Forget computers and plugins, forget pop shields, forget the SwirlyGig, forget SSL desks and tantric breathing exercises – forget all that stuff, and open your mind to a real music production tool – the Oblique Strategies.
Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards, about 7×9 cm in size, supplied in a small black box labelled “OBLIQUE STRATEGIES”. The cards themselves are black on one side, white on the other, and have obscure, cryptic aphorisms printed on the front in small letters.
They are intended as a creative tool for musicians and were developed by legendary producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt – the pair originally both came up with the same idea independently in 1975, and joined forces to make it a reality. Eno’s own description explains the idea very well:
“The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt *this* attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt *that* attitude.”
So, the first and most famous card says “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” Other examples include “Abandon normal instructions”, “Ask your body” and “Try faking it!”. The idea is that whenever you or artists get “stuck” in the studio – a performance just isn’t going right, or an arrangement isn’t working, or a disagreement flares up – rather than just banging your head against a wall trying to solve the problem, you draw a card from the deck instead, and follow it’s suggestions, wherever they might lead. Looking at things from a different perspective – the new random approach suggested by the deck – might just allow you to solve the problem in a new, unique, and creative way.
It’s something we all have experience of – you wrestle fruitlessly with a problem for hours, late into the night, before finally falling into an exhausted, disturbed sleep. The next morning the solution simply comes to you while you’re otherwise engaged – washing up, driving to the studio, or walking the dog. Oblique Strategies aims to avoid all the tedious, pointless agonising, and short-cut you straight to a solution. And even if it’s not the right one, often something else interesting will come out of the process !
It’s a brilliantly simple and devastatingly effective approach, and one I can strongly recommend – if only as an ice-breaker during those “difficult” discussions about “That Guitar Sound”. Over the years the cards have been only sporadically available, drifting in and out of publication and becoming intensely sought-after, eventually achieving near-legendary status in many circles – well, in my mind, at any rate – and there have been various revisions to the deck with no less than the fifth edition currently on sale.
So the only question is – where can you get your own deck ? Well, you can buy one from the Eno Shop if you like, but in this computer age the Strategies are also available in several free electronic forms – online, as an OS-X widget (although this doesn’t seem to be available for download at the moment) and (inevitably) as an iPhone Application. All of these are free, and well worth bothering your computer’s electrons with. Perhaps the best route might be to make your own – something tells me Eno would approve of this approach, especially if you made a few copying errors along the way.
There is also a collaborative, user-generated version, known as the Acute Strategies, and a dedicated website with more information than you could possibly need about this unique and mildly mysterious phenomenon – including an exhaustive interactive comparison of the first four editions of the deck.
And now I’m not sure how to finish this post off, and it’s late, so… I shall consult my own deck to see what it recommends:
“Change specifics to ambiguities”
Right, that settles that, then !
Edit to add - I just found a great little interview with Eno on “Later with Jools Holland” from 2001, where he gives a great definition of what a music producer is, talks about the Oblique Strategies, and talks about his influences. I’ve added it to the Production Advice Tumblr, here.