The John Peel Lecture, 6 Music, review: Brian Eno focused on art and the enrichment provided by culture

The one-time synth wizard in Roxy Music presented one of the most thoughtful and illuminating lectures in the series

Fiona Sturges
Thursday 01 October 2015 01:17
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Brian Eno, aka the brainiest man in pop
Brian Eno, aka the brainiest man in pop

“Art is everything that you don't have to do,” said Brian Eno, aka the brainiest man in pop, at the start of his John Peel Lecture. How lovely this sounded, like it is best absorbed while lying in a hammock in a sun-dappled garden, a cocktail within easy reach.

But his illustration was slightly different. We all need to eat to survive, he said, and yet we don't need to make sausage rolls or Baked Alaska. We need to move to exist but we don't need to do the rumba, the tango or twerk. And while clothes are a must, we don't necessarily require Dior dresses or Doc Marten boots.

Eno noted that all these things are to do with ornamentation and stylisation, and they also have to do with art. He had compiled a list of things that he would put under that definition – “Symphonies, perfume, sports cars, graffiti, needlepoint, monuments, tattoos, slang, Ming vases, doodles, poodles, apple strudels, still life, second life, bedknobs and boob jobs.” His list sounded like poetry, which, of course, is also art.

Previously, the John Peel Lecture has been the preserve of full-time performers and musicians. Last year we had Iggy Pop reflecting on the cold, dead heart of the modern music business while the year before Charlotte Church railed against misogyny in the music industry.

For Eno, the one-time synth wizard in Roxy Music who famously left the band after he found his thoughts drifting to his laundry on stage, music now takes up a small portion of his working life – he is also involved in writing and visual art and gives talks on rarefied topics such as the link between architecture and doo-wop. The man known as Professor Eno only rarely calls himself a musician and, as a result, his talk had a broader reach than most.

It was the enrichment provided by culture, all these things that we don't need to do but do anyway, that formed the theme to one of the most thoughtful and illuminating lectures in the series. Eno was fascinated about why humans make art, about the ecology of creativity, and the wrong-headed notion recently put forward by the Government that art is a luxury. His reflections were analytical, smart and yet entirely digestible. These were big ideas, delivered with wryness and warmth; I could feel my brain unfurling as he spoke.

Art, I discovered on Sunday night, can also be engaged with while unconscious. It certainly wasn't my plan to snore all the way through Radio 3's world premiere of British composer Max Richter's musical odyssey, Sleep, but then again Richter has described it as “an eight-hour lullaby”, which means I was doing exactly what was expected of me.

The piece featured piano, strings and vocals composed with the help of the American neurologist David Eagleman, and set out to look at the effect of music on the subconscious mind.

I caught the first hour and was transported into a melancholy dream world long before I had drifted off. And while I was sad to have missed the majority of what was the longest single continuous piece of music ever broadcast live on the BBC, I was glad the next day of the iPlayer.

As much about somnolent near-silence as sound, the piece was haunting and beautiful, and yet more evidence, as if it were needed, of the enriching properties of art.

Twitter: @FionaSturges

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