Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

22 JANUARY, 2014

Oblique Strategies: Brian Eno’s Prompts for Overcoming Creative Block, Inspired by John Cage

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“If a thing can be said, it can be said simply.”

“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences,” ambient music pioneer Brian Eno wrote in his diary. It is precisely this ethos that explains Eno’s medium-blind, experience-centric creative impulse underpinning the visual arts career that he undertook in the 1960s, which developed in tandem with his growth as a musician. That is precisely what Christopher Scoates, director of the University Art Museum at California State University, explores with unprecedented depth and dimension in Brian Eno: Visual Music (public library) — a magnificent monograph spanning more than four decades of Eno’s music projects and museum and gallery installations, contextualized amidst a wealth of exhibition notes, sketchbook pages, and other never-before-revealed archival materials.

Brian Eno lecturing at the MoMA, 1990.

In a 2005 interview for the British Arts Council, Eno came to compare his work to that of John Cage:

John Cage … made a choice at a certain point: he chose not to interfere with the music content anymore. But the approach I have chosen was different from his. I don’t reject interference; I choose to interfere and guide. . . . The music systems designed by Cage are choice-free, he doesn’t filter what comes out of his mind; people have to accept them passively. But my approach is, although I don’t interfere with the completion of a system, if the end result is not good, I’ll ditch it and do something else. This is a fundamental difference between Cage and me. If you consider yourself to be an experimental musician, you’ll have to accept that some of your experiments will fail. Though the failed works might be interesting too, they are not works that you would choose to share with other people or publish.

Indeed, one of Eno’s most interesting projects is a mid-1970s collaboration with the German composer Peter Schmidt, who had just finished a set of 64 drawings based on the I Ching — the same ancient Chinese text that so inspired Cage. Eno and Schmidt created a series of art instructions — an underappreciated art genre unto itself — titled Oblique Strategies. The project consisted of a set of 115 white cards with simple black text in a deck subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. Though a conceptual art project, the cards were essentially a practical tool for generating ideas, breaking through creative block, and breaking free of stale thought patterns.

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno even employed the cards while producing David Bowie’s iconic 1977 album Heroes, using Oblique Strategies on the song “Sense of Doubt.”

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno first confronted this interweaving of music and visual art in his formal arts education, amidst the groundswell of the avant-garde and the Fluxus movement with its bold proclamation that “anything can be art and anyone can do it.” He empathically embraced this inclusive model of creativity in defiance to the specializations and constraints of the traditional art world, asserting:

Art schools manage to balance themselves on the fence between telling you what to do step by step, and leaving you free to do what you want. Their orientation is basically towards the production of specialists, and towards the provision of ambitions, of goals, and identities. The assumption of the correct identity — painter, sculptor — fattens you up for the market. The identity becomes a straightjacket; it becomes progressively more dangerous to step outside of it.

In the foreword, legendary British artist, theorist, and cybernetics pioneer Roy Ascott, who was once Eno’s teacher, attempts to map where Eno belongs in the ecosystem of art:

Any attempt to locate Brian Eno’s work within an historical framework calls for a triple triangulation, whose trig points in the English tradition would seem to be Turner/Elgar/Blake; in Europe, Matisse/Satie/ Bergson, and in the United States Rothko/La Monte Young/Rorty. This triple triangulation will quickly be seen as insufficient, however, since those based on Asian and Middle Eastern cultures will also be required. Soon it would become apparent that a precise or consistent location cannot be determined, except by the abandonment of triangulation in favor of a dynamic network model. Here we would need to adopt second-order cybernetics, the recognition that attempting to measure cultural location is relative, viewer dependent, unstable, shifting, and open-ended. This conclusion reminds me that Brian was the first of my students to understand that cybernetics is philosophy, and that philosophy is cybernetics.

However, this approach to an understanding of Eno’s art would in itself fail to recognize his aesthetic of surrender and meditation, in which respect he seems to adopt a kind of Duchampian indifference, flowing from a process of removal of the Self from reflection, toward a quiet celebration of uneventfulness.

But Eno’s greatest accomplishment — and what makes his visual art so singular yet so widely resonant and important — is arguably his exploration of identity. Amidst a cultural landscape where the creative self is necessarily divided, Eno has consistently conquered a wide array of creative and intellectual fields while at the same time mastering the art of integration. Ascott puts it beautifully:

We cannot grasp the ambient identity of Eno’s artwork without also recognizing the ambient identity of the artist himself. This demands knowing not only where to place him in the spectrum of roles across philosophy, visual arts, performance, music, social and cultural commentary, and activism, but in terms of personae, or as we say now, avatars. . . . Throughout his career, not only has Eno explored identity, he has provided the context, employing light, sound, space, and color, in which each participant can playfully and passionately share in the breaching of the boundaries of the Self.

