University of Illinois at Chicago

Playing Music Badly in Public: Brian Eno and the Limits of the Non-Musician

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posted on 2021-05-01, 00:00 authored by Chris M Reeves
Playing Music Badly in Public: Brian Eno and the Limits of the Non-Musician, focuses on communities of musicians in the 1970s that came from visual or conceptual art backgrounds and were committed to the concept of performing on instruments in which they had not been trained. These communities were shaped by friendship, which in turn gave these scenes a hermetic quality. This is one reason why, despite the ubiquity of art students turning to making music in the 1970s, this practice remains historically overlooked. One exception is Brian Eno, an art school graduate who found fame through his canny use of media and personal style. Eno, who put the idea of “non-musician” both into practice and working identity, was able to scale up the conceptual art and musical activity that he was doing with friends into larger vernacular networks of production, such as rock and roll and punk. Eno worked with several groups (The Scratch Orchestra, The Portsmouth Sinfonia, Roxy Music, and New York’s ‘No Wave’ scene) of purposefully deskilled musical groups, all of which held deep reverence for conceptual music making and remaining musically untrained. How Eno could ride a thorny premise like “non-musician,” that had its roots in more hermetic experimental art and music vernaculars, into canonical and popular favor while these other groups he touched fell apart under the shambolic weight of the “non-musician” concept is a major thread of this dissertation. More broadly, while rooted in a historical moment, Playing Music Badly in Public charts an origin point for conceptual art’s move into popular forms of culture, and the legacy of the untrained in our contemporary moment of deskilled politicians and democratic forms of production on the internet.



Higgins, Hannah B


Higgins, Hannah B


Art History

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

Archias, Elise Stratman, Deborah Anderson, Simon Smith, Owen

Submitted date

May 2021

Thesis type



  • en