Top Ten Oblique Strategies
n Brian Eno’s snapshot diary / autobiography, A Year With Swollen Appendices, there is a legendary entry for 26 August 1995: "Pissed into an empty wine bottle so I could continue watching Monty Python, and suddenly thought, 'I've never tasted my own piss,' so I drank a little. It looked just like Orvieto Classico and tasted of nearly nothing."
It’s this peculiar sense of adventure, coupled with his often wonderful music and the fact that we share a birthday (but not, sadly, a middle name—Eno’s birth certificate reads Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno; my middle name, rather more prosaically, is John) that’s made Eno something of a hero of mine, as much as I have any heroes at all.
One of the things I like most about Eno is Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards detailing “over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas” that he first produced in 1975 in collaboration with the artist Peter Schmidt, and that he has revised five times since. The deck consists of a black box containing a number of cards, black on the reverse and white with small, centered black text on the obverse. When faced with any artistic dilemma, stump, or creative blockage, one is to draw a card from the deck at random and, simply, follow the oblique strategy presented thereon.
A couple of years ago my girlfriend bought me a deck for my birthday, and though I think about them more often than I use them by far (they’re far too beautiful to risk sullying them with ink-stained fingers or spilt wine) they’ve managed to come in useful on numerous occasions. Also, they are super cool, and I don’t know anyone else with a set, which makes me super cool too!
10. Do the words need changing?
I pulled this one out (well, the widget selected it for me) the other week when I was writing a piece for something and wasn’t happy with a short passage. Damn right they needed changing! But what to? Brian failed me this time, unfortunately, but this harmless question would probably do a vast swathe of indie hipsters and wannabe-stadium rockers a huge favor. The Killers, New Young Pony Club, Keane, Interpol, Bloc Party—take heed, your lyrics are shit! Yes! The words most assuredly DO need changing!
09. Be dirty
“Emptiness is loneliness / And loneliness is cleanliness / And cleanliness is godliness / And God is empty / JUST / LIKE / ME” sang Billy Corgan, many years ago, while wearing some kind of stupid dress and pearling sputum across his fretboard. Had he just had a pack of Oblique Strategies to hand and happened to pull this card out at the precise moment he began to conjure the overlong dramatic mess that was Melon Collie & The Infinite Sadness, guitars might have remained actually raw and Billy could have maintained control of his unhappy ego, found inner peace, and spared us the modern rock bullshit of Zwan.
08. Take away the important parts
In these maximalist, consumerist, hyper-eclectic times we should perhaps consider turning back to the modernists, realize that less is more, and start removing things rather than stuffing as much as possible into everything. And you know what? Intros, outros, segues, codas, sub-two-minute instrumentals—in most contemporary music the filler is way more interesting than the ego songs, the context more refreshing than the content. Lose that unnecessary extra chorus, kids, drop that focal-point guitar solo, get your facial close-ups out of the video, and rediscover why you started doing this in the first place.
Possibly the most oblique of all the oblique strategies. How? Why? Where? How do you use water in a song? In a story? Instances of sampled water sounds from Orbital to CAN (surely both favorites of Eno) spring to mind, as do the Clientele’s moody soliloquies to the patter of autumn rain on windowpanes, the Beatles’ “Rain,” and the huge aquatic expanses of Björk’s recent Volta album, all of them delicious. As are various visions of water caught on film by the likes of Tarkovsky, Reggio, Spielberg (Jaws!), and Fincher (the perpetual rain of Se7en). H2O makes up the vast majority of the surface of the planet, of the chemical composition of our bodies, of the food we eat each day. Quite how it helps worthwhile creative dilemmas I’m not quite sure, but I like the idea of trying to find out. And it’s nicer to drink than one’s own piss.
06. Ask people to work against their better judgment
Everybody has safe zones and established, accepted understandings of the natural order of the world and how things ‘should’ work. For instance, everyone knows that Phil Collins is a complete arsehole, but Brian Eno, sharp as a tack, didn’t let this kernel of truth get in the way of the wider wisdom that compelled him to have the slaphead Tory pillock drum, magnificently, on a handful of tracks on Eno’s early solo records. Just listen to Collins’ shuffling fills on “No One Receiving” from Before & After Science; he may be unpleasant but he sure can do that percussion thing.
05. Try faking it!
Excellent advice for the timid youngster who feels that confidence is a foreign country inhabited by weirdos. It’s not—it’s an affectation. In fact, to be brutally harsh about the way the world works, most people who seem super competent, skilled, and successful are nothing more than very convincing charlatans. Just look at Coldplay, who’ve bluffed their way to being the biggest rock band in the world despite being the least exciting people since … someone dull who I forget. And now they’re roping in Eno himself to fully produce their next record, presumably in the hope that more pearls of wisdom like this can further advance their fraudulent massiveness.
04. Repetition is a form of change
The Krautrocker’s mantra has furnished us with reams of terrifically dull yet somehow addictive motorik drum patterns and loops, an idea possibly brought to recent apotheosis by (huge Eno fan) James Murphy, who has both called a song “On Repeat” and copped Eno’s idiosyncratic vocal style on a number of occasions. The human brain adores and actively seeks out patterns, and the easiest, most fundamental pattern is simple repetition. As for it being a form of change, that depends on how you listen.
03. In total darkness, or in a large room, very quietly
This epithet is kind of accidentally sexy, and also helpfully describes the best context in which to listen to many of Eno’s best records. Certainly Discreet Music’s quasi-classical charms are best absorbed via a sort of semi-conscious osmosis, while the ranting, robotic soundscapes of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Eno’s ethnographic, sampling-inventing collaboration with David Byrne, becomes exponentially spooky and wondrous in either the dark or isolated space. Either way, by impairing the visual sense, one accentuates one’s hearing, while increasing space and decreasing volume lures you ever closer to the music.
02. Not building a wall but making a brick
Inferring a degree of attention to detail that moves into the microcosmic and which I find delicious when the vast majority of creative endeavors that find public favor these days seem obsessed with huge, sweeping gestures rather than the kind of minutiae that inspires genuine emotion. Attention to detail also typifies Eno’s best production work; just take another listen to Fear of Music and Remain in Light. Hell, sit through a U2 record with Brian at the controls. Shape, texture, location, and color of sound are all at least as important as songwriting or musicianship, and it’s this close attention that Eno brought to the pick of the records he helmed. If the bricks are perfect, the house will be better.
01. Discover your formulas and abandon them
Existential awareness and reinvention are crucial to good art, some might suggest. I would probably agree, although it’s important to understand that reinvention doesn’t necessarily have to be radical; from Pollock to Vonnegut to Bowie to thousands of other artists, writers, musicians, and thieves the key to success has been to take oneself, know oneself, and change oneself, sometimes with grand alterations and sometimes with almost imperceptible shifts. Eno himself, obviously, embodies this, his previously-mentioned diary reducible perhaps to “today I am a writer; tomorrow a painter; the next day a husband; the day after that a musician.” Despite this constant fluid change of purpose and activity, one thing remains constant; everyday he is Brian Eno. Falling into formula and repeating oneself (on a meta rather than a micro level) is the surest way to retreat creatively and personally too. Like many of the Oblique Strategies, this is a call for bravery, and an affirmation that bravery is a very simple thing indeed.
An official Oblique Strategies card deck can be purchased from the Eno Shop.
An Oblique Strategies widget for Apple Macs can be downloaded here.
You can consult an online version of Oblique Strategies here.