The treasure-trove Can DVD set from 2003 included this one-minute movie, A short tribute film to Can by Brian Eno. It’s only slightly less goofy than the gut-busting 2010 film in which Eno interviewed himself as the long-winded “Dick Flash of Pork Magazine.” At one point, as he evaluates Can’s contributions to the arts with a series of striking antitheses, Eno illustrates the true German spirit by wearing what appears to be a colander on his head.
Do orchestral musicians really have to practice four to six hours a day? Yes and no. It’s true that groups like the Chicago Philharmonic expect their members to know “notes,” “chords” and “scales.” If you don’t, they won’t let you join, and they won’t even let you play along with them during their concerts. But not all classical musicians are such fucking snobs. If your body temperature is in the neighborhood of 98 degrees Fahrenheit, congratulations! You’ve just passed the audition. You’ve got all the chops you need to play in Gavin Bryars’ people’s orchestra, the Portsmouth Sinfonia.
Inactive since the 70s, the Sinfonia once welcomed musicians and non-musicians alike, though people of talent were expected to play instruments on which they were not proficient, and all members were expected to play the repertoire to the best of their abilities. The result was a special kind of cacophony: every familiar theme (Also sprach Zarathustra, the William Tell Overture, Beethoven’s Fifth), though played as ineptly as possible, was approached with respect and even care. You will instantly recognize every tune they attempt, and you will probably bust a gut.
The orchestra’s most famous member, Brian Eno, produced (and played clarinet on) the debut album Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays The Popular Classics. Eno also appeared on the live Hallelujah, a recording of the orchestra’s triumphant 1974 performance at the Royal Albert Hall, and the Sinfonia put in an appearance on Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), contributing the seasick strings to “Put A Straw Under Baby.” In this short clip from the Royal Albert Hall show, you can see Eno singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah (scroll down for more of this performance):
From the sleeve of Popular Classics, here are Eno’s reflections on the Portsmouth Sinfonia:
The Portsmouth Sinfonia usually claims a membership of about fifty – the number fluctuates. Within the orchestra is represented the full range of musical competence – some members playing difficult instruments for the first time, others, on the other hand, of concert standard. This tends to generate an extra-ordinary and unique musical situation where the inevitable errors must be considered as a crucial, if inadvertent, element of the music.
It is important to stress the main characteristic of the orchestra: that all members of the Sinfonia share the desire to play the pieces as accurately as possible. One supposes that the possibility of professional accuracy will forever elude us since there is a constant influx of new members and a continual desire to attempt more ambitious pieces from the realms of the popular classics.
My own involvement in the Sinfonia is on two levels – I am a non-musician in the sense of never having “studied music”, yet at the same time, I notice that many of the more significant contributions to rock music and, to a lesser extent, avant-garde music have been made by enthusiastic amateurs and dabblers. Their strength is that they are able to approach the task of music-making without previously acquired solutions and without a too firm concept of what is and what is not musically possible. Coupled with this, and consequent to it, is a current fascination with the role of ‘the accident’ in structured activities.
Legend has it that Beethoven, among other composers, enjoyed performances of his music by enthusiastic music-makers who may well have possessed a similar range of abilities to those of the members of the Sinfonia.
Whether he would have enjoyed our rendering of his Fifth Symphony is, of course, something we will never know.
Eno Sept. 1973
More from the Portsmouth Sinfonia, after the jump…
The Blue Ribbon Glee Club is a Windy City-based a capella group who’ve been performing covers of classic punk and indie rock since 2007. In 2009, they released their E.P., A Capella Über Alles, on Whistler Records, the house label of my absolute favorite cocktails-and-music bar in Chicago. It should be noted that both the group’s formation and the E.P.‘s release predate the debut of that one TV show. It was about, like, a choir or something? I forget what it was called.
For the record, The Blue Ribbon Glee Club has been around since March 2007. We’re predominantly a live performance group. For us, it’s not about whitewashing rock and roll, it’s about using our voices to embody the same power and dirt that ultimately drew us to the songs we cover. But sure, some of it sounds pretty.
Brian Eno lecturing at MoMA on Duchamp’s “Fountain,” October 23, 1990
This stimulating interview with Brian Eno was conducted in 1993 by Israeli industrial designer and architect Ron Arad for the TV show Rencontre/Begegnung on the bilingual Euro TV arts channel Arte.
