What is a non musician? The most obvious application is to describe people who are not musicians, but it has also been used to describe musicians who approach their work from a non musical perspective. The non musicians I will be talking about have all separated themselves from conventional and traditional ideas of how to create music, how music can be perceived and even what it can communicate and represent.

1. Brian Eno

An obvious but valid choice. From the very beginning of his career through to the present day Eno has constantly pushed or been pushing the ideas of what music is and how it can be created. He began his musical career in Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, which allowed anyone to join and created experimental music using graphic scores instead of the traditional stave and improvisation to achieve the resulting sound. His next venture was Roxy Music. Though they had a rock music sound they weren’t any normal rock band, Andy Mackay’s saxophone was something rarely found in the genre at the time. In addition to this, Eno used the EMS VCS3 synthesiser, which featured no keys and produced effects and synthetic sounds instead of discernible notes. He also treated Phil Manzenera’s guitar on ‘Ladytron’, which was Eno’s first use of what he later called ‘treatments’ in an attempt to describe what he did with instruments and to distance himself from other pop/rock musicians. After Eno left Roxy Music in 1973 he began his solo career in an equally bizarre fashion. He credited himself on the sleeve of solo debut album ‘Here Comes the Warms Jets’ with playing ‘simplistic keyboards, snake guitar, electric larynx and synthesiser’. At this time he also began his pioneering work with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, employing tape delay techniques to create the sound they dubbed ‘Frippertronics’. As the 1970s progressed Eno’s music seems, in retrospect, to lead naturally to his next innovation – ambient music (despite his claim to the inspiration of being unable to clearly hear his guitar while lying a hospital bed). In 1978 he released the first album of this new genre ‘Music for Films’ which was inadvertently the achievement that he became most famous for, at times overshadowing his other work. The intention for ambient music was to change the listener’s perception of the space they were in and this was reflected in albums titles such as ‘Music for Airports’ and ‘Ambient#4: On Land’. This was a radical step and a precursor to Eno’s later work as both a multi-media artist, such as his recent ‘77 Billion Paintings’ exhibition and authoring the Generative Music software, which required no musical skill to use.

Why has Eno felt the need to switch between so many different roles and collaborations (and this is of cause not forgetting to mention his career as a record producer for U2, Talking Heads, James etc)? Why does he continue to insist he is not a musician? In an interview with legendary music journalist Lester Bangs in 1979 Eno explained that he felt that many bands or artists pursued a linear career path treading water, producing album after album but he preferred the accidental career path he found himself on, putting it down to his desire to avoid clichés and getting stuck in an artistic rut. He claimed to have been offered tempting profile boosting opportunities but turned them down because he wanted to ‘maintain his mobility’ and lead his career his way, meaning that Eno can constantly move between collaborative, solo or ambient albums and multimedia projects.

As for his claims of being a ‘non musician,’ this statement seems to contradict the incredible body of work he has created. It is a selection so strong and so full of musicality, how could it come from anyone other than a musician? Eno answers this in the same interview, saying that again he is standing in opposition to generally accepted ideas of what a musician is. He discusses his processes as having more to do with ‘manipulation and ingenuity’ than musical skill. This involves picking out parts on various instruments then feeding them through electronics and effects before getting other collaborators to overdub onto the basic tracks. Being more interested in sound than technical ability, he starts with a sound then works on the harmony or melody often feeling his way to find complimentary notes. This method of working can also be dictated by a set of cards, named Oblique Strategies, that are designed to provide unorthodox forms of inspiration and include instructional statements such as ‘Honour thy error as a hidden intention’ , a technique that has been utilised by Radiohead.  Eno also believes that not having formal music training can ‘generate surprising results sometimes; you move to places which you wouldn’t do if you knew better, and sometimes that’s just what you need.’

