Art-school-educated, and inspired by minimalism, he became artistically prominent as the keyboards and synthesizer player of the 1970s Glam rock and Art rock band Roxy Music. Upon leaving them, he recorded four original Rock music albums, before concentrating upon abstract sound landscapes (ambient music) in records such as Discreet Music (1975) and Ambient 1/Music for Airports (1978).
He has worked with Harold Budd, Cluster, John Cale, David Byrne, and Robert Fripp. In the late 1970s, he collaborated with pop music artists, as with David Bowie in the avant-garde Berlin Trilogy; popularised the band Devo and the punk rock-influenced "No Wave" genre. He also is notable for introducing the concepts of chance music to pop and rock and roll. As producer and songwriter, his credits include Remain in Light (1980), by Talking Heads, and The Joshua Tree (1987), by U2, and work with James, Slowdive, Paul Simon, and Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (2008), by Coldplay.
As an artist, Brian Eno pursues ventures in parallel to his music career; art installations, a newspaper column in the The Observer, and "Oblique Strategies", with Peter Schmidt, a deck of cards wherein each card has a cryptic remark, random insight meant to resolve a dilemma. Recently, he wrote a chapter to Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture (The MIT Press, 2008) edited by Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky).
Brian Eno was educated at St. Joseph's College, Birkfield, Ipswich, and at Ipswich Art School in Roy Ascott's Groundcourse, and the Winchester School of Art, graduating in 1969. In school, he used a tape recorder as musical instrument, and experimented with his first, sometimes improvisational, bands. St. Joseph's College teacher and painter Tom Phillips encouraged him, recalling "Piano Tennis" with Eno, in which, after collecting pianos, they stripped and aligned them in a hall, striking them with tennis balls. From that collaboration, he became involved in Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra. The first, released recording in which Eno played is the Deutsche Grammophon edition of Cardew's The Great Learning (rec. Feb. 1971), as one of the voices in the recital of The Great Learning Paragraph 7. Another early recording was the Berlin Horse soundtrack, by Malcom Le Grice, a nine-minute, 2 x 16mm-double-projection, released in 1970 and presented in 1971.
Brian Eno's professional music career began in London, as a member (1971–1973) of the glam/art rock band Roxy Music, playing the mixing desk, altering the band's sound with a VCS3 synthesizer, tape recorders, etc., and singing back-up. In the event, he appeared on stage as member of Roxy Music, flamboyantly costumed. He quit the band on completing the promotion tour for the band's second album, For Your Pleasure, per his account, because of disagreements with lead singer Bryan Ferry and boredom with the rock star life.
In 1992, he described his Roxy Music tenure as important to his career: "As a result of going into a subway station and meeting Andy [saxophonist Andy Mackay], I joined Roxy Music, and, as a result of that, I have a career in music. If I'd walked ten yards farther, on the platform, or missed that train, or been in the next carriage, I probably would have been an art teacher now".
All four of his vocal albums were remastered and reissued in 2004 by Virgin's Astralwerks label. Due to Eno's decision not to add any extra tracks of the original material, a handful of tracks originally issued as singles have not been reissued. ("Seven Deadly Finns" and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" were included on the deleted Eno Vocal Box set and the single mix of "King's Lead Hat" has never been reissued.)
During this period, Eno also toured with Phil Manzanera in the band 801, a "supergroup" that played more or less mutated selections from albums by Eno, Manzanera, and Quiet Sun, as well as covers of songs by The Beatles and The Kinks.
In 1972, Eno developed a tape-delay system first utilized by Eno and Robert Fripp (from King Crimson), described as 'Frippertronics', and the pair released an album in 1973 called (No Pussyfooting). It is said the technique was borrowed from minimalist composer Terry Riley, whose tape delay feedback system with a pair of Revox tape recorders (a setup Riley used to call the "Time Lag Accumulator") was first used on Riley's album Music for The Gift in 1963. In 1975, Fripp and Eno released a second album, Evening Star, and also played several live shows in Europe.
Eno was a prominent member of the performance art-classical orchestra the Portsmouth Sinfonia - having started playing with them in 1972. In 1973 he produced the orchestra's first album The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics (released in March 1974) and in 1974 he produced the live album Hallellujah! The Portsmouth Sinfonia Live At The Royal Albert Hall of their infamous May 1974 concert (released in October 1974.) In addition to producing both albums, Eno performed in the orchestra on both recordings - playing the clarinet. Eno also deployed the orchestra's famously dissonant string section on his second solo album Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). The orchestra at this time included other musicians whose solo work he would subsequently release on his Obscure label including Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman. That year he also composed music for the album Lady June's Linguistic Leprosy, with Kevin Ayers, to accompany the poet June Campbell Cramer.
Eno continued his career by producing a larger number of highly eclectic and increasingly ambient electronic and acoustic albums. He is widely credited with coining the term "ambient music", low-volume music designed to modify one's perception of a surrounding environment.
