Hearing across Oceans of Sound: Experimental Listening and the Global Imaginary at the London Musicians Collective

For Brian Eno, experimental music is that which elicits a reflexive acoustemology, an aural intellection occurring “in here.” But many artists of Eno’s generation were equally occupied with what happens “out there”: in popular culture, public spaces, and beyond (Nyman 1999). Seeking to historicize this late 1970s moment, this paper explores the London Musicians Collective (LMC), a flagship enclave of composers and improvisers whose activities exemplify such “vernacular avant-gardist” investments (Piekut 2018). The paper comprises two parts. First, I detail how select LMC-members—David Toop, Paul Burwell, Max Eastley, and others—developed novel approaches to mass culture, through open air festivals like 1978’s Music/Context, and via the commercial medium of the pop band, in groups like the Flying Lizards and Frank Chickens. Second, and more extensively, I read Eno’s claim against its grain. Enlisting ethnomusicologist David Novak’s concept of “experimental listening,” I demonstrate how late-capitalist consumption practices enabled “out there” aural imaginaries; in listening to “world music” and ethnographic field recordings—produced by labels like Folkways, Ocora, and Toop’s Quartz—LMC-members heard “poetics of place” which in turn inspired the founding of Burwell’s Bow Gamelan Ensemble, Toop’s New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments project, works like Whirled Music, and the quasi-ethnomusicological magazine Collusion (Lipsitz 1994; Novak 2013). Such engagements, I show, formed a bedrock of British experimental music culture—in ways that supplement Cardewian narratives which dominate histories of this scene, and prompt a reconsideration of the medial foundations subtending post-Cagean Orientalisms writ large (Corbett 2000).


Jordan Musser is a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology at Cornell University. Titled “Managing the Crisis: Music, Neoliberalism, and the Popular Avant-Garde in Britain, 1975-1984,” his dissertation examines how free improvisers, performance artists, punk bands, and dub producers both drew on and resisted the rise of Thatcherite ideology, and the ways in which such negotiations fueled criss-crossings between the fine-arts avant-garde and popular music production. Jordan’s research has recently been supported by the DAAD and the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, featured in the Metal Music Studies journal and Sounding Out!, and presented at numerous conferences. Jordan is currently a Don M. Randel Teaching and Research Fellow. Prior to coming to Cornell, he completed the M.A. in the Humanities from The University of Chicago and the B.M. in Music Education at Susquehanna University, and worked for Grove Music Online.