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?
Another Green World, a 2010 Arena episode profiles musician/polymath intellectual Brian Eno. He’s seen in the studio, talking about Roxy Music, working with David Bowie and U2, and conversing with friends like Richard Dawkins, Malcolm Gladwell, journalist Paul Morley and record producer Steve Lillywhite about science, art, and making things.
The title track of Eno’s 1975 album Another Green World has been used for the famous Arena title sequence since the program debuted that same year.
Here’s a vintage Brian Eno rarity, a 1974 promo video for “China My China,” which also features Judy Nylon of Snatch.
According to the poster:
A Pre-MTV pre-release promo for Eno’s 1974 LP Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. Brian performs in front of a stack of tube TVs backed by Judy Nylon and Polly Eltes on guitars. Polly and Judy also sing on the LP. This was recorded in 1974 at Island Records in Shepherds Bush where it languished for all these years in the tape storage room.
Insanely great live Roxy Music performance from Montreux at the Golden Rose Festival, April 29, 1973. Even if the sound is a little ropey (and Eno’s microphone does not appear to be working at all) this is a pretty worthwhile clip for Roxy fans, as they’re really putting their back into it, here.
Like much European TV of the era, the camera operators hardly know where to point their gear, but eventually you do get a glimpse of Eno at work during the number’s crazed synth solo.
Hard to believe but it’s forty years since Roxy Music released their debut single “Virginia Plain” and made an unforgettable appearance on Top of the Pops. It was a moment that influenced a generation, the same way David Bowie had earlier the same year, when he seductively draped his arm over Mick Ronson’s shoulder as they sang “Starman” together. It was a moment of initiation, when millions of British youth had shared a seminal cultural experience by watching television.
Of all the programs on air in 1972, by far the most influential was Top of the Pops., and Roxy Music’s arrival on the show was like time travelers bringing us the future sound of music.
Listening to “Virginia Plain” today, it hard to believe that it wasn’t record last week and has just been released.
This documentary on Roxy Music has all the band members (Ferry, Manzanera, MacKay, Eno, etc) and a who’s who of musicians (Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Jones, and Roxy biographer, Michael Bracewell), who explain the band’s importance and cultural relevance. Roxy Music have just released The Complete Studio Recordings 1972-1982 available here.
Dangerous Minds pal, Los Angeles-based architect John Bertram, is sponsoring a new design contest at his Nabokov-obsessed blog, Venus febriculosa. This time, however, the contest is to create alternate art for Brian Eno’s decidedly minimalist (in every respect) Music For Films:
Brian Eno’s album covers have always tended toward the interesting, (one or two I find exceptional, notably Music for Airports), and he was fortunate to count work by the brilliant artists Tom Phillips and Russell Mills among them. On some level, however, the covers have always seemed more intent on establishing Eno’s artistic, intellectual, and theoretical bona fides (and, especially with the earlier albums, his overall weirdness) than anything else. The cover for Music for Films, however, is radically different. Not so much designed as intentionally left blank, the chocolate brown Helvetica text is pushed to the extreme upper edges of the texture-less and indescribably beige cover (the same text layout was used to good effect for the Cluster collaborations After the Heat and Begegnungen). This apotheosis of neutrality avoided the plain brown wrapper look in favor of what in retrospect seems closer to the generic packaging popular in grocery stores in the late ‘70s (or perhaps a reference color from Interiors, Woody Allen’s beige-est Bergman-esque film, also from 1978). Importantly, the cover is not ‘conceptual’ in the way that Richard Hamilton’s design for The Beatles’ White Album is, nor has it the cool rigor and studied minimalism of any number of ECM or Factory Records covers that – brilliant as they are (and they are brilliant) – somehow appear positively baroque in comparison. Rather, music and cover co-exist nicely as a unit, the latter providing no commentary on the former (or anything else for that matter), simply existing as a visual analogue to the wordless music. It’s a nice conceit.
The contest will be judged by Geeta Dayal, staff writer at Wired.com and author of Another Green World; famed graphic designer and typeface maven, Frith Kerr; Medicine man and former DM blogger Brad Laner, who contributed to Brian Eno’s Another Day on Earth album; Russell Mills, artist; illustrator and Eno collaborator on More Dark Than Shark and cultural critic Rick Poynor, who also collaborated with Mills and Eno on More Dark than Shark.
There are a lot of DM readers who are both graphic designers and Eno fans, so get your engines started. Deadline for entry is September 1, 2012 and the winner will receive $500 (and some additional Eno-related prizes that have yet to be announced.)