His first such work, 1975's Discreet Music, (again created via an elaborate tape-delay methodology, which Eno diagrammed on the back cover of the LP ), is considered the landmark album of the genre. This was followed by his Ambient series (Music for Airports (Ambient 1), The Plateaux of Mirror (Ambient 2), Day of Radiance (Ambient 3) and On Land (Ambient 4)). Eno was the primary musician on these releases with the exception of Ambient 2 which featured Harold Budd on keyboard, and Ambient 3 where the American composer Laraaji was the sole musician playing the zither and hammered dulcimer with Eno producing.
In 1981, having returned from Ghana and before On Land, he discovered Miles Davis' 1974 ambient jazz dirge "He Loved Him Madly": "Teo Macero's revolutionary production on that piece seemed to me to have the "spacious" quality I was after, and like "Amarcord", it too became a touchstone to which I returned frequently.
Eno describes himself as a "non-musician" and coined the term "treatments" to describe his modification of the sound of musical instruments, and to separate his role from that of the traditional instrumentalist. His skill at using "The Studio as a Compositional Tool (the title of an essay by Eno) led in part to his career as a producer. His methods were recognized at the time (mid-1970s) as unique, so much so that on Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, he is credited with 'Enossification'; on Robert Wyatt's Ruth is Stranger Than Richard with a Direct inject anti-jazz raygun and on John Cale's Island albums as playing the 'Eno'.
Eno started the Obscure Records label in Britain in 1975 to release works by lesser-known composers. The first group of three releases included his own composition, Discreet Music, and the now-famous The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) by Gavin Bryars. The second side of Discreet Music consisted of several versions of Pachelbel's Canon, the composition which Eno had previously chosen to precede Roxy Music's appearances on stage, to which various algorithmic transformations have been applied, rendering it almost unrecognizable. Side 1 consisted of a tape loop system for generating music from relatively sparse input. These tapes had previously been used as backgrounds in some of his collaborations with Fripp, most notably on Evening Star. Only 10 albums were released on Obscure, including works by John Adams, Michael Nyman, and John Cage. At this time he was also affiliating with artists in the Fluxus movement.
In 1992, Eno released an album featuring heavily syncopated rhythms entitled Nerve Net, with contributions from several former collaborators including Robert Fripp, Benmont Tench, Robert Quine and John Paul Jones. This album was a last-minute substitution for My Squelchy Life, which featured more pop oriented material, with Eno on vocals. (Several tracks from My Squelchy Life later appeared on 1993's retrospective box set Eno Box II: Vocals.) Eno also released in 1992 a work entitled The Shutov Assembly, recorded between 1985 and 1990. This album embraces atonality and abandons most conventional concepts of modes, scales and pitch. Much of the music shifts gradually and without discernible focus, and is one of Eno's most varied ambient collections. Conventional instrumentation is eschewed, save for treated keyboards.
During the 1990s, Eno became increasingly interested in self-generating musical systems, the results of which he called generative music. The basic premise of generative music is the blending of several independent musical tracks, of varying sounds, length, and in some cases, silence. When each individual track concludes, it starts again mixing with the other tracks allowing the listener to hear an almost infinite combination. In one instance of generative music, Eno calculated that it would take almost 10,000 years to hear the entire possibilities of one individual piece. Eno has presented this music in his own, and other artists', art and sound installations, most notably "I Dormienti (The Sleepers)", Lightness: Music for the Marble Palace, Music for Civic Recovery Centre, The Quiet Room and "Music for Prague".
Eno returned in June 2005 with Another Day on Earth, his first major album since Wrong Way Up (with John Cale) to prominently feature vocals (a trend continued with Everything That Happens Will Happen Today). The album differs from his 70s solo work as musical production has changed since then, evident in its semi-electronic production.
In early 2006, Eno collaborated with David Byrne, again, for the reissue of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in celebration of the influential album's 25th anniversary. Eight previously unreleased tracks, recorded during the initial sessions in 1980/81, were added to the album, while one track, Qu'ran, was removed due to requests from Muslims. An unusual interactive marketing strategy that coincided with its re-release, the album’s promotional website features the ability for anyone to officially and legally download the multi-tracks of two songs from the album, "A Secret Life" and "Help Me Somebody". Individuals can then remix and upload new mixes of these tracks to the website so others can listen to and rate them.
In late 2006, Eno released 77 Million Paintings, a program of generative video and music specifically for the PC. As its title suggests, there is a possible combination of 77 million paintings where the viewer will see different combinations of video slides prepared by Eno each time the program is launched. Likewise, the accompanying music is generated by the program so that it's almost certain the listener will never quite hear the same arrangement twice. The second edition of "77 Million Paintings" featuring improved morphing and a further two layers of sound was released on 14 January 2008.
Despite being a self-professed "non-musician", Eno has contributed to recordings by artists as varied as Nico, Robert Calvert, Genesis, David Bowie, Edikanfo, and Zvuki Mu, in various capacities such as use of his studio/synthesizer/electronic treatments, vocals, guitar, bass guitar, and even just as being 'Eno'. In 1984, he (along with several other authors) composed and performed the "Prophecy Theme" for the David Lynch film Dune; the rest of the soundtrack was composed and performed by the group Toto. Eno produced performance artist Laurie Anderson's Bright Red album, and also composed for it. The work is avant-garde spoken word with haunting and magnifying sounds. Eno played on David Byrne's musical score for The Catherine Wheel, a project commissioned by Twyla Tharp to accompany her Broadway dance project of the same name.
