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Scenius

from The New Yorker

AMBIENT GENIUS

The working life of Brian Eno.

BY 

In January, 1975, the musician Brian Eno and the painter Peter Schmidt released a set of flash cards they called “Oblique Strategies.” Friends since meeting at art school, in the late sixties, they had long shared guidelines that could pry apart an intellectual logjam, providing options when they couldn’t figure out how to move forward. The first edition consisted of a hundred and fifteen cards. They were black on one side with an aphorism or an instruction printed on the reverse. Eno’s first rule was “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” Others included “Use non-musicians” and “Tape your mouth.” In “Brian Eno: Visual Music,” a monograph of his musical projects and visual art, Eno, who still uses the rules, says, “ ‘Oblique Strategies’ evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation—particularly in studios—tended to make me quickly forget that there were other ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.”

Eno is widely known for coining the term “ambient music,” and he produced a clutch of critically revered albums in the nineteen-seventies and eighties—by the Talking Heads, David Bowie, and U2, among others—but if I had to choose his greatest contribution to popular music it would be the idea that musicians do their best work when they have no idea what they’re doing. As he told Keyboard, in 1981, “Any constraint is part of the skeleton that you build the composition on—including your own incompetence.” The genius of Eno is in removing the idea of genius. His work is rooted in the power of collaboration within systems: instructions, rules, and self-imposed limits. His methods are a rebuke to the assumption that a project can be powered by one person’s intent, or that intent is even worth worrying about. To this end, Eno has come up with words like “scenius,” which describes the power generated by a group of artists who gather in one place at one time. (“Genius is individual, scenius is communal,” Eno told the Guardian, in 2010.) It suggests that the quality of works produced in a certain time and place is more indebted to the friction between the people on hand than to the work of any single artist.

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Posted on June 30, 2014 by Editor

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