29th May 2009: What Researchers Can Learn From Brian Eno

For anyone attending Sydney’s Luminous Festival curated by musician/producer Brian Eno, some lessons for researchers:

 

1. Develop a longer-term view for your body of work/research program: Eno’s 40-year career demonstrates how creativity, foresight and role plularity may underpin a body of work or research program. Eno’s career spans several phases: early Roxy Music, a solo career which popularised ambient music and generative art, and as a producer on breakthrough albums by David Bowie, David Byrne, Talking Heads, and U2 (sorry, Coldplay doesn’t count). For most people, helming any one of the following projects would be enough: Talking Heads’ Remain In Light (1980); U2’s The Unforgettable Fire (1984), The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991); or David Bowie’s epochal ‘Berlin trilogy’ of Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979). Eno’s hit rate and cultural influence suggests he has a greater embodied awareness. For an overview, see David Sheppard’s recent biography On a Faraway Beach (Orion Books, London, 2008).

 

2. Develop a self-mastery of technique: As the creator of ambient music and generative art, Eno is frequently portrayed as a Renaissance-style creative mastermind with adaptive intent. Two more informed examples are Eric Tamm’s PhD thesis and Elspeth McFadzean’s study (‘What We Can Learn From Creative People? The Story of Brian Eno’, Management Science journal, 38:1, 2000, pp. 51-56). Eno’s diary A Year With Swollen Appendices (Faber & Faber, London, 1996) illustrates the emotional strength; attitude to funding, project and organisational constraints; and granularity of focus that a research program needs in the face of adversity.

 

3. Honour chance and luck: The ‘Law of Accident’ plays an aleatory, randomised role in many of Eno’s most influential creations: the car accident which led to the ambient music experiments for Discreet Music (1975), the Frippertronics tape delay experiments which resulted in Eno and Robert Fripp’s album No Pussyfooting (1972), and the oracular deck Oblique Strategies (1975) created with the late painter Peter Schmidt. This period shows the value of a disposition for action that is informed by conceptual depth; rapid, iterative development for strategy execution; and quasi-experimental methods with collaborators that fail fast and leverage upside risk. Eno continues this line of development with the art installation 77 Million Paintings (2006).

 

4. Build a network of collaborators and mentors: Eno’s collaborators range from David Bowie, David Byrne and U2 to journeymen producers Daniel Lanois and Robert Fripp. This network enabled Eno to transition from Roxy Music to a solo career, and then as an in-demand producer (where word of mouth and past credits are the equivalent of academic publications and grants). As recounted in Simon Reynolds‘ history of New Wave innovation, Rip It Up And Start Again (Faber & Faber, London, 2005), Eno also became a mentor and subcultural curator in the late 1970s to New York’s ‘No Wave’ scene and artists such as Devo and Talking Heads. Many of these artists and producers would become influential in their own right, rather than followers of an Eno aesthetic. Of course, sometimes things can go wrong: the rest of Talking Heads blamed Eno’s production as one of the catalysts for vocalist David Byrne’s decision to leave the band. More recently, Eno has leveraged his ‘public intellectual’ status to promote John Brockman’s Edge salon and The Long Now Foundation.

The Devolution Is Here

Devo‘s first Melbourne performance in 25 years was ‘a dream come true’ cofounder Mark Mothersbaugh told the audience – in falsetto – as Booji Boy during the finale ‘Beautiful World’. Most of the audience were ‘less beautiful than their parents’ who had attended Devo‘s last show in 1983.  Australia was ‘relatively untouched then’ compared to the post-industrial decay in Devo’s hometown of Akron, Ohio.
 
The 90-minute setlist centered on Devo’s first three albums from 1978-82.  After opening with clips from Chuck Statler’s film In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution (1975) the band played the MTV hits ‘Whip It’ and ‘Girl U Want’ early in the set.  Devo’s heavy rock arrangements became even more intense when they dispensed with the Korg keyboard at the front-of-stage and their trademark yellow radiation suits to reveal black t-shirts and shorts.  Session drummer Josh Freese kept a fast drum tempo, Bob Casale switched deftly between keyboards and rhythm guitar, Bob Mothersbaugh added lead guitar histrionics to ‘Uncontrollable Urge’, ‘Gut Feeling’ and the Rolling Stones cover ‘I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)’, whilst Gerald Casale’s vocals on ‘Secret Agent Man’ highlighted the band’s humour.  The first encore ‘Freedom of Choice’ became a satire on Pax America: ‘If you want proof of devolution just look at the current White House’, Mark Mothersbraugh told fans.  For me, ‘Jocko Homo’ was the standout track with MIDI keyboard samples, jerky robotic stage moves, a wall of sound, and the audience singing the anthematic chorus.

I took away three lessons about innovation from Devo’s 2008 tour.

Devo’s expertise in art direction differentiates their live show from others: a Pop Art aesthetic now fused with New Wave nostalgia.  This sensibility may be why Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and David Bowie engaged in a bidding war to produce Devo’s first album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo (1978).  It’s also why Virgin’s Richard Branson invited Devo to Jamaica in a ploy to sign John Lydon as their frontman, which Simon Reynolds recounts in Rip It Up And Start Again (Faber & Faber, London, 2005).  Branson perceived Devo as the New Wave heirs to the Sex Pistols‘ Situationist critique (p. 80-81).  This New Wave branding ensures Devo has a core fanbase and branding that resonates enough to sell plenty of red flowerpot hats 25 years later.  It’s also evident in the Australian support band Regurgitator‘s aesthetics and Band in a Bubble experiment, and the Primus theme for South Park.

Devo mania was however a New Wave subculture that did not go mainstream.  Despite MTV’s heavy rotation of ‘Whip It’ and ‘Girl U Want’ the network became the ‘Home
Shopping Network for record labels’ claims Mark Mothersbaugh, rather than maintain its avantgarde and experimental credentials (p. 349).  A mainstream audience would not understand Devo’s satirical parodies of Christian fundamentalist and 19th century eugenicist doctrines on human and cultural evolution nor its embrace of the Church of the Subgenius.  Devo by the mid-1980s was consigned to mid-level status on Enigma Records: what happens after a fad or mania fades away can be just as much a lesson as the subcultural tipping point.

The production company Mutato Muzika offers a synthesis of how to escape the half-lives of subcultural fads and the limits of mid-level success.  Mark & Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale have refocused on composing advertising jingles, film and television scores.  Mutato provides a small team environment which composer John Enroth describes as a focus on pragmatic ‘craft’ with timeboxes for project delivery that are differentiated from the ‘art’ projects that members pursue elsewhere.  Mutato developed business models including corporate sponsors for songs and Apple iTunes release and distribution that are now ‘indie’ common practices.

As the next stage in devolution Mutato looks to be a sustainable business that can collaborate with the mainstream media yet is also centred on a personal aesthetic experience and philosophical outlook.