In the interview Eno confesses that “Roxy Music was an aberration in my life” and also intriguingly asserts that he has never owned a copy of the Velvet Underground’s third album because he does not want to spoil it by overplaying it. But the most startling portion of the interview comes towards the end, when he describes an illicit art adventure he experienced three years earlier, in 1990, when he decided to pee in Marcel Duchamp’s famous “ready-made” from 1917, a urinal with the title “Fountain” bestowed upon it.
Eno explains the importance of “Fountain” quite well when he says that it represented “a new idea in art,” that “the artist was not necessarily somebody who made something but somebody who recognized something, somebody who created an art experience by naming it as such.” Then Eno eases into his narrative: “This readymade was on show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was due to give a lecture there called ‘High Art/Low Art.’ … There it was, sitting in the museum.” After mentioning that he had already seen “Fountain” at the Sao Paulo Biennale in the 1980s as well as in London in the 1970s, he gets to the meat of his protest:
And I thought, how ridiculous that this particular … pisspot gets carried around the world at—it costs about thirty or forty thousand dollars to insure it every time it travels. I thought, How absolutely stupid, the whole message of this work is, “You can take any object and put it in a gallery.” It doesn’t have to be that one, that’s losing the point completely. And this seemed to me an example of the art world once again covering itself by drawing a fence around that thing, saying, “This isn’t just any ordinary piss pot, this is THE one, the special one, the one that is worth all this money.”
So I thought, somebody should piss in that thing, to sort of bring it back to where it belonged. So I decided it had to be me.
In the video he then goes on to describe in great detail exactly how he managed to pee on the urinal. The date of this series of events was October 23, 1990. Eno wrote about this episode in his 1996 book A Year With Swollen Appendices. Here’s his account from that book (the story in the video is very similar):
…each time it was shown it was more heavily defended. At MoMA it was being shown behind glass, in a large display case. There was, however, a narrow slit between the two front sheets of glass. It was about three-sixteenths of an inch wide.
I went to the plumber’s on the corner [New Yorkers might wonder what “plumber” has a retail presence on the intersection of 53rd and 5th Avenue?] and obtained a couple of feet of clear plastic tubing of that thickness, along with a similar length of galvanized wire. Back in my hotel room, I inserted the wire down to the tubing to stiffen it. Then I urinated into the sink and, using the tube as a pipette, managed to fill it with urine. I then inserted the whole apparatus down my trouser-leg and returned to the museum, keeping my thumb over the top end so as to ensure that the urine stayed in the tube.
At the museum, I positioned myself before the display case, concentrating intensely on its contents. There was a guard standing behind me and about 12 feet away. I opened my fly and slipped out the tube, feeding it carefully through the slot in the glass. It was a perfect fit, and slid in quite easily until its end was positioned above the famous john. I released my thumb, and a small but distinct trickle of my urine splashed on to the work of art.
That evening I used this incident, illustrated with several diagrams showing from all angles exactly how it had been achieved, as the basis of my talk. Since “decommodification” wwas one of the buzzwords of the day, I described my action as “re-commode-ification.”
To my ear, this story has the strong whiff of bullshit about it, but as far as I know it has not been debunked—presumably, the guards or an art expert would have been able to verify at the time whether such a thing had happened. I would very much like to see those “diagrams” showing how he did it.
Paul Ingram implies that Eno was working as part of a group of similarly minded activists, which if true Eno’s two accounts certainly obscures: “In the last decade of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain  was the subject of a series of interventions by artists who each attempted, more or less successfully, to urinate in it: Brian Eno at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1990; Kendell Geers at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 1993; Pierre Pinocelli at the Carré d’Art in Nîmes in 1993; Björn Kjelltoft at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1999; and Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi at the Tate Modern in London in 2000.”
Robyn Hitchcock is one of my tutelary divinities, so when his name turned up unexpectedly in the Brian Eno biography On Some Faraway Beach, I sat up straight in my subway seat and muttered a few devotional phrases about tomatoes and shellfish, both sacred to Bhagavan Robyn; the other passengers kindly ignored me. I never would have dreamed that these avant-rock colossi had crossed paths. However, in June 1967, when Eno was a nineteen-year-old student at the Winchester School of Art and Hitchcock a fourteen-year-old schoolboy at nearby Winchester College, Hitchcock attended two of Eno’s “happenings.” Hitchcock’s reminiscences of Eno’s Summer of Love events—quoted in full in the biography, transcribed below for your pleasure—are funny and fascinating, and the second story is surprisingly touching.
