Listening to Brian Eno almost never makes me laugh. It's not that I don't like his music. I love it. But he doesn't compose funny songs (well, some are sort of funny, but not laugh out loud funny). Thanks to the Exploratorium, I've been laughing along with Brian Eno all weekend. As part of its 40th anniversary celebration, the Exploratorium is releasing a series of podcasts -- one a month through November 2010 -- of interviews from the '80s and the early-'90s, conducted in front of an audience, with visionary musicians and composers. The podcast is comprised of selected episodes from the Speaking of Music series, which was produced by KPFA from 1983 to 1992 and co-produced by the Exploratorium.
During his interview Eno tells a story I'd thought was apocryphal: He invented ambient music when he was, in his words, "knocked down by a taxi." He ended up in the hospital, and when a friend came to visit him, he asked her to put on a record. She put harp music on the record player and left. But one of the speakers was on the fritz, it was raining outside, and he could only partially hear the music. He thought it was beautiful. When he left the hospital he began composing Music for Airports. He says the music makes you "not care if you die... it doesn't really matter that much anyway." Eno's not depressed, just very very droll.
Eno brought records to the interview so he could share music that inspired him. I don't know what the audience was expecting. I guess I was expecting John Cage or something, but then the dulcet tones of Gene Chandler cranked up and the audience burst into applause for "Duke of Earl," then Ernie K-Doe and Little Richard, who Eno says is unrivaled in his capacity to blend insanity and tenderness. That's the general tone of the interview. Eno is generous in sharing his thought process and ideas, quick to make a joke and keep the audience entertained, and utterly down to earth.
A lot of the credit goes to the man conducting the interview: Charles Amirkhanian. He's the founder of the San Francisco-based record label Other Minds and the Other Minds Music Festival. In his conversations with Eno, Laurie Anderson, and Philip Glass, he encourages a relaxed, chatty atmosphere, where Anderson shares the fact that in many of her past lives she was a rabbi, and Glass describes first encountering Indian music, when no one knew what a sitar looked like because, he says, the Beatles hadn't been to India yet. While the conversations delve deep, these podcasts aren't just for the aficionado. Amirkhanian introduces music by the composers and has them explain what's going on in the songs, why they wrote them, what they're for. With archived conversations with John Cage, Trimpin, and Astor Piazolla coming up, these podcasts provide a year's worth of thinking on avant-garde music, world music, and pop.
The Exploratorium is releasing one podcast a month through November, 2010. Download the six released so far at exploratorium.edu.