Developing Your Creative Practice: Tips from Brian Eno
[via 99%, by Scott McDowell]
The ebb and flow of concentrated focus and total disengagement has been a subject
of particular interest to the composer, musician, and producer Brian Eno (U2,
Eric Tamm’s book, Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Sound of Color, delves
deeply into Eno’s “creative process.” Eno himself calls it:
…a practice of some kind … It quite frequently happens that you’re
just treading water for quite a long time. Nothing really dramatic
seems to be happening. … And then suddenly everything seems to
lock together in a different way. It’s like a crystallization point
where you can’t detect any single element having changed. There’s
a proverb that says that the fruit takes a long time to ripen, but it
falls suddenly … And that seems to be the process.
Throughout his career, Eno has used a grab bag of tools to assist the creative
process. “There are lots of ways that you can interfere with it and make it more
1. Freeform capture. Grab from a range of sources without editorializing.
According to Tamm, one of Eno’s tactics “involves keeping a microcassette tape
recorder on hand at all times and recording any stray ideas that hit him out of the
blue – a melody, a rhythm, a verbal phrase.” He’ll then go through and look for links
or connections, something that can form the foundation for a new piece of music.
2. Blank state. Start with new tools, from nothing, and toy around. For example,
Eno approaches this by entering the recording studio with no preconceived ideas,
only a set of instruments or a few musicians and “just dabble with sounds until
something starts to happen that suggests a texture.” When the sound texture evokes
a memory or emotion that impression then takes over in guiding the process.
3. Deliberate limitations. Before a project begins, develop specific limitations.
Eno’s example: “this piece is going to be three minutes and nineteen seconds long
and it’s going to have changes here, here and here, and there’s going to be a
convolution of events here, and there’s going to be a very fast rhythm here with a
very slow moving part over the top of it.”
4. Opposing forces. Sometimes it’s best to generate a forced collision of ideas.
Eno would “gather together a group of musicians who wouldn’t normally work
together.” Dissimilar background and approaches can often evoke fresh thinking.
5. Creative prompts. In the ‘70s Eno developed his Oblique Strategies cards, a
series of prompts modeled after the I Ching to disrupt the process and encourage a
new way of encountering a creative problem. On the cards are statements and
questions like: “Would anybody want it?” “Try faking it!” “Only a part, not the
whole.” “Work at a different speed.” “Disconnect from desire.” “Turn it upside
down.” “Use an old idea.” These prompts are a method of generating specifics, which
most creatives respond favorably to.
In the end, don’t underestimate your personal feelings about a project. Eno states:
“Nearly all the things I do that are of any merit at all start off as just being good
fun.” Amen to that.
How Do You Spark Creative Breakthroughs?
Where do you get your best ideas?
What strategies do you use to give your creative mind a kick?
Scott McDowell works with business leaders and creative teams to ease
collaboration. He’s also a DJ at WFMU. Follow Scott @mcd_owell.