View From the East: Oblique Writing

View From the East: Oblique Writing

Greg Sandow

Take a break.

You know you’re in trouble when you sit down to write, ask for some advice, and in reply get the three words above. And it’s even worse when the subject of your piece is the source of the advice—which for me, today, is Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies.”

And what are “Oblique Strategies?” A deck of more than 100 cards, devised by Eno and Peter Schmidt, a painter, and sold in limited editions back in the ’70s in a handsome black box. Each card has a black back, and each offers advice on how to do art or any art-like activity. Or anyway that’s my interpretation. You’re stuck doing your work; you pick a card; you take its advice. Eno’s own notions amount more or less to what I said, but are more, well, oblique, as well as more thoughtful and detailed. You can read them on the “Introduction” page of the Oblique Strategies website. Originally the strategies were thoughts both Schmidt and Eno used to break through their normal routine, especially when they were under deadline pressure. They assembled all these thoughts, had them published in a deck of cards, and suggested that you use them either as possibilities to sort through or else as a kind of oracle, as I’ve long done. If you do that, Eno says (in an interview quoted on the website), “The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.”

Which is exactly the delicious dilemma I had when I drew my first card today, from a deck I’ve had since the ’70s. “Take a break.” But I have a deadline! And I’m reluctant to get to work, so the card almost seemed to taunt me.

It provided, though, a fine lesson about life and about how to use these cards.

Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities.


I was about to tell a story, about my old friend Linda Sanders, who succeeded me as new music critic for The Village Voice then quickly quit (she didn’t care to be a critic, though she was wonderful), opening the way for Kyle Gann. She started musical life as a violist, and at one point gave a wonderful solo concert, in which she played a John Cage piece. I think the piece was Variations IV, but I’m not sure my memory is right. In any case, the score was simply a transparent plastic sheet with dots on it. You make a map of your performing space and lay the sheet on it. You see where the dots fall and perform something everywhere you find a dot.

Linda gave the concert twice. The first time, she used the Cage piece as intermission. She put toy instruments and noisemakers everywhere the dots were, and encouraged people in the audience to make noises on them. The result was chaos and not an interesting kind. So at her next performance, she started with the Cage. Everywhere she found a dot she stood and read excerpts from books on how to play string instruments. This worked wonderfully. It eased her into the performance, let her gently laugh at any stage fright she might feel, and entertained the audience.

For me it was a lesson on performing Cage. He gives you, in this and many other pieces, no direction about what, specifically, to do. Once you’ve placed the dots, you do anything you want. But that doesn’t mean that everything’s acceptable. You’re thrown back on yourself. What feels like truth to you? That’s what you should look for, and Linda’s work with this Cage piece both illustrates how you move toward it and how Cage helps you. (Because I’m happy with other thoughts I’ve had on performing Cage, I’ll link to my own Village Voice piece, “The Cage Style,” on my own website.)

Linda’s work with Cage also shows how one way to work with Oblique Strategies. My first card said, “Take a break.” I had no time for that. But there were things I have to do, to write this piece, that (mercifully) aren’t writing. I had to find out how someone now can buy the cards, for instance. So I took a break by going on the Web to look that up, using (or so I thought) the card’s suggestion in a most helpful and constructive way, since originally I’d thought I’d do this chore at the end of my work and add the information to the end of the piece.

But now I’d better give the information here. The edition I have has long been out of print, but there’s a new edition, published last year (and much more colorful), that might still be buyable. I also found computer versions of the cards, free to download, for Windows, for the Mac, and for the Palm. Or you can consult the cards right on their website, or at least they claim you can; it didn’t work for me, even after I tried it in two PC browsers, Mozilla and Internet Explorer. A Windows version worked, though you have to install a special file it comes with, VBRUN300.DLL, and it doesn’t tell you how. You put the file in your Windows/System directory (and yes, for those up on arcane computer stuff, this ancient Visual Basic program—identifiable as such by the VBRUN file—works as smooth as cream on Windows XP).

But now (especially with that last parenthesis) I might be taking too long a break. What about the cards? And what about the challenge that last card threw me? I was about to relate a long list of specifics, and I’m afraid I’ve done so. The card said not to do that. Or did it?

Would anybody want it?

That’s the latest card I’ve drawn, always from the physical deck. I’m far more attached to the tangible cards than to the computer versions, though I’ll be glad to have one on my Palm. The Windows version, though, did give me this: Assemble some of the elements in a group, and treat the group. And that’s going to work for me just fine, because I think I need to tell you, right about now, more about what the cards say. I can, or so I think right now, quote some samples of the cards and generalize—or generate some ambiguities—from there.

I’ve found these cards very useful in writing music. One that I think I remember from the ’70s said, more or less, “If you think you’ve got too much of something, do even more of it.” It’s amazing what good advice that is (unless, that is, you’re fatally addicted to moderation). Sometimes something in your work sticks out and seems to be excessive, because it hasn’t found its proper place in what you’re doing. The timid wisdom of moderation might suggest you prune it back, but maybe you’ll have more fun and be both more honest and more convincing if you let your rogue elephant run wild. Maybe then it won’t stick out. It’ll simply be the texture that once it seemed so foreign to.

At this point I could sift through the deck to find this card, which of course my memory (after all these years) could simply have concocted. Or I could read through the code of the computer version (if I still have a program that can do that), looking for the text.

But what fun would that be? Not much, especially when I’m converting those specifics to ambiguities. One ambiguity can be whether this card I love in fact exists. Besides, I’d rather find examples in the spirit of the cards, by browsing the deck at random.

And the first thing I see is the last card as the deck is stacked right now, Be dirty. Which makes me sigh and also laugh. This deck survived a fire, and—amazingly—that last card alone got dirty. It’s very slightly thickened by water from the fire hoses, and from the smoke (perhaps), it’s marked with gray spots:

But now I’ve just noticed that the card above that is also just a bit discolored. That means I’d better pay attention to it.

Allow an easement (an easement is the abandonment of a stricture).

That might free me from the ban on specifics or rather the injunction to turn them into ambiguities.

But why am I hung up on bans and injunctions? These cards should free me. So here’s another meaning of that second dirty card: The cards are just suggestions, not commands. So here’s another way to turn specifics into ambiguities. These cards can’t tell me—or you, or anybody—how to compose, or make art in other ways. They only ease us away from any rule we think we should believe in—which even could include following these cards.

Would anybody want it?

That again! And what a helpful cue for a summary, and ending…

Would anybody want Oblique Strategies?

I want them. I’ve loved these cards for more than 20 years, and I was thrilled that they survived the fire. Other people seem to want them—the website talks about how rare they are and how buyers (allegedly) bid jillions of dollars to buy them on Ebay. (Reality check: Currently two people have bid around $500 for a deck signed by Brian Eno, and two normal decks have asking prices—with no bids yet—of $59.99 and $69.99). But I can well believe the cards are now collectibles, however obscure. Eno’s famous, and the deck itself had lots of cachet in the new music world back when I bought it.

Would you want these cards? Depends, maybe, on your response to (all these chosen at random):

  • What are you really thinking about just now?
  • What would your closest friend do?
  • Accretion.
  • Go outside. Shut the door.

I can only say that I love them—and that they made writing this column ridiculously easy.

It is quite possible (after all).


(Guarantee: I picked every card I quoted here, except the two dirty ones, completely and utterly at random.)

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