7 Crazy Revolutionary Musicians

There was never a genius without a tincture of madness. – Aristotle

We live in great times for creating music: there are thousands of varieties, anyone can make it and there are no rules. For this freedom, though, we owe a great debt to the leftfield musicians of the past… always revolutionary, often brilliant, frequently bordering on the insane.

As a musician (and a part time crazy person) I hold these people in the highest respect. Here are some of my favorites

Luigi Russolo

In many ways the McDaddy of experimental music. Back in 1913 he wrote L’Arte dei Rumor or ‘The art of noise’ which was not an essay, a book or a pamphlet … it was a manifesto. Anyone who drafts one of those is either a bone fide genius or not to be trusted. With Russolo its probable a mixture of both. Inspired by the sounds of industry that had permeated his surroundings he built a series of noise making mechanical monsters he called  intonarumori.

The true insanity – When he gave a concert featuring his intonarumori, the crowd literally rioted. Most people might take offence at their music causing a bloody uprising but when he was asked afterwards he said it was the response he was ‘hoping’ it would cause. Regular genius, evil genius? You decide

Leon Theremin

Moving from Italy to Russia, again in the early parts of the 20th century was this crazy man. He gave his name to his most famous invention, the <surprise surprise> Theremin. If you’ve never heard of it, you’ve almost certainly heard it. Every 60s Sci Fi movie used this bizarre device that converts the users movements into sound without ever touching it. Many people still use various versions today and there are more software emulations than you can shake a stick at.

Theremin, however, should probably be remembered for more than that like inventing the world’s first drum machine, or a platform that converts dancing to sound or a variety of other strange controlled electronic instruments. Maybe even he should be remembered for his dream of creating a power station sized orchestra of theremins to create possible one of the most bizarre musical spectacles ever conceived.

The true insanity – apart from the general weirdness of his musical inventions he also fully lived up to the James Bond Russian stereotype: he invented one of the worlds passive listening devices (bugs). He then hid it inside a model of the American great seal and (as part of an elaborate Ruse) had it presented to the American ambassador in Moscow. It hung, pride of place, in the embassy for years picking up all sort juicy cold war secrets … brilliant

Arnold Shoenberg

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Shoenberg was certainly a little crazy in his own right. He had a dread fear of the number 13 and while fighting for the german army in WWI, he developed the idea that the war itself would become a vehicle for German musical dominance over French  composers (or ‘Kitchmongers’ as he referred to them). Fleeing from the Nazis 15 years later could not have exactly helped his mental state

The true insanity – In this case the honour goes fairly and squarely to the music. Unlike Russolo (who wanted to introduce non musical sounds into music), Shoenberg took normal notes on normal instruments and generally made them sound as awful as possible. His weapon on this quest was the musical ideology of Serialism, which would use every semitone in an octave in each melodic run. If you have ever touched a musical instrument, you probably know that not every note goes together. Trying to use every note every time would be the equivalent of trying to use evey jar in your spice rack, for every meal you ever cook … You’re going to get clashes. Despite all of this we owe him a great debt as he ‘proved’ that to make viable music you don’t need to stick to a melodic pattern all of the time; to make enjoyable music though, you need to stick to it most of the time.

John Cage

john cage, paris 1981

Often referred to as the father of experimental music, this 20th century composer literally did everything in his power to challenge peoples perception of what music was. He took what Shoenberg started and grew it in every direction. He’s most famous for writing 4’33”, which is probably the only piece of music in existence which people regularly perform by accident – being 4’33” of complete silence or ambient noise depending on your interpretation. Amusingly there has actually been a legal challenge, where John Cage’s estate has attempted to claim royalties from another composer (Mike Batt – of Wombles and Bright eyes fame) for releasing a silent track. So as well as challenging perception of music, Cage’s work has challenged the concept of intellectual property too.

The True insanity – Wow, that’s kind of difficult to choose: insane instructions (“In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action.” ???), custom instruments like the prepared piano (where random objects were inserted into the bowels of the instrument) and pre-digital generative music (by using I Ching and starcharts). My personal favourite Cage story is actually a contemporary one: In Halberstadt Cathedral a special organ has been constructed to play his piece “as slow as possible”. They’re really following his instructions to the letter … the performance is due to last 639 years!

La Monte Young

lamonte

La Monte would probably approve of the Halberstadt performance, one of his favourite composition methods is based on very long notes or drones. His music is pretty difficult to define but it has variously been accused of being Jazz, Minimal, Static music and Experimental. He was also a key influence in the Fluxus movement which aimed to bring together different disciplines of art to create a futuristic fusion media (in this case, futuristic might actually be the correct term seeing how much convergent media we see these days). They were completely bonkers though … they even had a manifesto. The Fluxus idealogy certainly worked for Young though as he himself was an artist, inspiring Warhol and many others.

The true insanity – This has got to be his musical directions which have included building a fire on stage and pushing a piano through a wall (I’d def pay to see that). Either those or writing pieces that are so long that any performance is considered a continuation rather than a piece in its own right

Brian Eno

Brian_Eno

Although he started in Punk with Roxy music, Eno is best known as one of the greatest proponents of ambient and generative music. He really rode the wave of the technological advancements of the late 20th century, using a lot of analogue samplers and effects to create his early music. He was also one of the first people to release music as software. I even had some of his generative music programs (on 3 1/2 inch floppy disk!). He has continued with this to this day, if you look on the App store you’ll find some of his stuff. I like Trope for a chilled out meditative moment.

The true insanity – For this one it has to be his description of his own insanity while writing one of his most famous ‘pieces’ … the Windows 95 startup sound

“The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long.”

“I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.”

“In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time” source

Kraftwerk

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OK, OK, I know Kraftwerk is not a musician, in fact there have been 20-odd of them over the years but they are so influential (and so mad), I had to include them on this list. They are generally credited with inventing electronic music as we understand it today, that’s a big credit. When they started the hardware they needed didn’t exist, so they would use lab oscilloscopes and various other repurposed pieces of electronics to make their sounds. Because of the huge musical territory they opened up, many consider them to be more influential than the Beatles.

The true insanity – for Kraftwerk this has probably got to be the lengths they will go to to avoid the spotlight. They have sent out robot mannequins to perform in their place at concerts and photo shoots, they’ve only ever given a handful of interviews and most of them very brief and enigmatic, they don’t accept visitors and actually keep the exact location of their studios a secret. Its probably a testiment to their significance that anyone’s ever heard of them 😉

Well those are some of my favorites, I try to draw on them while I’m producing music, to try to add a unique spark to each track. Having said that, I’d probably be afraid to veer as far into the leftfield as these guys did. I’m just grateful that they’ve already (and continue to) pushed the boundaries, leaving huge amounts of territory to explore behind them.

Obviously there are many that could have made the list but didn’t. Feel free to post your favorite musical renegade below

There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.
Aristotle
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  1. […] Check out the rundown of my favorite musical madmen on the articles page […]

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