“Making Music is not a collection of vague aphorisms. Instead, it combines motivational ideas about the philosophy and psychology of music-making with hands-on tools and techniques that musicians of all kinds can use to really get work done.”
– Dennis DeSantis, Making Music
Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies For Electronic Music Producers (2015) by Dennis DeSantis is a conceptual guide for musicians who make music using a computer. DeSantis brings to his writing the full range of his experience as a percussionist, composer, electronic musician, and head of documentation at Ableton, the company behind Ableton Live software. Making Music is beautiful in both the rigorous clarity of its content as well as its minimalist design. (The book is published by Ableton.) It’s a book of encouragement, a book of confirmation, a book of suggestion and direction, a book of thoughtful inquiry about the creative process, and a book of pragmatic pathways for action.
Divided into three sections, Problems of Beginning, Problems of Progressing, and Problems of Finishing, Making Music presents brief (and unnumbered) chapters, each of which tackles a different issue a musician might face when creating music. Every few pages a new problem is posed and then a solution is offered. For example, in the first section the chapter “Arbitrary Constraints” considers the problem of computer software offering far too many options. DeSantis suggests that we deliberately limit our options through various kinds of constraints. Another chapter, “Goal-Less Exploration” considers the problem of boredom by suggesting ways of micro-exploring without a set goal. The second section considers problems relating to creating variations (e.g. “Mutation Over Generations”), programming rhythms (e.g. “Linear Drumming”), melody formation, sampling, and more abstract topics such as “Tuning Everything”, “Maximal Density”, and “Dramatic Arc.” The concluding section presents problems of arrangement and form with a view to completing a musical project. Overall, the format and chapter themes of Making Music generate a wealth of good questions and equally stimulating and elegant answers. At times the playful way these questions and answers unearth creative strategies for making music with a computer evokes the oblique strategies that Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt devised in the 1970s. Like Eno’s prompts (e.g. “Honour thy error as a hidden intention”,” What to increase? What to reduce?”, “Work at a different speed”) as well as the philosophy of John Cage (who drew on Zen teachings), DeSantis’ book has a pleasing sense of calm about it, as if its meta-message is: No matter how your music is going at this moment, something (interesting) will work out if you think about it differently. Get beyond yourself, let the work flow.
Making Music is certainly a practical book that could be useful to any musician, regardless of the kind of music they make. A beginner would love this book, as would an expert, and the material is equally appropriate to a hip hop producer as it is to a composer of left-field soundscape recordings. (Or a producer of left-field hip hop that incorporates soundscape recordings.) But Making Music also resonates on levels deeper than its how-to format might suggest. One of these levels rattles around the questions: What is composing in the 21st century? What does composing technique look like in the digital age? DeSantis has articulated 74 ways in which music software is a unique environment and possibility space in which to think through composing. Another deep level on which the book resonates is how it provides insight into the texture and tempo of accomplished musical thinking. DeSantis doesn’t talk about his own compositions per se, yet the way he systematically offers and then analyzes examples demonstrates how we too might rigorously think through the many permutations latent in our musical materials. In short, Making Music is an inspiring and very musical book because it faithfully models sound musical thinking.
1. An article that considers the significance of the recent critical attention paid by (serious) music journalism towards (serious?) pop music. Case in point: the New York Times’ article and video documentary on the making of Justin Bieber’s “Where R Ü Now.”
“The New York Times’ pieces challenge us as to how seriously we are prepared to take music that isn’t ostensibly academic. It is one thing to produce elaborate ambience, shattering, hammering techno, or abrasive concept-led noise — yet it is another, arguably even harder, task to condense an idea into its most simple, ‘pop’ form.”
“Not since the hip-hop boom of the early 90s have corporations leapt on a scene so vigorously. It’s easy to see why: EDM – a hybrid of house, dubstep and trance – trades in safe, inclusive, upbeat music that is played at extravagant live shows to vast crowds. It is largely language-free so it has global reach.”
“The 7-note diatonic scale as well as harmony existed 3,400 years ago…flies in the face of most musicologist’s views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks.”
Here is a MIDI rendering of the music:
Creativity is a balancing act.
Creativity is a candle that burns for a while.
