Monday, March 28, 2016

Music Education Monday: Expand your musical mind with Brian Eno and John Cage

The Music Education Monday feature usually concentrates on resources offering practical tips and techniques, but today, we're pointing you toward some materials from a couple of famous conceptual thinkers that may help expand your musical mind:

* Brian Eno (pictured, top right) is an electronic musician, composer, producer and artist known for his recordings with Roxy Music, David Bowie, Talking Heads and numerous others, and as the creator of Music for Airports and other works now considered fundamental to the "ambient music" genre.  He's esteemed as a highly influential figure, for both his conceptual ideas and for his technical innovations in sampling, recording, and computer-augmented composition.

One of Eno's best-known non-musical works is Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards in which each card is printed with a different phrase, idea or remark that's intended to help artists, especially musicians, to reconsider options, break creative blocks, and look at situations in new ways. Some are specific to music; others are more general, or simply cryptic. Eno used them most famously in his collaborations with Bowie on albums including Low, Heroes, Lodger, and Outside, and over the years, there have several different editions adding new cards to the original set.

While first printings of the original Oblique Strategies deck now can be had only at prices reflective more of their status as art objects than as practical tools, fortunately there are several other ways to access the conceptual content of Oblique Strategies for free.

The place to start is at the official Oblique Strategies website, which has a history of various editions and, most important, a "consult the deck option" that includes links to several different free, online and downloadable realizations that simulate drawing a random card from the deck. There's also a separate online deck called The Acute Strategies that includes user contributions in the spirit of the original.

(If you should wish to purchase a physical set of Oblique Strategies cards, they've been reprinted and can be bought online here.)

* In writing and interviews, Eno frequently has acknowledged the influence of the experimental composer John Cage (pictured, top left), whose thinking about music and sound helped shape much of the 20th century avant-garde and still pervades today. While summarizing Cage's long career is way beyond the purview of this weekly feature, the official John Cage website offers a detailed biography and look at his career and works.

For a more specific look at some of Cage's concepts, and how they might be applied by other musicians and composers, you can read a couple of his books that can be found online for free, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Silence: Lectures and Writings was first published in 1961, and collects essays and lectures written by Cage from 1939 to 1961. The book includes chapters on the future of music; experimental music; composition as process; Cage's thoughts on the intersection of music with dance and visual art; and more, plus a closing "Lecture on Nothing".

You can download Silence in PDF format here, and see the selection of other free downloadable versions, including ebooks, here.

Also worth a look is Notations, which was edited and compiled by Cage and first published in 1969. It's a collection of graphic scores with text by 269 different composers. In typical Cagean fashion, the text and layout of the book were created using chance procedures, with the scores presented in alphabetical order and allotted equal space, implying that "the editor has no more authority than the reader in assigning value to the work."

While this description only hints at the diverse contents of Notations, you can see it for yourself by downloading a PDF copy for free here. Other free downloadable formats are listed here.

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