This was an essay I did in my second year of university, I think I got a 2:1. I looked into the works of Brain Eno, Kate Bush and Scott Walker.
How have various artists contributed to the development of alternative forms of popular music?
The practices of avant-garde, experimental, and alternative music can be traced back to the 20th century. John Cage, Steve Reich, and Karlheinz Stockhausen are a few of the major artists who have had an effect on the way current musicians create, and produce music:
“The music of Radiohead or Pink Floyd, Ulrich Schnauss or Coldplay, Explosions in the Sky or even Metallica, is unthinkable without the exploratory, groundbreaking work of people like Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Steve Reich.” (Diliberto, J: 2008)
After these musicians started creating music in a distinctive way, some of their influences took effect on other artists. One of these artists that took a huge influence (especially from John Cage), and has also been a huge influence on artists like David Bowie, Coldplay and U2 is the 66 year old, English producer, musician, songwriter and visual artist Brain Eno:
“I think without John Cage I wouldn’t have been involved in music at all actually. Because Cage created the atmosphere within which it was possible for a lot of other people to start thinking you could make music using this or that or no instruments or some instruments or people who could play or who can’t play. Suddenly it broke down the boundary between the group of people called composers and the rest of the world.” (qtd Diliberto, J: 2008)
Eno connected avant-garde with rock/pop by using the studio as a compositional tool. Before this – before tape, music was recorded on a device and the music that was being recorded couldn’t be tampered with in any way, it captured the performance fully:
“Till about the late ’40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a “more faithful” transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone – like device.” (qtd Bass, D: 1979)
When tape came a long it was possible to change the way music could be edited and heard. During the 1950’s -1970’s producers discovered you could add more tracks. This then become two-track, three track and so on, until in the modern day you can now record on a 62-track. However back then on a 16-track you ended up with more tracks than was necessary for a traditional rock/pop style song:
“The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t.” (qtd Bass, D: 1979)
This is when Eno came up with the minimalist idea to go into a studio with hardly any material at all, or any for that matter, and compose a piece of music from scratch in the studio:
“In a compositional sense this takes the making of music away from any traditional way that composers worked, as far as I’m concerned, and one becomes empirical in a way that the classical composer never was. You’re working directly with sound, and there’s no transmission loss between you and the sound – you handle it.” (qdt Bass, D 1979)
Eno not only connected avant-garde rock/pop, he created a whole new genre of experimental music called ambient music with various collaborators. This type of music strips back the typical abundant and dynamic noise of most popular music, to create a delicate and tranquil sound. Eno has had many experimental albums and projects, including the windows start up sound. On the sleevenotes for the album Ambient 1 – Music for Airports, he describes his vision of ambient music as:
“An ambience is defined as an atmosphere or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmopsheres.” (qtd Toop, D: 1995)
Ambient music has now influenced a variety of artists like Moby, Athex Twin and Steve Roach. In an interview with Complex magazine, Moby describes his influence as:
“The inspiration for it is simply my lifelong love of very quiet and very non-demanding ambient music. Starting in the early ’70s–and I love a lot of different genres–but I remember hearing Brian Eno…”
“And falling in love with very quiet, atmospheric and melodic music.” (Moby: 2014)
The creativity of Eno doesn’t stop there. Since he was 17, Eno is also experimental in the way he connects art into pop through the experimentation of light and images. Eno creates a form of avant-garde, experimental art which is projected and gradually changes over time:
“What I realised is that pure light, pure projected light was very powerful. So I started working with lots of projectors, all projecting onto the same surface so the result was a constantly mutating image, and I liked that, I thought I had never seen this before, this was good.” (Eno, B: 2013)
Another artist who is avant-garde, experimental but unlike Brian Eno, is also alternative is 56 year old, English singer, songwriter, producer and innovator Kate Bush.
