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Outsiders: On Remaining An Outsider

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Rob Lee

In an age of ubiquitous information, intentionally remaining uninformed is a near-impossible challenge. But despite my teenage tendencies to obsessively research and ingest every piece of information I can find about a newly-discovered artist, I've come to see the value in not knowing. Approaching an artist or an entire genre as an outsider can imbue the music with a joy or mysticism lost to the expert.

Nowhere is this approach more useful than in the twin worlds of house and techno, where the barriers to entry dissolve in the collective ecstasy of the club night. Yet this music is perhaps more susceptible than any other to having its egalitarianism drained away by club connoisseurs and Boiler Room authorities with their ubiquitous calling card: "Track ID??"

Taking an outsider's approach can [...] imbue the creative process with new energy

I know next to nothing about country, but perhaps that's why Barbara Mandrell's 'Standing Room Only' makes me cry. My obliviousness to the genre's tropes lends Mandrell's tale of a repeatedly unfaithful husband an extra emotional charge ("Don't help me set the table, 'cause now there's one less place / I won't lay mama's silver, for a man who won't say grace"). Rooted in a strand of American culture that bears almost no resemblance to my own, country represents an 'other' to me as vividly as a medieval cantata or an Indian raga.

Taking an outsider's approach can also imbue the creative process with new energy, taking well-practised musicians out of their comfort zones. PJ Harvey ditched her guitar and learned to play piano from scratch for 2007's White Chalk, repeating the process on Let England Shake by learning the autoharp, an early twentieth-century relation of the fretted zither.

The polymath Brian Eno is perhaps the greatest proponent of this form of creative disorientation. When producing David Bowie's 1979 single 'Boys Keep Swinging', Eno asked the session musicians to swap instruments and play something unfamiliar, resulting in an oddly stilted and awkward instrumental that matches the tentative exploration of sexuality in Bowie's words. Of course, it's a high-risk strategy. What person heard Bowie's 1997 foray into drum 'n' bass, Earthling, sadly without our Brian at the controls, and didn't immediately wish it could be wiped from their synapses?

Another group that eventually fell within Eno's orbit, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, had already taken this idea to its logical extreme in 1970. Founded by composer Gavin Bryars, the orchestra encouraged anyone to join and play popular classics, including 'In The Hall Of The Mountain King' and 'The Blue Danube', without any ability or experience required. The recordings, recently revived via YouTube, are gloriously horrible, recalling the childhood pleasure of bashing a piano at random.

A few weeks ago, I caught a late-night train back to Sheffield from London, listening to Radio 3's Late Junction. As we passed Chesterfield and I began to drift in and out of consciousness, Verity Sharp introduced 'Banteay Srey', a 15-minute piece by the American minimalist Carl Stone. My ignorance of Stone, his work, the year it was composed or the Burundi child's song the piece is based on allowed the luminescent electronic loops to create new colours in my semi-conscious mind, unhindered by a lineage of reference points and influences. Freed from the constraints of context or a collector's knowledge, I drifted through sound free of time or place.

Sam Gregory

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