The act of creation is often a lonely one, full of moments of self-doubt and tiny obstacles. And they occur when it may be difficult to phone your friends in search of advice. There's a tradition in experimental music circles of the use of oracles as a source for creative advice. Oracles often tend to be… well… oracular. As in "Uh... I am not entirely clear on what the pronouncements mean." While this can be a real source of serendipitous discovery, your trusty I Ching oracle may leave you puzzling for a while on something like
She invokes the spirit of her ancestor, but is visited by her ancestress. He heads straight for the Prince but is intercepted by the Minister. It is best.
This can especially true in those situations where one is considering, say, issues related to spatialization and sound source placement. However, there are other interesting options out there - a good number of which take the form not of a document consulted after throwing coins or yarrow stalks, but the tried and true "Take a card."
The Oblique Strategies
Let's start with my personal favorite and longtime go-to: The Oblique Strategies. They're a deck of over a hundred cards first invented in the 1970s by Brian Eno and his friend and teacher Peter Schmidt.
The deck’s origins began with a conversation: the discovery that both Eno and Schmidt tended to find themselves in working situations where they felt sufficiently stressed by their work in progress that they’d forgotten the state of mind where they were “in the flow.” They’d separately begun to make note of some of the things they kept in mind when they weren’t under pressure (In Peter Schmidt's case, that took the form of The Thoughts Behind The Thoughts, which you might find interesting on its own). Interestingly, each of them had one version of what’s essentially the same insight – the Oblique Strategies contain a card for each of those two “notes to myself.”
Was it really a mistake? Honour thy error as a hidden intention
The resulting collection of aphorisms turned into the deck of cards we know about today, now having gone through a number of revisions along the way, and appeared in numerous printed editions, apps, Max patches, and other forms.
I’ve owned a deck since the first edition appeared, and collect them. In practice, the contents of the deck are aimed generally toward little sideways diversions – some of which make use of the language of the visual arts (as you’d expect, since Peter Schmidt was a visual artist) or the practice of making or recording music. What’s continued to interest me is that they’re still useful, even after all this time. When you’ve had them around for a while, the aphorisms often tend to become memorable items you can call to mind even without drawing a card (What would your best friend do?). Other times, there’ll be the card you have completely forgotten until now (Not building a wall, but making a brick).
You can acquire a physical copy of The Oblique Strategies for yourself here. Alternately, you can find iOS application versions, Android versions, and numerous online Oblique Strategy decks to consult.
You may not be surprised to discover that Messrs. Eno and Schmidt aren’t the only persons who’ve had this idea – indeed, something like this is available in a number of different and interesting variations.....
One of them concerns itself with giving a very specific kind of advice, enlivens its costume with some dice, and is a great – if somewhat less oracular – way to compose music. One interesting addition to the guides/games-for-musicians genre comes from Scott Hughes - it's called “Tonic: The Card & Dice Game for Musicians." It borders on Dungeons & Dragons territory as a way of getting you composing (or recomposing, if you're stuck). Combining a set of 63 cards with three 12-sided die, you can attack ideas of compositional and improvisational gaming with gusto.
The cards in this deck are a little more explicitly musical than the Oblique Strategies. With cards bearing instructions like “Play this graph” or “Use just one interval”, you are told what to try in very clear musical terms. Each has some wiggle room, however - for example, the “one interval” card adds the sentence “You are free to move it around as much as you wish.” In addition, you add the variations provided by the dice (which have note names on them, rather than numbers), providing for a tremendous set of variations from the options at hand.
Are you curious, but maybe not ready to plunk down the cash? The cards’ text is available in a PDF, provided by the author for you to try on your own; this is available, along with a commercial set of cards and dice, from the author’s website.
The Creative Whack Pack
The oracular approach is usually about solving a given problem, or trying to break a logjam. And the world is full of people who have thought long and hard (and well, occasionally) on a more generalized approach to problem solving – often, in situations where groups are involved. One well-known version of this approach is The Creative Whack Pack, which takes its name from the Zen blow upside the head that leads to Enlightenment. Roger von Oech's interest in creative problem solving started with a book, whose summarized contents morphed into the pack of cards (and an iOS app in the bargain, too). They're focused - in a more general sense - on more generalized strategies for problem solving. They're also considerably more verbose in the sense that you're getting not only the instruction, but some background information that expands and grounds the original suggestion - it's quite a different approach to a similar problem, when compared to the Oblique Strategies. But it may be just what you need.
Grotesque Tables II
All of these would be great resources for you, or – since we have a holiday season approaching – a great gift for a chronically creatively constipated companion. But what about the perfect gift for The Person Who Has Everything Including The Oblique Strategies? Never fear – here’s an unusually helpful deck of cards they probably won’t see coming - the Grotesque Tables II.
Obviously, the problem with the Oblique Strategies is that they become too well known as one owns and uses the deck. The once trenchant advice wears kind of smooth after a while, and loses its oracular mojo. The Grotesque Tables II operates from the assumption that that mojo can be effectively transformed by means of anagramming a number of the original Oblique Strategies so that they may, as Shakespeare says, “suffer a sea change/into something rich and strange.” And they do. You can pick up a copy of your own here. I don’t want to spoil the fun, so I’ll leave you with one of them [see if you can work out what the original Oblique Strategy was, while you’re at it]:
Hide near bottlenecks
There you have it. Four portable friends, ready to whisper in your ear when next you are preplexed. Pick a deck. Any deck....