Bush’s career took off when she started recording with Pink Floyds David Gilmore. Bush’s first album, The Kick Inside, features the number one track ‘Wuthering Heights’, and still to this date remains her most popular hit. But why is this the case? Some may argue most of Bush’s most impressive and innovating work was after this period:
“Those who have continued to admire her more particularly for her later musical achievements,1 which have surely consolidated her position as one of the most individual and innovative artists of the 1980s and 1990s, do so possibly in spite of (rather than because of) the impact of ‘Wuthering Heights’.” (Losseff, N: 1999)
So why might some argue Bush’s work after this period is in fact her greatest musical achievements? After her first two albums, Bush started feeling limited to the multi-track recording Brain Eno envied so much, and started taking control of her music, in 1972 she built a studio in her home to create demos:
“In some deeply ingrained sense playing live contradicts the entire purpose of her music, which at its best is an attempt to disappear into the sound, to dematerialise, to liquefy the physical self until all that’s left is pure sensation and feeling; to achieve some degree of personal and very private transcendence” (G, Thomson: 2012)
For her third album Never For Ever (which reached number one), Bush became her own producer. Experimenting with the instrument the Farlight CMI, which allowed sampling, sequencing and synthesized sound, played a big part in the avant-garde, and experimental way Bush was creating music at this time:
“What attracts me to the Fairlight is its ability to create very human, animal, emotional sounds that don’t actually sound like a machine. I think in a way that’s what I’ve been waiting for…”
“Sounds are very important to me, and I think there are a lot of standard instruments that don’t actually sound that emotional or that interesting, which is why it’s really nice to have the flavours of these other instruments. In so many cases they are not used any more, and that means people don’t recognize them, giving an air of mystery to the music.” (Bush, K: 1982)
Not only during the making of the third album did Bush start to experiment with sound, Bush also started to write alternative lyrics and take on challenging subjects, or subjects close to home, she did this by her alternative song writing abilities. An Example of this is album track ‘Army dreamers’:
“Mourning in the aerodrome
The weather warmer, he is colder
Four men in uniform
To carry home my little soldier”
(Army Dreamers – Bush, K: 1980)
Next album The Dreaming, went even deeper into experimenting with sounds, she introduces vocal staging, which was her experimenting with different ways you could use your voice, for example drinking alcohol and performing whilst intoxicated:
“I like to ‘create’ voices. I’ve been trying this over the years. I often find that I do ‘word painting’ without realizing, and my singing/speech style probably comes from the Irish influence again.” (Bush, K: 1982)
She even introduces more unorthodox lyrics and themes. For example track ‘The Dreaming’, a song that describes Aboriginals in Australia. This song introduces powerful and controversial lyrics for example “Erase the race that claim the place” (Bush, K: 1982), accompanied by similar sounds to that of traditional Aboriginal music. The song even introduces samples of babies crying. However, at this point Bush wasn’t trying to create music that was seen the norm, this made her completely avant-garde, experimental and alternative:
“Artistically, I was especially pleased with The Dreaming. I achieved lots more on it than on the earlier ones. But then the songs were, in a way, more accepting of that kind of emotional style because they were so intense and demanding.” (Bush, K: 1995)
Following The Dreaming was number one album Hounds of Love, which expanded on Bush’s creativity even further. In 1983 Bush developed her own studio to a 42-track studio, which gave her the time and independence to work, which helped her experimental nature:
“Kate Bush first retreated from promotional duties – as usual, ‘exhausted’ by the rigours of writing and recording – and then began working to obtain complete independence and autonomy over the production process by overseeing the construction of a recording studio.” (Moy, R: 2007)
Throughout her career, during her live shows, and displayed in her videos, Bush also constructs art into pop. Bush mainly does this through expressive forms of dance which relate back to the concept, theme, or lyrics of the song:
“The thing is, when I’m actually writing something, I can’t conceive the dance at the same time. But when I’m listening and watching dance performances, I can conceive musical ideas.” (Bush, K: 1982)
Scott Walker is another artist who began in mainstream pop and changed musical direction, just like Kate Bush. The 72 year old was in the 60’s band The Walker Brothers, and since then (being a solo artist) has experimented with music becoming an avant-garde artist. However, unlike Brain Eno, and Kate Bush who created art into pop, Walker introduces pop into art, and is unarguably avant-garde, experimental and alternative through challenging his audiences and experimenting with sounds and lyrics that go against the mainstream norm:
“Over the years, countless eulogies have been delivered about the strangest, saddest, most elusive pop star of them all, but no one had delved beyond those piles of yellowing press cuttings to study the character and events which helped transform Scott Walker from No. 1 sex symbol to reclusive cult figure.” (Watkinson, M & Anderson, P: 1994)
Interestingly, Kate Bush and Scott Walker are quite similar musically. Their careers once pop icons, slowly moulded album after album into a product one might seem as alternative, with big gaps in-between albums and no live shows, until recently Bush had a residency in London, however, still very rare. Frith (1998) Might describe this as Culture as transformation:
“Culture as transformation … must challenge experience, must be difficult, must be unpopular. There are, in short, political as well as sociological and aesthetic reasons for challenging populism.” (Frith, S 1998: p20)
Kate Bush has done this through her most recent album 50 words of Snow her darkest and most intense work yet, one song lyrically describes herself having sex with a snowman. A critic’s opinion of the album was:
“On paper, it’s a lovely concept. On record, it treads an exceedingly fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous.” (Rodgers, J: 2011)
Similarly Scott Walkers The Drift has the same effect. When making the album, he experimentally creates sounds with as many different objects as possible. Probably one of the most unorthodox sounds he uses is using a piece of carcass meat as a punching bag (as seen in the documentary 30th Century Man: 2006):
“It’s as if he’s wracked by a vision of true horror; a fascism wrought by humanity on itself, not through a sudden attack of mania but as a subtle, almost imperceptible shift in the norm through shades of cruelty and discomfort.” (Campion, C: 2006)
Scott Walker’s The Drift can be truly overwhelming at times. In the documentary 30th Century Man, Walker describes his song writing as:
“Everything in my world, because I have a very nightmarish imagination, I mean I have very bad dreams all my life and things so everything in my world is big. And that’s why the words are important, because you have to feel the phenomenon, of, you know the words coming out of silence.” (Walker, S: 2006)
Brain Eno, Kate Bush and Scott Walker all in their own right are avant-garde musicians. All three artists are similar in the fact they want to take complete control over their work, they all had revolutionary, original ideas and methods in art, music, song writing and experimented with these ideas, which will continue to influence other artists. Although the methods and music they make wasn’t seen as the mainstream norm, they make this music because it’s the type of music they want to make:
“Avant-garde music is sort of research music. You’re glad someone’s done it but you don’t necessarily want to listen to it.” (Eno, B: 1990)
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