Eno co-produced The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991), and All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000) for U2 with his frequent collaborator Daniel Lanois, and produced 1993's Zooropa for the band alone. In 1995, U2 and Eno joined forces to create the album Original Soundtracks 1 under the group name Passengers. Notable songs from OST1 include "Your Blue Room" and "Miss Sarajevo".
Eno played on the 1986 album Measure for Measure by Australian band Icehouse. In 1993, he remixed two tracks for Depeche Mode, "I Feel You" and "In Your Room", both single releases from the album Songs of Faith and Devotion.
In 1995, Eno provided one of several remixes of "Protection" by Massive Attack (originally from their Protection album) for release as a single. The single also included more remixes by DJs J-Swift, Tom D, and Underdog.
In 2006, he produced Paul Simon's album Surprise and in 2007 produced the fourth studio album by Coldplay titled Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, which was released in 2008. With frequent collaborator Daniel Lanois, he has worked on the twelfth studio album from U2 which was recorded in Morocco, South France and Dublin and is expected to be released in early 2009.
In 1994 Microsoft corporation designers Mark Malamud and Erik Gavriluk approached Brian Eno to compose music for the Windows 95 project. The result was the six-second start-up music-sound of the Windows 95 operating system, the The Microsoft Sound. In the San Francisco Chronicle he said:
The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I'd been working on my own music for a while, and was quite lost, actually, and I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, "Here's a specific problem — Solve it!" The thing from the agency said, "We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional", this whole list of adjectives, and then, at the bottom, it said: "and it must be 3¼ seconds long". I thought this was so funny, and an amazing thought, to actually try to make a little piece of music. It's like making a tiny little jewel. In fact, I made eighty-four pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny, little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds, at the end of this, that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then, when I'd finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were, like, three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.
Some very basic forms of generative music have existed for a long time, but as marginal curiosities. Wind chimes are an example, but the only compositional control you have over the music they produce is in the original choice of notes that the chimes will sound. Recently, however, out of the union of synthesisers and computers, some much finer tools have evolved. Koan Software is probably the best of these systems, allowing a composer to control, not one, but one hundred and fifty, musical and sonic parameters, within which the computer then improvises (as wind improvises the wind chimes).
The works I have made with this system symbolise, to me, the beginning of a new era of music. Until a hundred years ago, every musical event was unique: music was ephemeral and unrepeatable, and even classical scoring couldn't guarantee precise duplication. Then came the gramophone record, which captured particular performances, and made it possible to hear them identically, over and over again.
But now, there are three alternatives: live music, recorded music, and generative music. Generative music enjoys some of the benefits of both its ancestors. Like live music, it is always different. Like recorded music, it is free of time-and-place limitations — you can hear it when and where you want.
I really think it is possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say: "You mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?"
As C.S.J. Bofop, in 1996, he said:
Each of the twelve pieces on Generative Music 1 has a distinctive character. There are, of course, the ambient works ranging from the dark, almost mournful "Densities III" (complete with distant bells), to [the] translucent "Lysis (Tungsten)". These are contrasted with pieces in dramatically different styles, such as "Komarek", with its hard-edged, angular melodies, reminiscent of Schoenberg's early serial experiments, and "Klee 42" whose simple polyphony is similar to that of the early Renaissance, but, of course, the great beauty of Generative Music is that those pieces will never sound quite that way again.
In 1996, Brian Eno and others started the Long Now Foundation to educate the public into thinking about the very long term future of society. He is also a columnist for the British newspaper The Observer.
In 2003, he appeared on a UK Channel 4 discussion about the Iraq war with a top military spokesman; Eno was highly critical of the war. In 2005, he spoke at an anti-war demonstration in Hyde Park, London. In March 2006, he spoke at an anti-war demonstration at Trafalgar Square; he noted that 2 billion people on this planet do not have clean drinking water, and that water could have been supplied to them for about one-fifth of the cost of the Iraq war.
Eno appeared as Father Brian Eno at the "It's Great Being a Priest!" convention, in "Going to America", the final episode of the television sitcom Father Ted, which originally aired on 1 May 1998 on Channel 4.
The Nokia 8800 Sirocco Edition mobile phone features exclusive music composed by Eno. Between 8 January 2007 and 12 February 2007, ten units of Nokia 8800 Sirocco Brian Eno Signature Edition mobile phones, individually numbered and engraved with Eno's signature were auctioned off. All proceeds went to two charities chosen by Eno: the Keiskamma Aids Treatment program and The World Land Trust.
In 2006, Eno was one of more than 100 artists and writers who signed an open letter calling for an international boycott of Israeli political and cultural institutions
In 2007, he appeared playing keyboards in Voila, Belinda Carlisle's solo album sung entirely in French. In December that year, the newly-elected Leader of Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg appointed Eno as his youth affairs adviser.
In March 2008 Eno collaborated with the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino on a show of the latter's works with Eno's soundscapes at Ara Pacis in Rome.
In 2008, Eno designed the procedurally-generated music for the video game Spore.