2. Matthew Herbert

My second choice for this chart is the ‘found sound’ auteur Matthew Herbert, a non musician in the most literal sense. Herbert doesn’t play a conventional musical instrument on any of his records, despite the fact that he learnt piano from the age of five. He has created music in various guises since his first release as Wishmountain in 1995 and has always composed with ‘found sound’ and not traditional instrumentation. His interest in ‘found sound’ began at Exeter University where he learnt about aleatoric processes (anything left to chance or that is indeterminate) while studying drama. Herbert soon discovered that his true calling was music and that he could apply these theories to its creation. His first performance came in 1995 and featured only a bag of crisps, a microphone and a sampler. His early career (1995 – 2000) was split between his Wishmountain guise (in which he helped invent the mircohouse genre) and Radioboy (where he explored his more experimental and political side). It was in 2000 that Herbert’s career and theoretical work really took off though. He created the P.C.C.O.M. (Personal Contract For The Composition Of Music) a set of rules for his own musical composition, such as:

• ‘Only sounds that are generated at the start of the compositional process or taken from the artist’s own previously unused archive are available for sampling.’

• ‘The inclusion, development, propagation, existence, replication, acknowledgement, rights, patterns and beauty of what are commonly known as accidents, is encouraged. Furthermore, they have equal rights within the composition as deliberate, conscious, or premeditated compositional actions or decisions.’

Like Eno, Herbert has created an aid to creativity. However whereas ‘Oblique Strategies’ was a tool to help inspiration, P.C.C.O.M. is used to restrict what Herbert can use or do while he is creating music. Both approaches encourage and cause innovation in music and have also shown that high quality music can be made via unorthodox methods and not necessarily from people with a classically trained background like Eno. Matthew Herbert could have chosen to compose music using traditional instrumentation, but instead he pursued a more experimental path, one that has resulted in more interesting and possibly better music.

Why did Herbert chose to do this? Initially it would seem that this was due to his interest in the concept of the accident and indeed this persists to this day as Herbert named his own record label Accidental Records. Since founding the Radioboy alias in 1997 and creating the P.C.C.O.M. in 2000 Herbert’s music has grown more potent, more musical and, most importantly, more symbolic and political. Herbert claims to have taken it beyond ‘found sound’ and coined his own term ‘that sound’. Not interested in merely sampling what’s around him, he is interested in what it is and why he is sampling it. His music is rich in symbiotic and discursive content, whether it be the subtle and sumptuous orchestrated sounds of his ‘Scale’ album or his most experimental work to date ‘Plat Du Jour’, he is always addressing political and social issues, using sampled items that are representative and intrinsic to that issue and that have been moulded into musical sound by Herbert.

Matthew Herbert has been included at No.2 in this chart due both to his innovative non musical approach and like Eno he produces incredible musical results, the political messages cleverly woven into the very fabric of his music and the use of a limiting manifesto to create interesting, unique and often sublime music, which continues to evolve.

3. Coldcut

Coldcut take the idea of being a non musician into a whole different area by creating multimedia audio visual pieces that recycle elements from all over music and film/television history. Coldcut believe that ‘the whole world is there to be cut and pasted’ and they have (almost) literally done that since they released their debut single ‘Say Kids, What Time Is It?’ in 1987. The cut ‘n’ paste genre was in its infancy at this point but since then Coldcut have become a by-word for the genre and the modern audio visual art form of VJing (Visual Jockeying), but more on that later. Coldcut were formed by ex art teacher Jonathan More and graphic designer Matt Black after they met in a record shop where they played each other bootlegs they had been working on. They were both DJs on the rare groove scene, which later mutated into the door opening rave/acid house scene. They continued to establish themselves as remixers and producers scoring hits including their legendary remix of Eric B and Rakim’s ‘Paid in Full’ and ‘Docterin’ the House’ by Yazoo (Yazz in the U.S.), this culminated in being awarded the BPI’s ‘Producers of the Year Award’ in 1990 and a major record deal. At no point in this period did Coldcut refer to themselves as musicians (and they haven’t since). When they attempted to register with the Musician’s Union they couldn’t as DJs, so signed up as drummer and keyboard player, despite no proof of these skills.

