Brian Eno - artist, composer, inventor, thinker - spoke to Kevin Kelly about the meaning of Africa for music and technology.

"Africa is everything that something like classical music isn’t. Classical—perhaps I should say “orchestral”—music is so digital, so cut up, rhythmically, pitchwise and in terms of the roles of the musicians. It’s all in little boxes. The reason you get child prodigies in chess, arithmetic, and classical composition is that they are all worlds of discontinuous, parceled-up possibilities. And the fact that orchestras play the same thing over and over bothers me. Classical music is music without Africa. It represents old-fashioned hierarchical structures, ranking, all the levels of control. Orchestral music represents everything I don’t want from the Renaissance: extremely slow feedback loops.

If you’re a composer writing that kind of music, you don’t get to hear what your work sounds like for several years. Thus, the orchestral composer is open to all the problems and conceits of the architect, liable to be trapped in a form that is inherently nonimprovisational, nonempirical. I shouldn’t be so absurdly doctrinaire, but I have to say that I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass if I never heard another piece of such music. It provides almost nothing useful for me.

But what is tremendously exciting to me is the collision of vernacular Western music with African music. So much that I love about music comes from that collision. African music underlies practically everything I do—even ambient, since it arose directly out of wanting to see what happened if you “unlocked” the sounds in a piece of music, gave them their freedom, and didn’t tie them all to the same clock. That kind of free float—these peculiar mixtures of independence and interdependence, and the oscillation between them - is a characteristic of West African drumming patterns. I want to go into the future to see this sensibility I find in African culture, to see it freed from the catastrophic situation that Africa’s in at the moment. I don’t know how they’re going to get freed from that, but I desperately want to see this next stage when African culture begins once again to strongly impact ours.

Do you know what I hate about computers? The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them. This is why I can’t use them for very long. Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her. I know this sounds sort of inversely racist to say, but I think the African connection is so important. You know why music was the center of our lives for such a long time? Because it was a way of allowing Africa in. In 50 years, it might not be Africa; it might be Brazil. But I want so desperately for that sensibility to flood into these other areas, like computers.

What’s pissing me off is that it uses so little of my body. You’re just sitting there, and it’s quite boring. You’ve got this stupid little mouse that requires one hand, and your eyes. That’s it. What about the rest of you? No African would stand for a computer like that. It’s imprisoning."white

Excerpt taken from Wired Magazine (May 1995). Kevin Kelly was Wired’s co-founder and executive editor. You can find the complete interview at wired archive.

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    @ Xander: that TedTalk was eyeopening! I love Eglash's conclusion: "The idea of self-organization is in Google search engine that takes advantage of the self-organizing properties of the web..." (+aidsvirus +capitalism etc.)

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  • "There's not enough African history in Brian Eno" (Ron Eglash) It was West African divination practices that spawned binary code, and in turn, computing.

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    "It provides almost nothing useful for me." The word "almost" in the above text is probably referring to the way classical music is providing a contrast to African music. Describing the thing one likes by describing what one should dislike, makes it an opinion one can (dis)agree with. But I think we need the both contrasting worlds to be able to judge what progress should be about. And isn't that why computers are turning into handhelds?

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  • Hi Koert, this video from the TED conference, a talk by Kwabena Boahen also adresses the notion of African input being a valuable adition to technology development. And while we're at it, here's Kevin Kelly at TED talking about the future of the web:

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  • I'd say this is a classical interview and deserves a reposting. The text is over 10 years old, but we could still use more Africa in technology. Thanks to Dick Rijken for bringing this text under my attention (long time ago).

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