OM194 - Oblique Strategies

This week, Ken and John talk about:

Ken’s cultural knowledge (OM194)

Ken is more culturally diverse than just a guy who knows a lot of trivia. He is a big music nerd, film nerd, book nerd, and a pretty big poetry nerd. John has been impressed by Ken’s knowledge of poetry over the years and he will ask: ”Ken, what Emilie Dickinson poem does this remind you of?” - ”A Bird, came down the Walk - He did not know I saw” (from A Bird, came down the Walk). John definitely will throw out some William Carlos Williams and Ken is just right there with him and will say the next line. It is a funny thing they do at parties and then they just high-five each other and no-one else knows what they are talking about.

Ken is a David Bowie fan and John asks how he feels about Bowie’s Berlin period, his The Thin White Duke era? Ken understands Bowie might still be with us today if he had used half as much cocaine as he did, but we will never know. Maybe the cocaine is what kept him going? There is no proven link between copious cocaine use and cancer! It is hard to pick a favorite David Bowie album or song, but there is probably no a song he likes better than Sound & Vision off of Low. Heroes is an amazing album! It is great work that sounds like it is coming from another planet.

How to create your masterwork (OM194)

There is a lot of truth to the fact that an artist doesn’t always necessarily understand their inspiration. You do not ever sit down and say: ”Today I create my masterwork!” because if you could then all any artist would do is sit down and follow a logical progression to making a great work. Hoping that it comes and hoping that it doesn’t go away is terrifying! Often artists just credit it with coming down from the sky and when God played a larger role in contemporary society people credited God. Religion was the major influence, but now we have a whole secular arts community that struggles to find a euphemism for God.

Some artists say that there is no way to pull down ideas and they frame it as putting themselves in a position to receive them, keeping track of what factors make them prone to inspiration, and trying to duplicate that. Do you need to be with people? Do you need to be away from other people? Do you need to be up early in the morning? Do you need to be up late at night? You create an incubator for it, but you never know when fertilization is going to happen and unfortunately even that is no guarantee. You can set up the exact conditions where you made your last great work and find yourself utterly blocked, whereas on your way into town on the train you can suddenly get electrified by a new idea.

The pursuit of great art and the question of using logic to make decisions was already being interrogated by people in ancient China and it is best exemplified by the presence of the I Ching character, which played a major role in John Cage’s art (see OM189) and in Peter Schmidt. They were introducing randomness in the form of throwing a lot, and they believed that the result of the rolled dice and the combination of numerology to discover an obtuse answer in a document collecting all these solutions will reflect the hand of God. It will conjure meaning that does exist somewhere, there is an answer outside of yourself, and the question is just how to bring it down, put it into language, and apply it.

Brian Eno, the role of the music producer (OM194)

Brian Eno produced David Bowie's records, but being a little younger than John, Ken thinks of Brian Eno as an U2 producer first. Eno is the guy from Roxy Music, the David Bowie producer, and he is one of the greatest and most innovative music producers of the Rock era. He and Daniel Lanois co-produced The Unforgettable Fire, U2's super-big 1980s record where they transitioned from being a quirky Irish slightly Christian Catholic New Wave band to being a major international band of superstars and anthem factory. They produced Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby as well.

Daniel Lanois is an extremely accomplished musician and he can play the Pedal Steel like nobody’s business. Eno never credited himself as much of a musician at all, but he thought of himself as a conceptual artist. He only joined Roxy Music by happenstance because he met the saxophone player in a subway station and they needed a synth player. In the early days he refused to appear on stage, but he rather sat behind the mixing console and added synth effects and sang backing vocals from the mixing board.

When he eventually did start appearing on stage in Roxy Music they had a certain on-stage look-and-feel, but Eno came out in an "Peter Gabriel in Genesis"-style costume: Big elaborate outfits that set him apart, like the guitar player of Limp Bizkit, and you can wonder what the rest of the band thought of that. Bryan Ferry was trying to present himself as a pretty suave operator and his wingman Brian Eno was a real peacock.

Eno came at music from outside and was not here to be a virtuoso, but he was an idea guy who used music and sound as just another palette in the creation of art. Eno was influenced by the English painter Peter Schmidt, a polymathic artist who although being a painter expanded his purview to include every way you could make art and who was part of the 1960s movement where the experience of art was rated as highly as the product.

Art was no longer considered a product, but as a path, a journey, or an emotional experience. His works are minimal watercolor landscapes with muted palettes that almost feel like they are made of ripped paper. They are multimedia works and they are actually pretty. He was also an art teacher with an outsized influence on the generation that came after him. His art wasn’t all conceptual, but a lot of it was representative.