After tiring of the marketing juggernaut of major label life, the germ of their own record label formed in a hotel room in Japan and a philosophy began to form. In 1993 Coldcut set up Ninja Tune records initially to release their own records and multimedia projects including DJ Food and Hex (their first audio visual project) but steadily evolving into a home for many like minded artists including Amon Tobin, The Herbaliser, DJ Vadim etc. Ninja Tune allowed More and Black to invest time and money in developing the software VJamm, which launched in 1997. It was packaged with fourth album ‘Let Us Play, which included videos for most of the songs and it revolutionised the underground VJ scene and enabled Coldcut to take it to a wider audience. VJamm changed previous ideas about VJing being an accompaniment to music into to being integrated, VJamm used audio/video clips, there was no separation and users could create and mix their own material for performance. Over the next few years VJing took off all over the world, as the ‘Let Us Play’ tour spread over five years and they released VJamm 2 to further acclaim in 2003.

Though Coldcut remained musically quiet (aside from the Re:volution single in 2001) they remained busy with various projects including piratetv.net, a website that broadcasted from their Spacelab studio and featured guests such as Radiohead and vjs.net that focused on educational activities. Coldcut finally returned with ‘Sound Mirrors’ in 2006, an album produced completely in Ableton Live a new piece of initiative music software designed for live performance and recording. It was also Coldcut’s first ‘song based’ studio album featuring guests ranging from guitarist Jon Spencer to rapper/poet Saul Williams, and also featured a bonus demo of VJamm 3. Coldcut had managed to produce their most complete album and piece of software in one go. However, there was no audio-visual material with the album but it was soon revealed that they had commissioned a selection of directors to produce videos for a ‘Sound Mirrors’ DVD/CD release later that year, the CD featured a diverse range of commissioned remixes of tracks from ‘Sound Mirrors’.

Coldcut are my No.3 selection because they have never proclaimed to be musicians and yet have probably produced some of the most thrilling musical (and visual) art of the last 20 odd years. They have managed to stay at the cutting edge (despite their advancing years) and have constantly engaged and challenged their audience while doing so. Their own work has created and raised the profiles of the cut ‘n’ paste and VJ scenes in the U.K. and abroad. Matt Black’s Youtube channel is worth checking out for audio visual thrills!! From the start Coldcut were ahead of their time and continue to create 21st century music, while not having a single theory grade between them.

4. DJ Shadow

The next artist in the chart is instrumental hip-hop artist DJ Shadow, whose album ‘Endtroducing’ revitalised hip-hop in 1997 and whose production work for the likes of Solesides/Quannum Projects and UNKLE raised the bar in terms of what hip-hop could be. In addition, he has produced many mixes and bootlegs of high quality, the highlight being his collaboration with ex Jurassic 5 DJ/producer Cut Chemist ‘Product Placement’. All this and Shadow has never played a note on any record he’s been involved with. Like the other artists in this chart Shadow has chosen to create music in what was, at the time, an unconventional method. He replaced his lack of traditional musical skill with access to a phenomenal record archive and knowledge of and innovative use of the sampler whilst getting the most out of his basic equipment and musical resources.

His debut LP ‘Endtroducing’ was produced using only an AKAI MPC-60 – a 12-bit sampling drum machine, a pair of turntables and a borrowed Pro Tools setup. This is even more amazing when you consider this album was voted the Best Dance Album Ever in Muzik magazine in 2002 and was the first album ever to be made completely from samples, as stated by the Guinness Book of Records in 2001. In 2006 it was named one of TIME magazines greatest albums ever. Unlike previous albums that had used samples (maybe with the exception of Public Enemy) Shadow gave the music more depth and emotional resonance, marking him out from his contemporaries and inspiring a spate of imitators, who have rarely matched the original innovations of Shadow. Like Herbert and Coldcut, Shadow pushed the accepted ideas about what originality in music is and whether the sampler can be considered an instrument. He took sampling to a higher level layering eclectic musical elements together to create a new, and more importantly, completely different piece of music. He didn’t find a beat or a break and write music to it nor did he just take a riff, melody or voice from a record and write a hip-hop beat to it. He created a tapestry of samples, that were never meant to be heard together and made it all make musical sense. ‘Endtroducing’ takes the listener on a musical and emotional journey, Shadow replaced Gangsta rappers simplistic talk of guns, money and ho’s into a much deeper, broader and more introspective landscape that was not previously thought possible in hip-hop.

