Here’s your “no shit sherlock” statement of the day: the hardest part of creating something is figuring out what to do next. Sure, one or two lines of your song (or book, or poem) might come easy. Inspiration hits and you have a great idea: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” Ok Michael Jackson, great start, but what are you going to do now?— Oh I don’t know Lucas, perhaps I might write the most wholesomely uplifting pop song of all time! So truthfully it was Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard who wrote that song, but you don’t know who those people are so I pretended for a second it was actually Michael who wrote it. April fools. Regardless, for those of us who are not artistic savants, fleshing out an inspiring idea is an extremely difficult process, plagued constantly by the question: what do I do next?
It’s very easy to feel blocked or puzzled during the creative process. Yet I believe that this feeling most often is the result of thinking too much. I believe that creation is an action, not a thought. Repeat: Creation is an action, not a thought. My personal favorite tool for getting out of my head and into the act of creation is called Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.
You’ll remember Brian Eno as member of the early 70’s glam rock band Roxy Music, as a successful solo pop artist, as the most prominent pioneer of ambient music, as a producer of bands such as the Talking Heads, U2, and Devo, as the composer of the sounds for Windows 95, as an experimental visual artist, and from countless other projects and collaborations. There is a reason Eno has been so prolific and relevant throughout his decades long career. He (similar to Davids Byrne and Bowie) did not settle in to his original pop-star sound, but simply fell in love with the process of creation, leading him to diverse edges of the music and art world. His buddy Peter Schmidt is a modern artist, painter, and theoretician who met Brian Eno in the late 1960s. Together they created Oblique strategies, a deck of cards with cues and axioms that help you overcome artistic obstacles. Here is what Brian and Peter have to say about it:
(click pic to enlarge)
Basically, if you’re working on a project and find yourself stuck, or simply desire a new approach, reach for a card and do what it says. For instance, I have no idea what I am going to write about for the rest of this blog post, so I’ll pick a couple of cards to jump-start this thing. Card 1:
Great idea, but I’m actually one step ahead of you Oblique Strategies. I’m sitting on Kavanaugh Boulevard outside of Starbucks sipping on a black coffee and trying to write this post. I’m writing in my classic black and white composition notebook while the Funkadelic song “Can You Get to That” (aka the greatest song ever) plays from the speaker above my head. This is a great strategy. While there are different flavors of “outside”— a quiet corner of the woods would be markedly different than this relatively simulating street corner— getting outside your stuffy old work space is certainly a good idea once in a while. Card 2:
So since I am the only person currently working on this post, I suppose I am the only person I could ask to work against my better judgement. So I guess I could tell a joke I made up— that could go over poorly. Oh yeah it’s also a Jewish joke, and I’m not Jewish— yep, this sounds like a really bad idea. Let’s do it!
Q. How far can a Jew throw a Ram’s horn?
So you maybe need to say that one out loud (and know what a Shofar is) to get it. Anyway, that definitely went against my better judgement. But look at that— I squeezed like 250 words out of those two cards. I’m almost done with this blog post. Thanks Oblique Strategies!
Of course, there are many other methods that musicians and artists use to figure out what to do next. John Cage used the I-Ching, David Lynch uses transcendental meditation, and countless other artists have used a lot of drugs. Some of these methods are obviously more sustainable than others, but it is clear that there is no shame in using a little outside help to get the creative juices flowing. I chose to turn to Oblique Strategies to help me create the following song.
In fact I had a lot of help on this track beyond Oblique Strategies as well. As mentioned last week, the bass line was recorded by Bloomington, Indiana bass extraordinaire Brenton Carter during a jam session of ours— shout out to my man Noah McNair as well for laying down some slick keyboard lines that tragically went unrecorded during that session. Also the sax and flute parts were recorded by the great Matt Schatz, who, in the spirit of this blog post, was asked to draw an Oblique Strategies card for himself. His card read:
Thank you to Brian, Peter, Noah, Brenton, and Matt for all your help, and I hope everyone enjoys Opus 3.
This post is part of a nine month project in which I am releasing a new song and blog post every week. If you want to get caught up, here are the links to the previous entries: