We need to talk about Brian Eno, his John Peel Lecture and irrelevance.

Brian Eno. Is he a marmite figure? Does it count if half the population love you while the other half don’t really know who you are? Because there is a lot of love for Brian Eno, all of it hard earned and justified. His influence on Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy‘ (plus the utterly sublime 1.Outside) has gone down in legend. His solo music still remains one of the most interesting bodies of work put to tape. He even made Coldplay sound interesting, briefly. A musician’s musician. Not that he’d ever refer to himself as such, being more a thinker and experimenter within the medium of sound. It’s this aspect that raises him above others; academic musicians just can’t get enough of his pseudo-intellectual pronouncements and whimsical examples used to explain points of view. He is one of few elder statesmen who continues to think about the state of art and music, one who still knows he can contribute to the debate; a position that resonates with the young, aspiring and lesser artists who coast on his ideas. But after listening to his John Peel Lecture on BBC 6 Music the other day I feel like we should maybe admit something, a statement so contrary that it can only be heard in dark corners; maybe, just maybe, Eno is wrong.

                    And not just about the shades.

Not completely wrong, that would be silly. He said fine things about art and the importance of culture, as was to be expected. It’s just that to me he was merely stating the obvious through florid and affected language. Take the initial quarter of the lecture being dedicated to explaining that art was everything we didn’t need to do. It seems so simple when you think about it, cakes are art, sport is art etc. The fact that I am writing this justifies it’s artistic purpose. Looking at it you can’t deny that he is right in at least describing small ‘a’ art. The art that encompasses all before it like a lazy blanket. But then again by stating it so bluntly and from such a rarefied position, he is indirectly robbing capital ‘A’ Art of any future value. Anything could be raised on an artistic pedestal purely because the ‘artist’ says so. A pie having the same cultural worth as a symphony where either the pie is worth more or the symphony less. There is worry in this statement, not because of any elite belief that symphonies are better than pies (a well crafted pasty beats a lazy symphony any day), but because it has been made before. It is not new. In fact it is the same decades old Warholian philosophy at the foot of Roxy Music only dressed up in fancy(-er) clothes. Each word he said was familiar to me in it’s aim. I began to find it boring. So maybe it’s not a case of Eno being wrong, maybe it’s something even more radical and unsettling; Eno is becoming irrelevant.

That said; he did make a few good points as the lecture wore on; Eno’s proud explanation of the safety net of public services that made him the artist today needed to be said. Also his championing of arts education as part of the curriculum was vital since creative thinking is needed in all walks of life. Knowing formulae only gets you so far unless you have the capacity to use them in strange combinations; a fact lost on many people, artist or not. I just don’t know why it particularly falls to Brian Eno to say? Is that his role now? To highlight what we should instinctively know? The further worry here is why, after decades at the top of music, decades with this platform in which to further our way of thinking, does he still need to? Surely he should have made the point by now, we should have taken it in and cultural thought as a whole should have been advanced. We would now have newer, better cultural thinkers building on his work, refining it, questioning the flaws and making them real. But we don’t. We can afford to hold his words highly because we don’t listen. We don’t think because he is doing it for us. Safe words for the regular crowd.

Pierre Boulez is a fundamentally important figure in mid-20th century Classical Music. Alongside John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen; he actually thought about what music was, what it’s purpose should be and what constitutes the artistry within it. Of those three he was always the one whose ideas I liked the least, they seemed overly negative and dismissive of history. This opinion was wholly formed in reaction to Boulez’s 1952 essay ‘Schoeberg is Dead‘ – a call to reject the serial ideas developed and promoted by the composer Schoenberg. At the time Schoenberg was held as one of the leading (if not the definitive) thinking composers; fusing philosophy, craft and utilitarian thought into a system of composition that threw all concepts of tonality out of the window. In basic terms, Schoenberg is pretty much the reason classical music can sometimes sound so painful and angular. He shattered the rules in pursuit of freedom. Yet Boulez not only decided to challenge these deep set ideas, he actively sought to prove them wrong. In my youth I saw this tactic as mean, I just didn’t see why Boulez couldn’t just let it go and move on. Now I can. Schoenberg’s ideas were so religiously held by his advocates that they stifled any attempt to develop alternatives. His shadow was too great for anything substantial to grow beneath it. Eno’s ideas, though not quite so insidiously imbedded within popular music, are stunting it’s growth. We need to start rejecting them to create space for younger, more nimble thinkers with truly radical ideas and everything to prove. This will be what truly advances our culture.

