On Wonderment And Scripts In Electronic Music Making
by Thomas Brett
“I always say to myself, what is the most important thing we can think about at this extraordinary moment?”—Buckminster Fuller
There’s a feeling I’m getting used to by now as I make electronic music: a sense of wonderment regarding all the sonic possibilities I’m not exploring at this very (extraordinary) moment. Once upon a time that sense of wonder would stymie me, freezing my progress in the humble here and now with thoughts shaped like question marks circling around the prospect of what could be.
It’s easy for an electronic musician to fall under the spell of what could be. One reason for this is that even the most humdrum of software tools offer a staggering number of possibilities for shaping sound. Where shall we go and how will we get there? You’re not limited by your musical-kinesthetic technique as much as your intuitive decision-making skills. In my case, vast worlds seem to open up with a cursory–and sometimes quite accidental–twist of a virtual knob or click on a virtual button. Oh, that sounds cool! (I think to myself) Searching for cool sonics, I spend a lot of time just listening and making little adjustments and gauging their effects. (I don’t remember ever doing enough of this when I was studying music at university–too focused I was on acquiring technique or perhaps learning some piece?) Here I’m reminded of that quote from the composer John Cage about how he never imagined anything before he experienced it. This has been my experience as well. As a phenomenologist sitting at the computer, I try this and that until the sensual rightness of something catches my ear and gives me a means by which to imagine.
Moreover, what is in the state of electronic music technology–computers, software, hardware–is constantly evolving, pushing musicians one way or another. In her article “The De-Scription of Technical Objects”, Madeleine Akrich argues that technical objects have “scripts” or possible “scenarios” inscribed into them by their designers who “attempt to predetermine the settings that users are asked to imagine for a particular piece of technology…” At the same time though, users “may define quite different roles of their own” in their quest for finding new ways of working not intended by the technology’s designers (Shaping Technology/Building Society, MIT Press, 1992, p.208).
So it’s a negotiation between musician and technical object–the “script” of the encounter co-written as it were.
But back to wonderment. Because the possibilities feel endless, we have to rein wonder in by deliberately limiting our scope, narrowing our focus, paring things down. One strategy that has served me well in my “current” project–begun in 2009!–is to decide on a set of sounds and stick with them and only them. For my project, these sounds include a few not so exotic staples (a sub bass, a bell, a harp, a pad, an organ) plus about six different drum machines (including replicas of Roland TR-808, 606, and CR-78 machines for you gear heads out there). Everything is set up and ready to go so I can work quickly and preserve a sense of play. Also–and this is important–if I can’t find an interesting sound from among these sources . . . then tough luck for me. But I also keep in mind that these sounds are also just a starting point. Indeed, they may well be morphed into new forms later on in the composition/production process.
A second strategy is to build symmetry and cohesiveness into the pieces by moving parts around from one section to another. It’s a little like the concept of a “common tone” where a note from one chord continues into the following one, acting like a sonic glue. Similarly, a repeating hi hat pattern or a marimba drone can be moved around and used as connective tissue. Of course, the very design of my digital audio software program with its “clips” and “scenes” layout is an example of Akrich’s script that guides my way of working and thinking about musical parts as moveable common tones.
A final strategy I use involves building into each part a sense of directionality: moving from a pattern that is sparse (few notes per measure) to one that is more dense (more notes per measure). In this way, each part develops over the course of its duration (which can be anywhere from 4 to over 100 measures). When several parts of different lengths with different rates of moving from sparseness to density are running simultaneously, the overlapping directionalities can make for interesting listening.
These strategies have served me well. And I’m always on the lookout for new ones that will focus my work by keeping wonderment about what I’m not doing in check for the moment.