Eno staged a music event in a 14th-century flint-walled cellar – essentially a dungeon with electricity. He had unscrewed the college’s 60-watt light bulb and inserted his own blue bulb. A reel-to-reel tape recorder stood on a bare table beneath the light, playing Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” backwards, while somebody I didn’t recognize was bowing a one-string violin. A microphone ran from the tape machine into the audience, where it was draped enticingly over the chair in front of me. About fifteen boys, chaperoned by one of the younger hipper teachers, came in and sat in the chairs. Eno lit a stick of incense, started the tape machine and nodded to the violinist. After a while I tapped the mike in front of me. It didn’t seem to be switched on. I sang along with backwards Bob Dylan, but that didn’t come out either. Eventually the music finished. I can’t remember if we clapped or not.
“Any questions?” said Eno.
“Er, would you call this kind of thing music, as such?” asked the teacher. Eno explained why it was naive to even ask that question. He had the serene, knowing aura that hipsters of that period had. Everything was a facet of everything else, glittering in his blue lenses.
“What was that microphone for, Mr. Eno?” I asked, in my barely broken voice.
“So you could participate, man,” replied Eno, glittering my way.
“Er, it wasn’t switched on,” I croaked.
“Next question?” called BE to the audience. I was still buzzing from having actually asked the blue-lensed man a question in public.
The following week, Hitchcock attended a second Eno happening. This one, which took place in the Winchester water-meadows, involved inflating balloons with helium, attaching notes to them and releasing them into the sky. Hitchcock (with a comment in brackets from Eno biographer David Sheppard):
The sun shone and the clouds were few – Sgt. Pepper was released the same week. BE’s glasses marked him out among the cylinders and balloons. Like fairground barkers, BE and his roadies (who included the legendary anti-philosopher Galen Strawson [today professor of Philosophy at Reading University], who was then fifteen going on 1,000) were handing out cardboard labels as they filled the eager balloons.
“What’s that for, man?” I asked.
“So you can write a message on it, man.” BE was patient – one day I would get it. My grandmother had died two weeks earlier and school regulations had kept me from going to pay my last respects to her. She was an open-minded woman – earlier that year, when she was still well enough to travel, I had bombarded her with Bob Dylan. She tapped her knee and murmured “I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul” after Dylan sang that line. So I wrote:
“Dear Granny, sorry I couldn’t come to your funeral – love, Robyn.”
“That’s beautiful, man,” said one of Eno’s assistants. He tied the label to a balloon and I wandered off into the meadows to release it. I’ve always been grateful to BE for giving me this opportunity.
What I wanted to call your attention to here is an incredible event described in the article where a bunch of professional drummers, invited by Brian Eno and from some of the biggest bands in the world, allowed Eagleman to observe them. They were outfitted with EEG units on their heads in special workstations for the data collection. The tests were conducted on a laptop. A software program asked the drummers to do four things: Keep a steady beat; compare the length of two tones; synchronize a beat to an image and compare different rhythms to one another.
Burkhard Bilger writes:
Early this winter, I joined Eagleman in London for his most recent project: a study of time perception in drummers. Timing studies tend to be performed on groups of random subjects or on patients with brain injuries or disorders. They’ve given us a good sense of average human abilities, but not the extremes: just how precise can a person’s timing be? “In neuroscience, you usually look for animals that are best at something,” Eagleman told me, over dinner at an Italian restaurant in Notting Hill. “If it’s memory, you study songbirds; if it’s olfaction, you look at rats and dogs. If I were studying athletes, I’d want to find the guy who can run a four-minute mile. I wouldn’t want a bunch of chubby high-school kids.”
The idea of studying drummers had come from Brian Eno, the composer, record producer, and former member of the band Roxy Music. Over the years, Eno had worked with U2, David Byrne, David Bowie, and some of the world’s most rhythmically gifted musicians. He owned a studio a few blocks away, in a converted stable on a cobblestoned cul-de-sac, and had sent an e-mail inviting a number of players to participate in Eagleman’s study. “The question is: do drummers have different brains from the rest of us?” Eno said. “Everyone who has ever worked in a band is sure that they do.”