          As long as we get that Sydney Opera House modifier. 

For example: It’s wonderful to acknowledge that everyone can be an artist, that everyone should be an artist, but what then? We hope that the utopia will be filled with everybody lovingly creating a content that is received and honoured accordingly. A world of artists commenting on themselves and enriching the lives of everybody. But it simply won’t. Just look at the music industry; advances in technology have cut out the need for a studio, for producers and even performers when recording music. Anyone can buy some pretty cheap recording software and start churning out whateverthey fancy. These developments created an initially brilliant atmosphere that coalesced into some phenomenal genres. Yet now, the ease in which we can produce then market our music and the desire to ‘make’ it through pandering to social media has diminished not only the value of music but also it’s vitality. Read any blog on the subject of ‘making it’ (as I have, I am but a cog in the machine) and they’ll all list many numbered points to follow: retweet things on Twitter, be funny on Vine, sing covers on Youtube. Each one carefully constructed to suck the individuality and danger from anything that you may otherwise do. Everything then sounds the same as we all jostle to be accepted by people we shouldn’t care about. We copy the successful strategies of others because all that matters are faceless numbers, that’s how we validate ourselves. Culture doesn’t develop, it stagnates and recurses; staring backwards at a time when genuine ideas could change the world and trying desperately to repeat it. A time when Eno, Bowie, Can, Devo etc. actually allowed themselves to break the rules because it was a time when rules could still be broken. But there are no constricting structures anymore, just the gaping chasm of absolute freedom. Leaving all the remaining hopeful lost stuck in an ever spinning loop of art with no purpose or meaning.

            For example, this was written before I was born
        and yet it remains more vital than anything on Spotify.

I have no answers to what our alternatives are, merely that in questioning the status quo we at least can take a stand. Eno is the status quo, he has been for years. To paraphrase Boulez: “To take a stand against Eno? To do so is urgently necessary, certainly; it is nonetheless an elusive problem, defying wisdom, perhaps a search without satisfactory result.” But search we must. After all, the thrill is in the chase. Even Eno could agree with that.

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10 thoughts on “We need to talk about Brian Eno, his John Peel Lecture and irrelevance.

  1. will.bembridge@gmail.com says:

    This is interesting and there are points that I both agree and disagree with. Let me say first of all, I’ve not watched the lecture! But, I would not underestimate the power of pointing out the obvious. Sometimes it has to happen to help ground people in the simple things. As an example in Michael Chion’s book ‘Sound on Screen’, which is a geeky yet interesting read, he defines a set of terminology that can be used in the discussion of sound. In the book he does nothing but point out the obvious, over and over again, yet it is still a riveting read and before it was written, the world of sound had no rules for discussion. The book therefore powered discussion. In terms of ‘making it’, again I agree. I would argue that not all music is necessarily art, or at least not in a new or progressive way. The internet and social media age is yet young, so hopefully in time it will define this era rather than forever. I guess we’ll see.

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    • rryrry says:

      That’s true about stating the obvious, however my point is more that we have trawled over these points many, many times. It’s not like we didn’t have words before them, we have had many words. There’s the whole realm of Aesthetics that has been churning out studies and theories of a unified Art. Yes, it’s good that Eno watered down these complex ideas into a soundbite for the masses, but in doing so failed to address any real questions we currently have. He failed to acknowledge the collapsing industry and the exponential growth of ‘content’ across the web (and how this may be a bad thing for actually earning from art). All he did was answer something we already knew in the same manner he always had. The point is, we need to stop relying on people at the top who have had careers that can never exist any more to paternally tell us how it is. We need new, radical thought that doesn’t necessarily agree blindly to the accepted trains of thought but has experience of how the cultural machinery at the roots actually functions. We need less Guardian articles reprinting highlights of the lecture and more objective criticism. Else we’ll never break out of the loop.

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