Brian Eno: The Illustrated Man

Brian Eno talks through a fistful of memories that helped shape him into the man he is today.

© Christelle de Castro / Red Bull Content Pool

At a Red Bull Music Academy New York illustrated talk held in his honour, the pop-minded avant-gardist and multimedia innovator surveyed his 40+-year creative journey. Here are five key epiphanies Eno recounted:

Walt Disney

I was about four or five years old, and my uncle set up an 8mm projector. He didn't have a screen, so he just projected it on the wall. This was the early '50s, and England was mostly brown and gray and some slushy green. And on this tiny little square were the brightest colours I'd ever seen. That's the first time I really experienced art and thought, "This is something I like". It was a Walt Disney film, but I don't remember which one. For years, my parents told me I used to talk about this film as though it had been some place I'd been to.

Why art?

One day, [my mother-in-law] Joan Harvey sat down and said, in her very disdainful, upper-class British way, "What I don't understand, Brian, is why someone with a brain like yours would waste it being an artist". And that really cut me quite deep. My whole intellectual life has been based around that question, trying to find out why it is that we do art, why we have aesthetic preferences. Why do we like green better than blue? Why do we like one Beethoven quartet better than another? Why do we like one Beyoncé record better than another?

Brian Eno discusses his illustrious career at his Red Bull Music Academy lecture.
The Life Of Brian© Christelle de Castro / Red Bull Content Pool

"Architecture to gardening"

Rather than finishing a work of art, which is what we normally think of, [Peter Schmidt and I] thought the job of an artist was to start one. This gave rise to an analogy: from architecture to gardening. Classical art is very much an architectural model; Beethoven has the symphony in his head and all he's got to do is write it down and get people to actuate it. What I liked was the idea of making something that would grow into something, like a gardener. A gardener doesn't specify a garden; they put some seeds in and hope. In a sense, the gardener loses control of the creation. He starts something off, steps back from it and watches it happen.

Ambient music

I was lying in bed [recovering from being hit by a taxi]. My friend Judy Nylon came to visit, and as she was leaving, I said, "Do you mind putting a record on?" The needle worked its way in, and I realized it was much too quiet. It was raining, and so the rain on the roof was actually louder than the music. I started to like it. It was a record of virtuoso harp music, and I started to hear these plinks of harp music coming out of the rain, and I thought, "This is lovely". So I started thinking, what would it be like if you made music that was made to accommodate other sounds, so that you couldn't really tell where the border was between music and the rest of the world?

"Surrender spaces"

We respect control a lot more than surrender, yet everything that we do for fun seems to fall under surrender: sex, drugs, rock and roll and religion. Those are all activities in which the whole point is to get lost, to trust something enough to be taken along by it. What I think is going on with this medical work [Eno is involved in creating art-therapy environments for cancer patients] is that I'm making surrender spaces, places where people can do this thing they love doing and not be embarrassed by it.

Hank Shteamer covers music weekly for Time Out New York, where he serves as Senior Associate Music Editor. Read more of his work at

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Brian Eno hits New York as part of the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy.
The legend speaks© Christelle de Castro / Red Bull Content Pool