Brian Eno, Non-Musicianship, and the Experimental Tradition

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In a 1979 interview, Lester Bangs asked Brian Eno to clarify his already notorious assertion that he is no musician. Eno replied by stating his belief that formal training and instrumental virtuosity—“digital skills”—should not be the sine qua non for music making. On the contrary, the lack of the strictures that may come with a traditional music education can lead to surprising results that may fall outside accepted boundaries. In this chapter, I trace Eno’s unconventional approach back to the experimental tradition in which he was an active participant in the earlier parts of his career.

I focus in particular on two important English experimental ensembles: the Portsmouth Sinfonia (the “world’s worst orchestra” in which Eno played the clarinet) and the Scratch Orchestra (with whom he recorded Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning). Both groups not only included participants with no formal training, but these members’ “failures” end up playing a vital role in the resulting musical works. I detail the ways in which these ensembles used events possible only from non-musicians’ participation: from the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s inevitable breakdown of technique, which introduces indeterminate elements to their performances of canonical classics, to the Scratch Orchestra’s necessarily loose relationship between the notated score and actualized performances. The essay concludes by tracing direct experimental influences on Eno’s works, including the failed ensemble playing that became the first movement of Music for Airports and the use of the Portsmouth Sinfonia in Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBrian Eno: Oblique Music
EditorsSean Albiez, David Pattie
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
ISBN (Print)9781441117458
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes


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