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Brian Eno

Brian Eno: Reorganizing Society as a Rock Band


Less interested in lamenting the past, rock’s biggest producer is building new avenues for the future.

The work of Brian Eno is returned to again and again as an indefatigable source of inspiration. At age 68, the musician, artist, and producer doesn’t enjoy talking about his past glories; collaborations with Roxy Music, David Bowie or U2. In fact, the mere mention of them may cause him to momentarily lose the patience for which he’s well-known. Eno is bored talking about what he calls “history” and prefers to focus his time and energy on the future, such as in creating a hospital room for suffering people, or an aphoristic I-Ching for unlocking the creative process.

Eno recently wrote on Facebook that the Trump era should serve to reflect on the divide between the richest and the poorest, and the unequal distribution of resources in an increasingly globalized world. Digging deeper into the interview linked above, Eno believes that one way of reflecting on the debacles crowned by the Trump presidency, England’s Brexit and the rise of right-wing nationalist movements in Europe is the culmination of a “decline for about 40 years since Thatcher and Reagan.” Instead of getting angry or blaming the system, Eno felt “anger at myself for not realizing what was going on.” After all, it was not conservatives and radical nationalists who lived in a bubble, “It was us, we were in the bubble, we didn’t notice it.”

What’s happens globally at the moment, upon reflection is that:

It gives us a kick up the arse, and we needed it because we weren’t going to change anything. Just imagine if Hillary Clinton had won and we’d been business as usual, the whole structure she’d inherited, the whole Clinton family myth. I don’t know that’s a future I would particularly want. It just seems that was grinding slowly to a halt, whereas now, with Trump, there’s a chance of a proper crash, and a chance to really rethink.

The opportunity comes, for Eno, in the form of Reflection (2017), his latest album of ambient music. He conceives of it as music to think about and to let himself be in the moment:

I’m interested in the idea of generative music as a sort of model for how society or politics could work. I’m working out the ideas I’m interested in, about how you make a working society rather than a dysfunctional one like the one we live in at the moment – by trying to make music in a new way.

If we think for a moment that society could be organized as if it were an orchestra:

Where you have the composer, conductor, leader of the orchestra, section principals, section sub-principals, […] if you transpose that argument into social terms, it’s the argument between the top down and bottom up? It is possible to have a society that doesn’t have pre-existing rules and structures. And you can use the social structures of bands, theatre groups, dance groups, all the things we now call culture. You can say: “Well, it works here. Why shouldn’t it work elsewhere?”

Reflecting on the division of society like a rock band doesn’t imply thinking of society as organized chaos. Rather, it’s a structure in which each member of the team performs his or her function. Sometimes that function is to carry a melodic line so that others don’t get lost, and at other times it will be simply improvising and letting go. A flexible and provocative structure, it’s much more than the society of the present in which discontent isn’t developed into empathy or new forms of work, but into more and more laws and rules leading to stagnation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to begin to see life as a concert in which each of us is assumed to be a member of the band and not simply a gear in the machinery?

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