The drummers study was inspired by an anecdote Eno told Eagleman:
“I was working with Larry Mullen, Jr., on one of the U2 albums,” Eno told me. “ ‘All That You Don’t Leave Behind,’ or whatever it’s called.” Mullen was playing drums over a recording of the band and a click track—a computer-generated beat that was meant to keep all the overdubbed parts in synch. In this case, however, Mullen thought that the click track was slightly off: it was a fraction of a beat behind the rest of the band. “I said, ‘No, that can’t be so, Larry,’ ” Eno recalled. “ ‘We’ve all worked to that track, so it must be right.’ But he said, ‘Sorry, I just can’t play to it.’ ”
Eno eventually adjusted the click to Mullen’s satisfaction, but he was just humoring him. It was only later, after the drummer had left, that Eno checked the original track again and realized that Mullen was right: the click was off by six milliseconds. “The thing is,” Eno told me, “when we were adjusting it I once had it two milliseconds to the wrong side of the beat, and he said, ‘No, you’ve got to come back a bit.’ Which I think is absolutely staggering.”
Read: The Possibilian: What a brush with death taught David Eagleman about the mysteries of time and the brain (The New Yorker)
Quite soon after his ouster/resignation from the ranks of Roxy Music in 1973, Brian Eno was mulling over what his next move would be. His first instinct was to hold a press conference to tell his side of the story, but he soon decided he’d just look poorly and opted not to say much. Instead the restlessly creative Eno was already making plans to make plans. A lot of plans.
In July of that year he told the NME’s Nick Kent: “My main idea is to drag together a bunch of bizarre people, who will probably all hate each other, give them some strange instrument to play and get people to pay to watch them make fools of themselves.”
Then there was the idea for a backing group called Luana and the Lizard Girls. Kent wrote:
One of the members of this perverse combo will be Eno’s current female correspondent, Peggy Lee La Neir Soiree, a dusky beauty with intriguing abilities as a dancer and a strong sense of rhythm. “She sings bass lines to me when we embrace. She goes ‘Dum-dum-dah dah-dum-dum’. Incredible. She’s never played bass in her life but I know she’d be incredible at it.” There may well be two bass-players “There’s another girl called Phyllis who’s incredibly sexy and a great dancer. I’m thinking of having a girl drummer, as it happens. Also I’ve found this dancer - she’s such a tart. I saw her dancing at the Speakeasy one night and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen - really it was. She stopped the whole place - no one would dare go on the floor simply because they were frightened of getting in the way of her flailing arms. She did this great thing of dancing like a lunatic for 12 seconds, then stopping and leaning against a wall smoking a cigarette. Then she’d suddenly jump out and start dancing again. I was fascinated by the discontinuous aspect of it all.”
The admittedly sex and pornography-obsessed musician also found inspiration from one of his more inventive S/M fantasies:
“You see, the dancers in the Lizard Girls could also be wired up to my new instrument, the ‘Electric Larynx’ which I humbly consider to be a major innovation of sorts. It had its origins in, uh, bondage - it was actually an excuse to legitimise bondage by convincing the. bondee that it was actually a musical instrument they were wearing rather than just a form of restraint. It’s a series of microphones built into a choker fed through a complex series of electronic devices to produce from the sound of human voice the high pitch of an electric guitar while still possessing the flexibility of the ‘vox humana’. The player - or the captive as we prefer to know her - is wired up from the back of her neck directly into the synthesizer. The sound, with more than one person, is fantastic, like a constant guitar solo.”
Alas Luana and the Lizard Girls were not to be. For Here Come the Warm Jets, Eno brought in a cast of some of the most musically adept and far out sidemen his avant garde reputation could attract including King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and John Wetton; Hawkwind drummer Simon King; Bill MacCormick, bass player of Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole; Paul Rudolph of Pink Fairies; guitarist Chris Spedding and all the members of Roxy Music save for Bryan Ferry.
