Brian Eno: Active Surrender

Brian Eno (Photo by Matthew Anker)

A category of music referred to as “ambient”—made popular by musicians including Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, The Orb, Aphex Twin, Tangerine Dream, Popul Vuh—is often coupled with the music of the “holy minimalists”—Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Henryk Górecki, Alan Hovhaness and Sofia Gubaidulina. Whether electronic or contemporary classical, the ambient/holy minimalist spectrum of sound often aligns with visual art that has a meditative or contemplative component IMHO. Emphasis on the IMHO, since this is my own subjectivity speaking. Others may not find a commonality there and even resist coupling music and art in that way. But these are the composers whose work I listen to a lot in my studio and whose music has inspired me and my work for many years.

What I did not realize until recently is that ambient music was first created by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp in the early 1970s while they experimented with tape loops and repetitions. What I also never realized until recently was that Brian Eno was a serious art student before he moved into sound, and his strong visual education has informed his later works in a number of ways.

The astounding breadth of his expressive talent, both in music and in the visual, can be seen in a new book, Brian Eno: Visual Music by Christopher Scoates with contributions from Brian Eno, Roy Ascott, William R. Wright and Steve Dietz. It’s a stunning object, this book, and the evolution of Eno’s work makes for rich viewing and reading. The monograph covers more than four decades of Eno’s music and his museum and gallery installations. These achievements are accompanied by exhibition notes, pages from Eno’s exhaustive sketchbooks, and a host of never-before-seen materials.


Clearly affected by seismic shifts in the art world of the early 60s, Eno moved into new forms of expression early on, and these explorations led to his primary career as a musician. But his creative approach to all forms has a singularity to it.

On The Polymath Perspective Eno discusses how he views the variety of expressive forms:

I think that sex, drugs, art and religion very much overlap with one another and sometimes one becomes another. So I thought, “What do all those things have in common?” The umbrella that they all exist under is this word, “surrender” because they are all forms of transcendence through surrender. They are ways of transcending your individuality and sense of yourself as a totally separate creature in the world. All of those things involve some kind of loosening of this boundary that is around this thing you call “yourself”…

This idea of surrender has become more and more what I’ve been thinking about for the last few years, and I’ve been wanting to make both visual art, which I do a lot of, and music, which says to an audient, “This is where you can surrender!” I consider surrender an active verb, in the sense that you have this spectrum ranging from control to surrender, and the model of post-enlightenment man is that we’ve become better and better at control. If you think of our distant genetic past, most of our time was spent around the surrender end of the spectrum because there wasn’t much we could control. We were at the mercy of weather, creatures, geology, geography and everything else. We had to learn to surrender in a situation because when you are powerless, your option is to go with the flow and learn how to navigate it. That’s what I call active surrender.

By taking surrender out of a primarily religious context, Eno defines the term as a domain of mastery that artists of any stripe can use powerfully. In an interview with Eno that I heard recently he continued on this theme and advised paying attention to those who are good at surrender, not at control.

To that end, Eno collaborated with a German composer Peter Schmidt in the 70s to develop a very John Cage-inspired conceptual art piece, Oblique Strategies. Comprised of 115 cards that are randomly accessed like the I Ching, Oblique Strategies offers suggestions and instructions that can be used to break through a creative block, to approach a problem in a new way, to generate new ideas. These suggestions are apropos to any artistic endeavor, offering a timelessly playful approach.

Samples from Oblique Strategies:






8 Comment

  1. Maureen says:

    The cover alone would make me pick this up. Looks fascinating.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      He’s an amazing talent. I had no idea how deep the gifts ran until I read this book. Thanks Maureen!

  2. Judy Gardner says:

    Your lovely newsletter are coming to me scrambled with numbers etc

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Judy, I have no idea what is wrong. Let me do a little searching and see if I can find out. i haven’t had anyone else report a similar problem. Maybe unsubscribe and then subscribe again? Thank you for letting me know, and hopefully I can find out what is going on.

  3. I listen to the same music in the studio, Deborah, as well as medieval chant and polyphony. And if you haven’t listened to Stars of the Lid, I know you would love them. (Pandora is great for gathering all of this music together!)

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Diane, I just listened to some Stars of the Lid. Wow. Thanks so much for the heads up on yet another great music source. xoxo

  4. nikki says:

    I love my little box of Oblique Strategies cards. It’s great to keep on your desk for random inspiration or a message to your psyche.

  5. tim says:

    Oblique strategy…Taking Tiger mountain by strategy…..seems to be a word that crops a lot with Eno….and it sums up what I don’t like about him. For all his talk of surrender and the formlessness of some of his ambient work, I think he is trapped by his cerebral nature. These are self conscious methods he uses to try and break the fetters of his own psychological constraints.

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