What bonds Peter Schmidt, John Cage and a lot of artists of this period is a recognition that the artistic impulse doesn’t need to be bound to logical progression and one thing doesn’t need to follow from another. Both in producing and consuming art you can have non-hierarchical experiences or lateral approaches to art. You can make it by not focusing on technique or pursuing an end-goal, which is true for a lot of modern extemporaneous art. It ultimately figured deeply into Punk: The idea that being good at it and pursuing an intentional course actually throttled not only your creative impulse or gift, but creativity itself.

Ken is skeptical about that whole idea because he does admire craft and technique and whenever he is working on something he actually enjoys constraints. The idea that it would be a purely intuitive thing that anybody can do can lead to sloppy work, in particular with modern art. Ken doesn’t like the whole ”My kid could do this!” thing because it is rarely true. The criticism is that to the untrained eye it could be difficult to distinguish the art made by university-educated artists and art made by an elephant with a paint brush, but if you are confronted by a truly great work of art even a layperson can absolutely tell a beautiful work. It isn’t just happenstance!

Brian Eno left Roxy Music after a couple of years because it didn’t work out, probably because Bryan Ferry was wearing ascots while Eno was wearing feathered head dresses and they had a little parting-of-ways. Brian Eno is very posh, his full name is Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. He is not Brian from the block, but he has a rarified gentility in his air.

After he left Roxy Music he immediately began working in Ambient Music where he was not searching for the perfect melody, but he made music that was meant to be experienced as a component of an experience, music that was atmospheric. His sonic experimentation made him a popular choice for Avantgarde musicians to employ as a sound effectist or in Bowie’s case as a producer.

It varies how much a producer actually contributes to the sound of the record. Some producers bring a real engineering perspective to records where they use the technology and the tools of the recording media to make interesting drum sounds and to make the compositions more interesting, like take out that chorus and hop to the solo. In Hip Hop the producer is the one who produces the sound that the rapper raps over.

Other producers become real collaborators who are responsible for the sound of the album, where the musician brings in the song and the producer deconstructs it and applies a sonic palette that belongs to them. Daniel Lanois was the person who brought the more formal production to the U2 albums. He was the guy behind the sound board who had comments on the bass part and Eno would come in almost as a consultant to add the dream-like sounds. He would often inspire songwriting changes by asking interesting questions or posing an approach.

Oblique Strategies (OM194)

In the mid-1970s, during the period where Schmidt, Eno and other people were exploring the process of making art as a form of arts education and art creation, they started to realize that a lot of the times what inhibits you as an artist is that you encounter a dilemma or a crossroads and you don’t know what to do next: The problem of infinite possibility.

After you push "Record" you can do anything! You can just do raspberries with your mouth for an hour and call it an album. If you are looking to make something more disciplined, if you want to make something beautiful, it is often incredibly overwhelming to choose even between three paths.

In the early 1970s Schmidt and Eno, inspired by the I Ching, each started to write down little aphorisms on note cards that weren’t meant to be direct instructions, but were meant to cause vertical thinking and for your logical process to short-circuit. The idea was that your creative mind needed to be stimulated and needed to be given a problem to solve that wasn’t the problem at hand and by doing that you would take an oblique path, an angle you couldn’t have imagined.

Eno and Schmidt were working on this independently and when they realized the other was doing a similar thing they compared what they were making and there was a tremendous amount of overlap in what they were doing, so they decided to collaborate. They were influenced by the writer Edward de Bono who had coined he term lateral thinking.

Oblique strategies then became a thing. Neither of them was writing these down with the intent of making a book, but a deck of cards that they could consult. Take a random card and let the universe tell you. They came up with 113 cards, a lot of them very music-specific like ”Abandon normal instruments!”, and they published them with the intention of handing them to other people and having them be useful.

John’s experience with oblique strategies (OM194)

John has been using oblique strategies creatively. It is worse if you give yourself the leeway to pick through five of them until you find one that you like because sitting and working with ”Always First Steps” really requires you to surrender what this is. What you pull out of that is going to govern your choice. If you pick cards until you find one that works for you, then you are not surrendering your executive function.

John’s first collection of Oblique Strategies was given to him as a gift from his friend and artist Christen Cosmas. She had typed them out on 3x5 cards with her little vintage typewriter and had made a set for John as an art project in its own right. They are more than 113 cards, meaning that she has added her own.

John putting down computer programmers (OM194)

John disparages computer programmers because it is hilarious for him to do, not because he doesn’t think they do good work. They are heralded as the princes and princesses of our contemporary society, but they need to be taken down a peg because they are egomaniacs.

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