But these guys all had day jobs with their own groups and were merely moonlighting on Eno’s project. Ultimately it was The Winkies a pub rock band with glam rock outfits who were snagged by Eno to be his backing band for the Here Come the Warm Jets UK tour. That trek commenced in February of 1974 and went on for just five shows before Eno was hospitalized with a collapsed lung. He never really performed live much at all after this and there are precious few mementos of any sort of live promotion done for this album. A few, but not many.
On February 19th, 1974 Eno and The Winkies were taped for a John Peel session performing “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” and a cover version of Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” “Baby’s on Fire” and “Totalled” (a rocky precursor to “I’ll Come Running”) were recorded for Peel’s BBC Radio show on February 26th. The session aired on March 5th, 1974. The Holy Grail of Eno fandom is Eno, a 24-minute documentary directed by Alfons Sinniger that includes Eno and The Winkies playing four songs in the studio, presumably at these very sessions. The film has so far not turned up on YouTube or been bootlegged to the best of my knowledge, although there is a tantalizing 30 seconds from it that appeared in the 80s Roxy Music home video release Total Recall. It’s not “lost” it just hasn’t escaped yet.
After he recovered, Eno mimed his first solo single, “Seven Deadly Finns” on Dutch television’s TopPop program in April:
Eno performed at Island Records infamousJune 1, 1974concert with fellow cult figures Nico, Kevin Ayers and John Cale. His songs are first, “Driving Me Backwards” and then “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch”:
Robert Fripp’s web presence, Discipline Global Mobile, has announced that an oft-bootlegged Fripp/Brian Eno show recorded in Paris in 1975 has been mixed and mastered to the best possible quality, and pre-orders are now being taken by Amazon, Inner Knot (US), and Burning Shed (UK/Europe).
Hearing the tapes in fully restored audio quality, it’s easy to understand why it attracts such reverence now and perhaps, why the shows attracted such hostility then. No Roxy Music hits, No King Crimson riffs, just a duo sitting in near darkness with a reel to reel tape recorder, improvising over the pre-recorded loops with a filmed background projection. Replace the reel to reel machine with a couple of laptops/iPads/sequencers and the core of much current live performance from electronica to hip-hop was there some thirty years in advance. At the time, audiences responded to such a glimpse of the future with booing, walkouts and general confusion.
Thanks to the discovery and restoration of the original backing tapes, it was possible - with much painstaking restoration work by Alex Mundy at DGM - to isolate, de-noise and match the live elements from the performance tapes to the studio loops to produce the final recording.
An article by Frippertonics archivist Allan Okada (OK, you know, “Dangerous Minds Contributor” is a damn cool title, I won’t lie, but “Frippertronics Archivist” sounds like a mighty sweet gig, too…) describes the concert itself thusly:
Fripp just recently disbanded King Crimson at a point which many would describe as their artistic pinnacle. Eno also recently parted ways with Roxy Music at a similar juncture and then aborted his first and only extensive solo tour after only a handful of shows, due to a collapsed lung. Fripp & Eno live in concert? What would they do? All the shows in Spain and France were, not surprisingly, accompanied with unrealistic fan expectations, hoping for a presentation of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ combined with ‘Baby’s on Fire’ perhaps? What this audience got was something entirely different. The programme was largely improvised and totally instrumental. Adding to the event’s unorthodoxy was the absence of all conventional stage lighting. The sole illumination was provided by Malcolm LeGrice’s colour saturated and looped short film ‘Berlin Horse’ projected behind the two shadowy figures on stage, visually mimicking the music. The result was an unprecedented live performance format, years ahead of its time. It was also mind-boggling to most of the unsuspecting 1975 audience, yielding wildly different reactions. Reportedly about half the shows on this tour were also plagued with some sort of major technical hazard, stemming from the venue, the PA or the duo’s stage equipment. In Saint-Étienne, the audience went as far as booing the duo off the stage! Fortunately for us here, this Paris Olympia performance was technically flawless and from a musical standpoint, incredibly inspired.
You can judge the show’s level of inspiration yourself—as mentioned above, bootlegs have been around forever, and they are of course on YouTube. See what you think.
When she died of a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 68, her obituary in The Independent called “Lady” June Campbell Cramer “a great British eccentric and cosmic prankster.” That’s already a pretty good claim to fame, but the obit went on to say that her “most achieved performance was herself: she succeeded in turning her existence into living art, bristling with humour.”