'77 Million Paintings,' Sydney Opera House, 2009

Brian Eno: Visual Music is beautiful and compelling in its entirety. Complement it with the psychology of getting unstuck and some of today’s most celebrated writers, artists, and designers on how to break through your creative block.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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17 JANUARY, 2014

Party Like It’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance

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“Dance music … stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room.”

“Oh, how wonderful! How like the mind it is!” Helen Keller exclaimed in her moving first experience of dance. “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” young Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a letter to a friend. “Twyla Tharp reconciles me to being a woman … Non-sexist dancing — strong women with their own energy, subjects not objects, playful with men — not afraid of them,” Susan Sontag mused in her diary.

From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — the same wonderfully rich volume that gave us young Virginia Woolf on imitation and the arts and the glory of the human mind — comes a glimpse of a lesser-known side of the seemingly reserved author: Her love of music and dance.

In an essayistic entry from 1903, titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” and reproduced here with her original spelling, 21-year-old Virginia writes:

About two hours ago, when I went to bed, I heard what I took to be signs of merry making in the mews. A violin squeaked, there was a noise of loud voices & laughter. It reminded me how once, as a child, I woke at dead of night: it seemed to me — 8 or 9 I suppose really & I heard strange & horrible music as of a midnight barrel organ, & was so frightened that I had to crawl to the cot next mine for sympathy. But I am too old for that kind of blind terror; my critical mind when awake enough to think at all about it, decided that the fiddle squeaking &c. was token of a ball — not in our street — but in Queens Gate — the tall row of houses that makes a background to the mews. The music grew so loud, so rhythmic — as the night drew on & the London roar lessened, that I threw up my window, leant out into the cool air, & saw the illuminations which told surely from what house the music came.

Now I have been listening for an hour. The music stops — I hear the chatter, the light laughter of womens voices — the deeper notes of festive males. I can almost see the couples wandering out from the ball rooms to the balconies which are starred with small lamps. They look straight across the mews to me. The music has begun again — oh dear — the swing & the lilt of that waltz makes me almost feel as though I could jump from my bed & dance to it too. That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music. Here the bars run low, passionate, regretful, but always in the same pulse. We dance as though we knew the vanity of dancing. We dance to drown our sorrows — but dance, dance — If you stop you are lost. This one night we will be mad — dance lightly — raise our hearts as the beat strengthens, grows buoyant — careless, defiant. What matters anything so long as ones step is in time — so long as one’s whole body & mind are dancing too — what shall end it?

Dinomania: (n) irresistible urge to dance

Artwork by Polly M. Law from her Word Project. Click image for details.

After a short contemplation of the fabric of the music, noting “the very height of the rhythm, some strange, solitary sound,” Woolf finds herself exhausted and consumed by the dense darkness of the night sky, then returns to the exhilaration of dance — but this time as a melancholy observer, painting an ominous, zombie-like picture of the dancing throng:

The music again! I begin to think someone has wound up this weary waltz & it will go on at intervals all thro‘ the night. Nobody is dancing in time to it now I am sure — or they dance as pale phantoms because so long as the music sounds they must dance — no help for them. Surely the music that seemed to ebb before, has gathered strength — it sounds louder & louder — it swings faster & faster — no one can stop dancing now. They are sucked in by the music. And how weary they look — pale men — fainting women — crumpled silks & trampled flowers. They are no longer masters of the dance — it has taken possession of them. And all joy & life has left it, & is diabolical, a twisting livid serpent, writhing in cold sweat & agony, & crushing the frail dancers in its contortions. What has brought about the change? It is the dawn.

Complement A Passionate Apprentice with the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice and her timeless meditations on how to read a book, the language of film, the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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30 DECEMBER, 2013

Dream of Life: The Ultimate Documentary on the Iconic Artist Patti Smith

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“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line — you have your own interior world, and it’s not neat.”

Patti Smith (born December 30, 1946) is celebrated as the “godmother of punk rock,” but besides being a magnificent musician, she is also a phenomenal poet, artist, rebel, and modern philosopher — a mind so diversely interesting and a heart so boundless in creative curiosity that she stands as a rare kind of modern muse to generation after generation of contemporary creators. Hardly anywhere does Smith’s singular spirit shine in more kaleidoscopic dimension than in Steven Sebring’s 2007 documentary Dream of Life, named after Smith’s 1988 album of the same title. The film, a decade in the making and narrated by Smith herself, offers an intimate portrait of one of the most important artists of the last century, in which she discusses everything from art and music to love and grief to politics to how creativity works. It’s available below in two parts — please enjoy:

My mission is to communicate, to wake people up, to give them my energy and accept theirs.

The film was eventually adapted into the coffee-table photo book Patti Smith: Dream of Life (public library), a treasure in its own right.

Complement with Patti Smith’s advice to the young, her tribute to Virginia Woolf, her lettuce soup recipe for starving artists, and her stirring poems mourning her soulmate.

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