A bootleg of an early version of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s groundbreaking 1981 album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts can be downloaded at the My Wall of Tapes blog. Note that his boot has a different track listing from the “Ghosts” bootleg that has been in wide circulation since the early 1990s.
Interestingly, the blogger there mentions that his source for this tape was none other than David Byrne himself:
it is a pre release version of david byrnes first solo album, which was given me by david, when i stayed at his place in alfabet city, in 1981, i distinctly remember that there were two ukrainian funeral homes in the street.
There are several other tapes of Talking Heads studio and live rarities (and much more) at My Wall of Tapes, so maybe the provenance described is accurate.
I wonder if the neat-freak printing on the card below is David Byrne’s?
In any case, I’m still downloading it. My Wall of Tapes has some amazing stuff, check it out.
Happy Birthday Brian Eno, who is a Beatles song today.
Born Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno on the 15th May, 1948, Eno almost has a job description for every one of his names as a musician, a composer, a producer, a visual artist, a writer, a collector of pornography and an innovator of different musical forms. But Eno is more than the sum of his parts, he is a great inspiration to go take a-hold of life and do as much is as is possible. As he suggested in the documentary Another Green World:
“All of the encouragement from modern life is to tell you to pay attention to yourself and take control of things.”
Though he does go on to say we can also surrender, get by, and transcend, I prefer to opt for the starring role, rather than being an extra in the crowd scene or exiting stage left, chased by a bear. And so should we all, for this is your movie, and you are its star.
For me, that’s what I like best about Eno - he’s a concept to do better, to try different, to learn more. And perhaps to be a little nicer on the side.
Brian Eno: Another Green World is a profile of Eno, made for the BBC’s Arena series.
From the schoolboy who would cycle to the seashore to look for fossils, Eno has been driven by the search for the connections between things. Here, he gives an insight into his fascinating and unique take on the nature of music today. Eno discusses what music means to him, and how he uses it to create an alternate reality, as well as the influences of modern technology in changing the way we are able to understand and develop both music and sound.
You’ll learn bits and bobs from this documentary, though it never really seems to get much further than dusting the surface of this complex and talented man.
Bonus clip of Brian Eno interviewed on ‘The Tube’ from 1986, after the jump…
Bowie Myths has posted what appears to be legit (yet illicitly obtained) excerpts from the upcoming coffee table book, BOWIE: OBJECT, wherein the Thin White Duke rhapsodizes on a few dozen of his favorite thangs.
Exhibit #22, a Minimoog:
Eno gifted this keyboard to me at the end of our sessions for the album that would become Low at the Chateau d’Herouville in the fall of 1976.
The tilting control panel is truly iconic, the wood finish superb, the feel of the dials top-notch, and the 44-key (F to C) keyboard is a delight — it certainly beats any vintage Model D I’ve played for both speed and responsiveness. Though it weighs in at a hefty 18kg, its ergonomics are quite superlative. At its inception, the Minimoog was surprisingly close to being the perfect solo synthesizer; indeed there’s arguably no serious rival for the role even today. Yet soloists demand to express themselves and there the Mini had obvious shortcomings: its keyboard lacks velocity and aftertouch, while the pitch-bender and modulation wheels never felt like the final word in performance control. Nevertheless, without becoming lost in the enigma that is the Minimoog, let’s agree that it must have possessed special qualities to set it apart from the crowd for so long — even from others in the Moog stable.
Moog had constructed his own theremin as early as 1948. Later he illustrated the mechanics of a theremin in the hobbyist magazine ‘Electronics World’ and offered the parts in kit form by mail order which became very successful, albeit of limited value to even the most esoteric composers. The Moog synthesizer, on the other hand, was one of the very first electronic musical instruments to be widely used across many popular genres. I only met Bob Moog on one occasion and we bonded not over music, but over the common mispronunciation of our respective surnames. Bob always pronounced his surname – and that of his eponymous electronic progeny – to rhyme with ‘vogue’.
The motifs for all of the instrumental sequences on Low were mapped out on this Minimoog. My fading memories of those sessions are dominated by images of Eno hunched over the keyboard turning dials by imperceptible fractions, as amazed and delighted by the sonic textures he was producing as were Tony V and myself:
“Do you know it has a logarithmic one volt-per-octave pitch control and a separate pulse-triggering signal?” said Eno, breathlessly.