What Brain Eno calls scenius emerges within human groups who share a common space and understanding of how to make a particular type of artefact. They share traditional knowledge, but are not limited by this tradition. The group uses the tools and techniques which their wider peer group also use, but they push at the boundaries and one or more of the individuals in the group begin to modify and change what they have inherited.
From my own experience of innovation in science and technology, Eno’s idea of scenius rings true, and others with hands-on experience of innovation will also recognise what Eno describes. Whilst in the midst of making an innovation there is chaos and frustration, but also a palpable energy, and a feeling that something useful and new is in the process of emerging. The group responds positively to these attempts to change a shared tradition, and a creative energy is unlocked. The peer pressure acting within the group is not constrictive, acting to keep everyone within the bounds of traditionally accepted norms, but expansive.
In Eno’s letter about scenius, he describes a set of ethnographic observations he would like to make: ‘...I would love to be involved in making something to explore this idea - to support my thesis that new ideas come into being through a whole host of complicated circumstances, accidents, small incremental contributions made in isolation (as well as gifted individuals, of course) that in total add up to something qualitatively different: something nobody has ever seen before and which could not have been predicted from the elements that went to make it up’.
It is only with the development of film and audio recording technology that this idea of Eno’s has been possible. One unusually well documented example of the innovations made by a mature scenius was recorded early in 1969. The Beatles had decided to create and rehearse 14 songs to play in front of a live audience for a TV special. They planned to record the whole process on film and began on 2nd January 1969. The original deadline for the TV special was 24th January. The filmmaker they worked with, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, recorded extensive film and audio footage of this period of work by the Beatles, which he used for his 1970 documentary Let It Be. The full archive of more than 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio tapes has recently been remastered and edited into an 8 hour long 3-part documentary called Get Back by Peter Jackson. This film is a remarkable document of the interpersonal dynamics of creativity and innovation within the scenius that surrounded the Beatles.
The rehearsal sessions began at Twickenham Studios on 2nd January. After a few days of desultory progress, early on the 7th January, we see a seated Paul McCartney in a yellow sweater begin to strum his bass guitar as if it was a six string rhythm guitar. George and Ringo are sitting very close to him, and John Lennon has yet to arrive for the rehearsal. While McCartney is playing the riff, he is tapping his left foot to keep time, and he then starts to accompany himself with a vocal melody made up of indistinct, and maybe nonsense lyrics. In response to what McCartney is doing, Ringo looks bemused and George yawns. Around this tight inner circle of three Beatles, studio technicians, the band’s road manager and roadies are wandering about plugging in equipment.
After a minute and a half of strumming and warbling, Paul pauses for a few bars whilst he keeps his foot tapping, and then he restarts the riff. He now begins to sing that in hindsight sound like one of the early verses in their song Get Back. George Harrison begins to tentatively play along. Over the footage, we hear George commenting on what Paul has been doing: ‘Yeah it’s good, it’s you know, musically man it’s great’.
Within two minutes of Paul starting, Ringo begins clapping along and George more enthusiastically strums his guitar. Just then, Paul begins singing ‘get back, get back to where you once belonged’. Moments later, Ringo begins to harmonise and George is now adding guitar motifs in time with Paul’s riff. The footage cuts to what seems to be just a few moments later. Ringo is now playing a beat on the drums and George is adding guitar stabs. At that point, John Lennon arrives at the rehearsal in a fur coat, jeans and tennis shoes, sits down and begins playing along. All of a sudden, as observers we realise that surprisingly we have just witnessed the very first stages of the spontaneous composition of Get Back.
Later that January, after they have moved rehearsals to a makeshift studio in the basement of the Apple corporation building in Saville Row, we see Lennon and McCartney iteratively develop the lyrics of the song. They incorporate elements of nonsense, play with different phrasing, modify the guitar accompaniment, include a protest song element as a response to a speech by Enoch Powell's. Yet the core of the song remains the same. One of the takes from these sessions is included on the Let it Be album and released as a single, on 11 April 1969.
Remarkable as it is to see Get Back conjured from thin air, the band also either freshly composes or substantially develops more than a dozen songs in the three weeks work that is documented on the Get Back film. These songs include 11 that are on the Let it Be album, songs on their Abbey Road album and songs on solo albums by each of the individual Beatles. The Get Back footage also shows that the Beatles’ working milieu included a wider set of influences. It included the pianist Billy Preston who dropped in to say hello, and stayed to play on many of the tracks, the engineer Glyn Johns, their long term road manager Mal Evans, the roadie Kevin Harrington, their regular producer George Martin, and their partners Yoko Ono, Linda Eastman, Pattie Harrison and Maureen Starkey.
There has been much written about this period in the Beatles’ history. Yet what this film shows is the incredible creativity and productivity of a band that was both close to splitting up and with a mature, almost familial set of relationships. It is a masterclass in how scenius can lead to innovation.
An excellent article about this documentary by David Remnick is in The New Yorker HERE.