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The studio genius, U2 and the apollo moon landing...

There's a moment in the recent BBC4 documentary on Brian Eno where he shows broadcaster Paul Morley his laptop with backing tracks he's composed for the new U2 and Coldplay albums.

It's a bit dangerous, he admits, having both files on the same computer because he fears he'll end up sending the wrong files to the wrong band. Not that anyone will be able to tell the difference, he adds mischievously.

Cue uncontrollable laughter from Morley, who hides his face in his hands.

This jovial exchange tells you everything you need to know about the influence that the 62-year-old super-producer and electro pioneer wields on modern music.

Eno, it's clear, is the go-to guy for world-conquering rock bands in need of some sonic studio sorcery.

That Chris Martin and his band should ask Eno to repeat the trick that worked so spectacularly for Bono and the boys may have displayed a distinct lack of originality on their part, but their bank manager wasn't complaining -- the resulting album Viva La Vida went on to sell squillions from Greater Manchester to Outer Mongolia.

The documentary also showed fascinating footage of Eno ensconced with U2 in Slane Castle in the early 80s, laying down the tracks for The Unforgettable Fire. We see Eno dictating proceedings, pushing Bono to give it his very best in a vocal take. The result was the album that saw U2 truly break the UK.

In tandem with his frequent collaborator Daniel Lanois (who we looked at in these pages a few weeks ago), Eno was again on board to sprinkle his fairydust on The Joshua Tree -- the album that saw U2 become a global brand.

Eno has since co-produced almost every U2 album since then, accompanying them everywhere from the band's studio in Dublin's Hanover Quay to the sunny south of France and the rooftops of Morocco, where they recorded some of last year's No Line On The Horizon.

He also made a rare appearance on stage alongside the band, playing keyboards when they performed Miss Sarajevo live with Pavarotti in the late tenor's home town of Modena in Italy in 1995.

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That extraordinary collaboration was part of the Eno/U2 side project Passengers, which was billed as a record of soundtracks for imaginary films that hadn't been made yet.

That's pretty much how Eno describes his new album, Small Craft On A Milk Sea. It's the latest in a long line of his ethereal ambient soundscapes -- Eno virtually invented the genre back in the 1970s with a series of instrumental records that included Music For Lifts and Music For Airports.

One soundtrack that was not imaginary was Apollo (later renamed For All Mankind), which Eno composed along with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanios for a NASA documentary on the epochal Apollo moon landings.

In what promises to be one of the music events of the year, the complete score will be performed live next Tuesday at the National Concert Hall by the ensemble Icebreaker and English pedal steel player BJ Cole. I'm guessing it will be a bit like watching Kubrick's 2001, only without the homicidal malfunctioning computer. Or the apes.

As for the new album, Small Craft . . . is noteworthy for marking the beginning of Eno's relationship with the painfully hip electronica label Warp Records, who have nurtured the esoteric talents of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher and !!! amongst other scenesters.

The album was recorded with the help of the young composers/instrumentalists Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams. Here's how Eno describes its genesis. "In the early 70s, I found myself preferring film soundtracks to most other types of records," he says. "What drew me to them was their sensuality and unfinished-ness -- in the absence of the film they invited you to complete them in your mind.

"If you hadn't even seen the film, the music remained evocative -- like the lingering perfume of somebody who's just left a room you've entered.

"I heard Nino Rota's Fellini soundtracks often before I saw the films and in listening to them I found I could imagine a whole movie in advance; and though it usually turned out to be nothing much like Fellini's version, it left me with the idea that a music which left itself in some way unresolved engaged the listener in a particularly creative way."

The music on Small Craft... is notable for its variety of textures. It ranges from airy, floaty, atmospherics to urgent, percussive passages that seem to evoke a psychosis of some sort. So, if you stick it on expecting pleasant background music while you do Sudoku, you're likely to get a rude awakening every now and then.

"Mostly the pieces on this album resulted not from 'composition' in the classical sense, but from improvisation," explains Eno. "The improvisations are not attempts to end up with a song, but rather with a landscape, a feeling of a place and perhaps the suggestion of an event.

"In a sense they deliberately lack 'personality': there is no singer, no narrator, no guide as to what you ought to be feeling. If these pieces had been used in films, the film would complete the picture. As they stand, they are the mirror-image of silent movies -- sound-only movies."

And it could be said, they are mirror-images, too, of the personality-led records he works on with U2 and Coldplay.

Small Craft On A Milk Sea is out next week. Icebreaker and BJ Cole perform Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmosheres and Soundtracks at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Tuesday at 8pm. nkelly@independent.ie

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