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Musical Space: Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies

Sean Sandefur

There are so many reasons to talk about Brian Eno. A visionary British art-rocker from the band Roxy Music, the epicenter of the creation of whole genres - No Wave, Ambient and Generative Music, he’s the producer who recorded Devo and Talking Heads, and now does the same for mega-bands like Coldplay and U2. Visual artist, writer, theorist, and political activist, Brian Eno is so constantly creative that even David Bowie has called on him for artistic direction.

But aside from his work, another reason to talk about him is how he works. Eno’s methods involve fostering the creative process; he’s the master of lateral thinking. One manifestation is his creation, with visual artist Peter Schmidt, of a deck of cards they called “Oblique Strategies.” Each of these cards, to be chosen at random, contain a cryptic, abstract direction for solving artistic predicaments.

Here are five cards from the Oblique Strategies deck, chosen at random: “In total darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly” “Reverse” “Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency” “Get your neck massaged” “Go outside. Shut the door.”

I imagine these instructions can be followed literally or only figuratively. The point is to find solutions by changing perspective. Brian Eno’s own music certainly embraces unusual solutions, like using typewriters as percussion instruments and endless loops of recording tape. And the way he coaxes good performances from musicians is by pushing them away from their usual ways of working.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.