Oblique Strategies

A couple of days ago, Jack and I went to hang out with a friend of ours while he works on his latest album. He was spending a week or two in a giant recording studio on the West Side. It was Saturday but he had a bunch of engineers huddled in the booth while he sat alone in this gigantic space and laid down bass tracks. During a break, he explained that it was one of the last of the great studios, built in the ’70s, an enormous space with warm acoustics, where lots of classic albums had been recorded.

It seemed a unusual place to find my friend, who is famous for cutting edge electronic music and dance tunes. I’ve usually experienced his works in progress as MP3 files that arrive in my email box, songs that are reworked and morphed over the years. He generally works alone and surrounded by computers. But here he is in this creaky wooden yurt of a room that looks like a sauna and feels like the end of an era.

He told us that he was trying to record an album using no electronic instruments, no effects, a string section, and even the electric bass he was laying down would ultimately be replaced by a standup. He asked if I’d ever heard of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. I nodded but then admitted I hadn’t. He said that Eno had a made up a deck of cards each of which had some instruction or limitation which you’d follow to turn your work in a new direction. It had inspired him to try something completely different. It reminded me of a film called the 5 Obstructions in which Lars Van Trier has Jorgen Leth make and remake a film according to various rules he’d give him. It was one of the things that inspired me to think of ways to shock my own system when I draw, to challenge myself to work in very particular ways or with various limbs tied behind my back. It’s the idea behind the Everyday Matters challenges, to provoke you into a direction you’d never considered, trying something that may be uncomfortable but which opens a door.

Creativity is all about fresh perspectives, about finding the truth and seeing what’s really there. You have to break out of the box you’re in and get things moving — even if that means tricking yourself. Sometimes you have to draw with your eyes closed to see clearly. Sometimes that means standing on your head, or drawing with a Sharpie, or using your left hand — or turning off the computer and getting in a string section.

2 thoughts on “Oblique Strategies

  1. This was a great post. Thank you. I am a member of your Everyday Matters Group, and have greatly benefited from the wonderful group of people it attracks. Often I have ignored the challenges – for me the concept has been to draw the everyday things around me – that everything and anything was fair game. And that has worked well for me. But maybe I'll have to get back to the list, eh? When I need shaking up, I will.

  2. Thanks for this post. Lots of time people get stuck in a rut or what they do best in their music or art, but often you need a shock to push yourself into new directions and find endless amounts of great new inspiration.

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