“Lady” June—the honorary title given to her due to her upper-crust, aristocratic voice (she sounded like a stoned Judi Dench) and the fact that she was the de facto landlady of many a progressive musician from the Canterbury set—was a sort of free-spirited hippie bohemian poetess and multimedia performance artist who ran with the crowd that included Gong and Soft Machine, who she first met in Spain in the early 1960s.
According to Daevid Allen, who was in both groups, June’s Maida Vale flat was “London’s premier smoking salon”:
“She was ferocious in the mornings until the first joint arrived: she’d hover over you with a wet cloth demanding that you clean the stove.”
Gilli Smyth of Gong, Allen’s wife, was her best friend, and it was at a dual birthday party June threw for herself and Smyth that a drunken Robert Wyatt fell out of a window, falling four stories and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
In 1973, June took part in the chaotic BBC Radio 4 series If It’s Wednesday It Must Be… with Kenny Everett and former Bonzo Dog Band member Vivian Stanshall. Later that year she recorded Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy, her surrealist poetry set to music by her longtime friend (and longtime tenant) Kevin Ayers and Brian Eno, who lived nearby. The recording was made in the front room of her apartment (along with Gong’s drummer Pip Pyle and David Vorhaus of White Noise) and is said to have cost just £400. A wary Caroline Records—a Virgin subsidiary set up to release things with little to no commercial potential in the first place—pressed up just 5000 copies, but the album sold out quickly when news of her famous collaborators got around. June performed on bills along with Gong, Hawkwind, The Pink Fairies and Hatfield and the North.
“Lady” June Campbell Cramer returned to Spain in 1975 and became an active and creatively fulfilled participant in the artists’ community of Deya in Majorca. It is primarily for the company she kept—and this one remarkable album—that we remember her today. Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy was re-issued on CD in 2007 by Market Square.
“To Whom It May Concern”
“Some Day Silly Twenty Three”
“Missing Person,” a gorgeous number from a 1984 French various artists release entitled History of Jazz.
When the mashup phenomenon hit remix culture a dozen or so years ago, I found the whole business exhilarating. DJs were gleefully combining a capella tracks with instrumental beds from often wholly incompatible songs and making it work, sometimes giving valuable new context to classics, sometimes even creating tracks that improved on both of their sources. People like dsico, Freelance Hellraiser, and the massively gifted and almost frighteningly prolific Go Home Productions were fashioning technically impressive and admirably witty pop-song syntheses.
What I’m sharing with you today isn’t nearly as advanced as all that.
Feel free to kick the concept up a level and play all four at once.
Here’s a fantastic TV clip of Eno talking about Music For Airports, and how he arrived at the ideas that would codify just about all of the ambient music that followed. It’s not very long, and well worth the few minutes of your time.
The concept behind Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, a set of 115 cards with elliptical imperatives designed to spark in the user creative connections unobtainable through regular modes of work, is now a commonplace. Every Barnes & Noble sells kits for breaking writer’s block—hell, you can even buy them in the form of playing dice with questionably useful words like “REDEEM” and “TRAP” on them. In 1974, when the original Oblique Strategies set was developed, it was a more radical intervention with roots in Eastern philosophy.
In his college years Eno was fascinated by the Fluxus movement. Oblique Strategies was almost certainly inspired by George Brecht’s 1962 Fluxus work “Drip Music”:
George Brecht produced this thing called “Watermelon” or “Yam Box” or something like that. It was a big box of cards of all different sizes and shapes, and each cards had instructions for a piece on … All of the cards had cryptic things on them, like one said, “Egg event—at least one egg.” Another said, “Two chairs. One umbrella. One chair.” They were all like that, but the drip event one said, “Erect containers such that water from other containers drips into them.” That was the score, you see. I did a simple one which won an award.
Meanwhile, Peter Schmidt, a German composer and painter, had recently finished a project involving 64 paintings inspired by the I Ching.
Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno, London, ca. 1977
The cards had instructions like, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention” and “Remember those quiet evenings.” Here are some (not all) of the original cards. Both the cursive and the block print are Eno’s handwriting.
Sets of the cards have been available since the 1970s. The first four editions are out of print and collector’s items (and priced to match). The 5th edition is currently available from Eno’s website for £30 (about $50). In 2013 a limited 6th edition of 500 numbered sets were available but quickly sold out.