Though he has not talked about this, Shadow’s use of the sampler has pushed forward the argument that a sampler is an instrument, as much as fellow sampler users Coldcut and Herbert who verbally intellectualised the idea. Shadow has let his music do the talking. His second and third albums have seen his stock continue to lower and a move towards more conventional instrumentation but it is churlish to expect Shadow to produce ‘Endtroducing Part II’ or something as ground breaking again. In retrospect ‘The Private Press’ stands up much better than the music press gave it credit for, though I agree with critics who universally panned ‘The Outsider’. Despite this DJ Shadow deserves his place on this list for beginning a new era in the sampling of music. Without DJ Shadow artists such as The Avalanches, Girl Talk, Amon Tobin and many more may not have existed.

5. Joe Meek

The last non musician in this chart is by far the most commercially successful, notching up an incredible 40 British Top 40 chart hits (all produced in his bedroom studio), and created a legacy that continues to influence musicians, producers and non musicians to this day. Joe Meek is a forgotten man in the landscape of British popular music despite his huge success and the dubious honour of his biggest hit ‘Telstar’ being Margaret Thatcher’s favourite song.

Why is Meek forgotten? Meek produced and co-wrote these hit singles despite being tone deaf and unable to read or write a note of music. Unlike other high profile producers and hit writers at the time, such as Phil Spector, Quincy Jones and Burt Bacharach he never had a public face and thus disappeared to be rediscovered by later generations. Meek was only credited as producer on the records that he created and so it was not realised for decades that he was the creative force behind these unique sounds. Meek, like Spector, created his own sound world but, unlike Spector, did not have access to expensive studios, session musicians and orchestras.

Meek built his own processing and effects equipment and custom designed his studio. This gave him his trademark sound that presented otherwise traditional pop and rock ‘n’ roll songs with a space age feel and predated some computer technology used in the creation of many electronic music styles today. It wasn’t just Meek’s production tools that set him apart, he had a unique way of getting his ideas across to the young musicians at his disposal (which included future Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, Chas Hodges aka Chas from Chas and Dave, and Mitch Mitchell later of The Jimi Hendrix Experience). He would play a record similar to the idea in his head and then sing (out of tune) his own song over the top and then Hodges would interpret it so that the musicians were able to play the sounds Meek heard. Another strange recording technique employed was that Meek made a singer sing to a piano piece and recorded the music around the vocal performance so the singer wouldn’t know what it sounded like until it was released; this was not due to inspiration but the intense secrecy that Meek demanded.

Meek’s greatest contribution to popular music is that he developed the following two ideas:

1)      Recording and treating instruments separately that later combined to make the finished record.

2)      Tape editing and use of multi track recordings to produce a ‘perfect’ version of the instruments recorded from a number of takes and/or to create many layers of the same sound.

These two innovations changed the face of popular music recording, which up until that point was mostly being recorded straight to disc minus any sort of processing. In addition, Meek’s creation and use of his own electronic effects processor and other gadgetry preceded later developments in both popular music and more experimental electronic music by almost two decades. Joe Meek earns his place in this chart not because he produced so many hit records but because of how he produced them and the legacy that he left for the likes of Orbital, Stereolab, Radiohead and many more artists particularly in the techno and electronica genres.

This post’s Spotify playlist:

Non Muscian’s Playlist

Non Muscian’s Playlist

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