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The Guardian SEPTEMBER 7, 2009 - by David McNamee
HEY, WHAT'S THAT SOUND: OBLIQUE STRATEGIES
Forget Aleister Crowley and his tarot pack, this set of cards devised by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt has been a bigger source of inspiration to frustrated musicians.
What are they? The most famous of Brian Eno's dadaist mind games with music production. The original Oblique Strategies (Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas), was a set of cards created by Eno and his painter friend Peter Schmidt, and published as a signed limited edition in 1975. On each card is printed an (often quite abstract) instruction, which is invoked when an artist, producer or band has reached some form of creative impasse and requires external disruptive influence to suggest new ideas.
Who uses them? Oblique Strategies is most associated with bands Eno famously produced during his mid to late-'70s creative highpoint, including Talking Heads, Berlin trilogy-era Bowie and Devo. More recently, Coldplay used Oblique Strategies when working with Eno on Viva La Vida, and Phoenix - rather than shelling out for Eno himself - bought a deck to use while recording Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
How do they work? The actual instructions? Try getting your heads around these: "Discard an axiom"; "Honor thy error as a hidden intention"; "Not building a wall, but making a brick"; "What are the sections sections of?"; "Always first steps"; "Idiot glee", or indeed, "Short-circuit principle - a man eating peas in the belief that they will improve virility shovels them straight into his lap."
Where do they come from? Eno claims that he and Schmidt devised almost identical Oblique Strategy systems, at the same time and using almost exactly the same words, but completely independently of each other. The power of the synchronicity was enough to convince them to make the messages available to other artists. Despite Schmidt's death in 1980, Eno has continued to revise the Strategies, and the fifth edition of the cards was published this year, along with the inevitable iPhone app.
Why are they classic? Depends who you ask. U2 didn't use them, but The Edge applied the cards' rationale of "seeing limitations as some kind of a strength and a governing influence over what you do" to their work with Eno. David Byrne thinks that "Brian's cards are funny and sometimes useful", but the rest of Talking Heads resented Eno's input.
What's the best ever Oblique Strategies song? Well, it's not going to be anything by Coldplay (did Eno invent a deck just for them with instructions like "Make everything more pretty" or "Be a bit sad"?). So let's go for Eno's own St. Elmo's Fire.
FIVE FACTS AND THINGS
The blurb accompanying the 2001 edition says: "These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognised in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, sometimes they were formulated. They can be used as a pack, or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self-evident."
Don't get Devo started on Oblique Strategies. "Devo being the smartass intellectuals that we were, we thought the Oblique Strategies were pretty wanky," said group leader Gerry Casale. "They were too Zen for us. We thought that precious, pseudo-mystical, elliptical stuff was too groovy. We were into brute, nasty realism and industrial-strength sounds and beats. We didn't want pretty. Brian was trying to add beauty to our music."
Oblique Strategies isn't just handy for making Coldplay sound a bit like Queen or whatever, they can also be applied to cringeworthy creative branding and cooking.
When working with Coldplay, Eno would give each member of the band a random card and ask them to interpret its instruction musically as the band jammed, without letting the other members know what their card says. "Of course, the chances of you getting a great piece of music are quite remote," Eno acknowledges. "But the chances of you getting a seed for something are quite strong. You hear a voice singing a single note over a drumbeat and you think... 'Ooh, it's not quite the right drumbeat or quite the right note, but there's something good about it.'"
The new iPhone app has made Oblique Strategies available to the masses for the first time. Previously, intrigued Eno-ites would have to watch eBay like a hawk for a deck to become available (the editions were usually released in small presses of five hundred to a thousand and no two decks were the same). For a while, a small cult of Eno followers started up their own internet-based Acute Strategies system, where anyone could submit their own strategies, providing they followed lots of geeky rules about avoiding jargon and inside jokes and urging a familiarity with the I Ching and other oracular sources.