Unlike the Fluxus scores that Eno had used years earlier, which were essentially directives for performance, the Oblique Strategies cards were idea-generating tools and tactics designed to break routine thinking patterns. While born of a studio context, Oblique Strategies translated equally well to the music studio. For Eno, the instructions provided an antidote in high-pressure situations in which impulse might lead one to default quickly to a proven solution rather than continue to explore untested possibilities: “Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation—particularly in studios—tended to make me quickly forget that there were other ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.”
In fact, while producing David Bowie’s album Heroes (1977), Eno and Bowie used Oblique Strategies on the song “Sense of Doubt.” They each picked a card but didn’t reveal its content. “It was like a game,” Eno recalled. “We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next. . . . As it turned out they were entirely opposed to one another. Effeciively mine said, ‘Try to make everything as similar as possible,’ and his said ‘Emphasize differences.’”
1977 “Sense of Doubt” video directed by Stanley Dorfman and reworked by Peter Wachsman:
Brian Eno discusses the Oblique Strategies cards with Jarvis Cocker in a 2010 BBC Radio 6 interview:
You can’t swing a dead spirit animal guide in a metaphysical bookstore without hitting stacks and stacks of oracle cards and inspiration cards. Like many things in the last quarter of the twentieth century, such as ambient music, Brian Eno can take partial credit for inventing such cards.
I say partial credit because his famous Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas cards, now available as a free Android and iPhone app or on this website, were predated by Yoko Ono’s instruction cards in the mid-1960’s. Eno and his friend, painter and multimedia artist Peter Schmidt made their Oblique Strategies cards in late 1974. They discovered that they had both been working on similar lists of aphorisms for getting through difficult moments while doing creative work, but from the different paths of music and visual art. They collaborated, combining some of Schmidt’s foundational The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts cards from 1970 and Eno’s own early homemade Oblique Strategies cards.
Eno invented the cards for his own personal use when working under time constraints in a recording studio. They came in handy when working with other artists as a producer, particularly ones who were stressed out in an intimidating studio environment. They are widely respected as one of the tools used by Eno when recording David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy of albums in from 1976 to 1978, Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
Eno told Charles Amirkhanian at KPFA in Berkeley in 1980:
The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation—particularly in studios—tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn’t the case—it’s just the most obvious and—apparently—reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt this attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt that attitude.”
The first Oblique Strategy said “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” And, in fact, Peter’s first Oblique Strategy—done quite independently and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that—was ...I think it was “Was it really a mistake?” which was, of course, much the same kind of message.
The deck’s first edition was privately printed in a limited, numbered and signed edition of 500 in 1974. They fetch over $2000 when they come up for auction now, but it took a decade for that edition to sell out. Software publisher Peter Norton asked Eno for permission to create a new set for him to give away as Christmas presents in 1996.
If you want a physical copy of the new fifth edition, which came out in May, you can buy them for £30.00 (about $47) at Eno’s online shop.
The usefulness of the cards’ brief philosophical shake-ups and kicks in the eye has expanded far beyond the art world. It’s been helpful for anyone needing a fresh perspective in the face of a deadline or under other pressure. Creative blocks can turn into a vicious downward spiral, and the cards are an excellent tool to introduce lateral thinking to break the negative tape loop in one’s head. You knew corporate culture, with its annual retreats and meetings featuring motivational speakers and team-building exercises, would eventually find a use for the Oblique Strategies cards as well. And it has.
Here are ten random card messages:
Discover your formulas and abandon them
What are you really thinking about just now
Use ‘unqualified’ people
Do we need holes?
Think of the radio
The inconsistency principle
Would anybody want it?
Make what’s perfect more human
A very small object - its centre
Listen to the quiet voice
The insights are a bit reminiscent of Zen koans, New Agey affirmations, the I Ching (Schmidt did a series of drawings based on the 64 hexagrams in 1972), and the multitude of inspirational cards available on the market. They aren’t technically oracle cards, since you don’t have to call upon angels, ascended masters, faeries, spirit guides, or other beings of light to use them, but if you believe in a creative muse, that’s exactly what they can be.
Jarvis Cocker discusses the Oblique Strategies cards with Brian Eno in a 2010 BBC Radio 6 interview, below:
“Bon Anniversaire” to Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. The polymath musician, intellectual, visual artist and noted pornography enthusiast was born on this day in 1948, making him now officially a senior citizen.
