OwnIDeas

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)

Explanation

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:

GoOutside

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:

BetterJudgement

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?

A. Shofar

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:

ImpliedDefinite

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:

Nine Months of New Music— Opus 1

That’s Masturbation— Opus 2

DSC00471

When I was in college at UALR, I minored in Information Technology. I learned a lot of useful stuff about web design, writing code, and creating databases (very little of which I use today). There was also a great emphasis in the program on group projects— which I hated. My arrogant belief was that I just as easily could have done these projects on my own and I’d rather not be slowed down by some dead weight classmates. In fact the most personally inspiring moments in IT class came when I was learning about web services that would allow me to get on with my life all on my own.

My dream was to write, record, release, and perform my own music, and I discovered things like TicketFly, Pond5, CD Baby, and Soundcloud which made me believe that my dream was a realistic possibility. Apps like these point to the “do-it-yourself” ethic that is the current zeitgeist in everything from music, to comedy, to fixing your toilet. I am certainly a part of this song and dance: I am a self-employed gigging musician attempting to keep a blog and record/release music all on my own.

Yet if you take do-it-yourself to mean literally doing it all on your own, then you are actually just talking about masturbation. Anything good and fun done completely alone is just masturbation. You’re cooking decadent meals, but not sharing them with anyone? That’s masturbation. You’re working on your jump-shot, but not playing in pick up games? That’s masturbation. You’re writing and recording songs but not letting anyone hear them? Masturbation. This isn’t a knock against masturbation. I think a moderate amount of literal or metaphorical masturbation is healthy, natural, and fun. But if all you are doing is masturbating, you’re missing out on the most important thing in life: connection. So don’t take do-it-yourself literally. Find some folks with similar interests and do-it-together.

You literally cannot do it alone in the field of music (or in any creative field for that matter) and expect to succeed. Your lifeblood as a musician is other people. You need other people to teach you how to play (and don’t come at me with that “self-taught” BS— if you claim to be “self-taught,” you’re just saying that instead of taking formal lessons, you learned by directly listening to other musicians); you need other musicians to play your songs; you need bar and venue owners to book your band; and most importantly, you need fans to support your work.

In addition to basic musician’s needs like these, there’s also the fact that you probably want your actual creative work to be good. If this is the case, you’ll benefit from bouncing your artistic ideas off of other creative minds. So as much as it pains me to admit it, being forced to do group projects in my IT minor program was not the worst thing. It is certainly effortful (and often a pain) to have to schedule meetings with other people, and lobby for your ideas, and come to compromises; but the purpose of group work is not to make the project quicker and easier—the purpose is to create better work than you could have on your own. John Lennon, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney all had great solo careers (sorry Ringo), yet their greatest works were made when they were working together (with Ringo) in the Beatles. Music is simply made better when other creative minds, expert ears, and skillful hands are contributing to it.

Yet I confess that none of the songs I’ve released online to date have been collaborations. This is not a point of pride—throughout the course of this project I hope and plan to release many songs that feature other musical artists. Last week I took a serendipitous step towards this end when a couple of young bass players from Bloomington, Indiana came over to my house. My college buddy Noah McNair and his friend Brenton Carter were in town to play with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and they popped over to my house during the day to jam. I’ll forgive them for forgetting the beer, because I roped them into helping me record a song of mine. We started jamming on a song that I had written and I decided to hit record. After they departed the song was left with a much better bass line than I could have possibly played, recorded on a much better bass than I could hope to afford.

But you’ll have to wait until next week to hear that one (remember, I’m posting something every week for nine months). For now, here’s another one of my do-it-alone efforts. Enjoy Opus 2.