music Academy, from the very end to your attention — as I think it illuminates some advice that all artists can relate to.

“I have a trick that I use in my studio, because I have these 2,800-odd pieces of unreleased music. And I have them all stored in an iTunes file, you know? So when I’m cleaning up the studio, which I do quite often, and it’s quite a big studio, I just have it playing on random shuffle, and so suddenly I hear something and often I can’t even remember doing it, or I have a very vague memory of it. Because a lot of these pieces, they’re just something I started at half past eight one evening and then finished at quarter past ten, gave some kind of funny name to that doesn’t describe anything, and then completely forgot about. And then years later on the random shuffle, this thing comes up and I think, ‘Wow, I didn’t even hear it when I was doing it.’ And I think that often happens. We don’t actually hear what we’re doing . We’re so in control mode that we don’t go into that other mode, which is listener mode, surrender mode, let-it-happen-to-me mode. So I think you should try to find ways of letting that happen to you more often. And then you’ll find the places where you’re getting that feeling. It may all be there already; you just haven’t noticed it. That often happens. I mean, I often find pieces and I think, ‘This is genius. Which me did that? Who was the me that did that?'”

"The Hair Master" by BlueMyMind

I love this: “I often find pieces and I think, ‘This is genius. Which me did that? Who was the me that did that?'”

Often as artists, we create something — be it an illustration, photograph, design, poem, story, whatever — and it just doesn’t feel right at the time. We’re not sure why it doesn’t, but it just doesn’t. Maybe we’re not ready to understand what we made. Maybe we’re just not into the particular style or genre we found ourselves in. Maybe we pushed ourselves to a place in which we don’t feel comfortable. Or maybe it’s simply not very good. There could be any number of reasons why our art doesn’t work us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it might not work down the road. Or perhaps parts of it will work for something else. Or perhaps it could inspire a new, better, more interesting piece. Who knows? This all got me thinking about the Open Discussion from a few of months back where we talked about whether or not it was a good idea to destroy artwork. I think this concept pushes the argument further into “NO WAY, MAN!” territory. But what do you think? Do you ever look back at your old work and ask “Who was the me that did that?” And if so, how does it make you feel?

Let us know in the comments.

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