Below, Brian Eno interviewed recently in New York as part of the Red Bull Music Academy. Of special note, his notion of “scenious” or the special kind of creativity that happens when there are large numbers of collaborators in a particular “scene.”
Brian Eno’s reputation as an aficionado of rather extreme pornography is by now well-known, but at the time of future Pretender Chrissie Hynde’s 1974 profile in the NME, he was just letting the cat out of the bag. What an extraordinary thing for a pop star, even one with Eno’s avant garde pedigree, to admit to in 1974!
But what’s even stranger is the casual reference to Eno being an “elite” film star. What the hell does that mean? Is he referring to actually being in the films himself?
“It’s a burning shame that most people want to keep pornography under cover when it’s such a highly developed art form - which is one of the reasons that I started collecting pornographic playing cards I’ve got about 50 packs which feature on all my record covers for the astute observer.
“There’s something about pornography which has a similarity to rock music. A pornographic photographer aims his camera absolutely directly, at the centre of sexual attention. He’s not interested in the environment of the room.
“I hate the sort of photography in Penthouse and Playboy which is such a compromise between something to give you a hard-on and something which pretends to be artistic. The straight pornographers aim right there where it’s at.
“Which is analogous to so many other situations where somebody thinks one thing is important, so they focus completely on that and don’t realize they’re unconsciously organizing everything else around it as well. I have such beautiful pornography - I’ll show you my collection sometime.
The last guy invited me up to see his etchings.
“One theory is that black-and-white photography is always more sexy than colour photography. The reason for this is provided by Marshall McLuhan, who points out that if a thing is ‘high definition,’ which colour photography is, it provides more information and doesn’t require participation as much as if it is ‘low definition’.” I.e. a horror play on the radio is always very, very frightening because the imagery is always your own. If youUre choosing your own imagery, you’ll always choose the most frightening, or in the case of pornography, the most sexual.
“The idea of things being low definition has always interested me a lot - of being unspecific - another thing which is a key-point of my lyrics. They must be ‘low definition’ so that they don’t say anything at all direct. I think the masters of that were Lou Reed and Bob Dylan (on “Blonde on BIonde”). The lyrics are so inviting.
“DO YOU KNOW WHAT ‘burning shame’ is by the way? It’s a pornographic term for a deviation involving candles.
“Very popular in Japanese pornography. They’re always using lit candles because Japanese pornography is very sadistic, partly because of the Japanese view of women, which is a mixture of resentment and pure animal lust.
“In the traditional view, a woman is still expected to be at the beck and call of her husband, so that manifests itself in that kind of pornography. Of which I have a few examples, of course.
“Mexican pornography is an interesting island of thought because they seem to be heavily into excretory functions. The traditional American view is that anything issued from the body is dirty. It’s incredibly puritanical and it resents bodily fluids, so if one is trying to debase a woman, you cover them with that and hence you get the fabulous term ‘Golden Showers’ - the term for pissing on someone, which some well- known rock musicians are said to be very involved in . .
“Here come the warm jets?”
“That’s certainly a reference.”
That he’s considered to be a film star of sorts in a few very ‘elite’ circles. - Any chance of him making a comeback to the Screen?
“Some of the movies I did were very funny - they had to pretend to have a plot. Ha ha. [Emphasis added]
“Can I show you my pubic area?” (! ! !) He exposes his stomach down to his, ah - about six inches below his Navel. “Absolutely bare! Now I’ve got this beautiful bare belly! I’ve got this new Japanese thing, you see and the Japanese don’t have much hair on their bodies ‘Japanese culture I tip as the next big thing.”
I glance nervously over at the flickering candle on the windowsill. Out of nowhere, Eno produces a very extraordinary looking object which he explains to be the ‘Double Punkt Roller’, a massage device used in Victorian times. I marvel at its aesthetic qualities and he assures me that it can only be fully appreciated when used on the bare buttocks. We conclude that art which demands participation holds the greatest appeal.
I have a friend who swears up and down he once saw Eno in a sleazy mid-70s porno loop, in a big “daisy-chain” orgy scene (“Who else had such a hairstyle back then?” he’d ask). I always dismissed this, but maybe he was right?