Creativity is a circuit.
Creativity is a difference that makes the difference.
Creativity is a game.
Creativity is a key.
Creativity is a lone voice.
Creativity is an encounter.
Creativity is an outpouring.
Creativity is a radar system.
Creativity is a renewable resource.
Creativity is a response to a call.
Creativity is a series of small victories.
Creativity is a sum more than its parts.
Creativity is a weather system.
Creativity is additive and subtractive.
Creativity is adjectival.
Creativity is aiming.
Creativity is anticipation.
Creativity is anti-cliché.
Creativity is attitude.
Creativity is broad strokes.
Creativity is changing the frame of reference.
Creativity is coming up short.
Creativity is concept-stretching.
Creativity is contagion.
Creativity is conundrum.
Creativity is coping.
Creativity is cyclical.
Creativity is data management.
Creativity is deep fishing.
Creativity is derivative.
Creativity is designing.
Creativity is dialogue.
Creativity is disinterested.
Creativity is distillation.
Creativity is distortion
Creativity is doing it in a series.
Creativity is endurance.
Creativity is enthusiasm as a compass.
Creativity is exponential.
Creativity is everyday.
Creativity is fermentation.
Creativity is flow.
Creativity is focus.
Creativity is fractal.
Creativity is granular.
Creativity is harmonics above the fundamental.
Creativity is hidden competition.
Creativity is hyperlinking.
Creativity is hypothesizing.
Creativity is improving.
Creativity is incremental.
Creativity is judging proportion.
Creativity is juggling ideas.
Creativity is juxtaposition.
Creativity is leaping.
Creativity is learned.
Creativity is lift under the wing.
Creativity is liminal.
Creativity is linking.
Creativity is measuring.
Creativity is minimalism and absence.
Creativity is multitasking.
Creativity is pattern recognition.
Creativity is neural firing.
Creativity is noticing.
Creativity is numerical.
Creativity is off-road driving.
Creativity is ordering.
Creativity is overhearing gossip.
Creativity is playing the odds.
Creativity is polyphonic.
Creativity is pruning.
Creativity is question-asking.
Creativity is redirected desire.
Creativity is refraction.
Creativity is remixing.
Creativity is resourcefulness.
Creativity is rhizomatic.
Creativity is rolling the dice.
Creativity is round shapes into square pegs.
Creativity is seeing the two faces instead of the vase.
Creativity is spotlighting.
Creativity is step-wise.
Creativity is sui generis, a one-off.
Creativity is swimming against the current.
Creativity is switching gears.
Creativity is sympathetic resonance.
Creativity is tessellation.
Creativity is textural.
Creativity is therapy.
Creativity is timing.
Creativity is tinkering.
Creativity is toil.
Creativity is travel.
Creativity is tuning/turning the dial.
Creativity is uncertainty.
Creativity is variations on a theme.
Creativity is wonder.
“It was one of my uncles who is a big music lover and record collector. Since the age of three or four I often visited his room to play his piano and pick some vinyl records to play. The first music I got really into was Bach. I was impressed with the music of counterpoint, with its way of writing. After that I studied harmony and counterpoint. All these experiences deeply affected me in the way of thinking and expressing music. I always think about music horizontally and vertically at the same time. Also, to me, it’s very important the connections of harmony in time which is two-dimensional. Because similar to language, a meaning would be totally different if you change the syntax. The same thing happens in music.”
“The clock’s ubiquity legitimized time discipline and naturalized it, making it banal and commonsensical. It made sure that no one escaped the tempo.”
While working on a musical project recently I realized the value of editing while looking at the MIDI notes. Listening to the music while following along each part one at a time lets me see what’s sounding and then make the appropriate changes in dynamics and arrangement. For instance, I can hear that there’s a three-note ascending phrase and also see the volume levels for each of these notes (represented as vertical velocity lines of different lengths underneath them). Sometimes one note or another will jump out at me or get lost in the mix a little so I’ll look at the volume levels to see if that’s the problem. Alternately, I’ll look at the volume levels first and only then take notice of the corresponding sound—an unusually low or high velocity line for a note might be a reason to listen more closely. So I’ll play back the three-note rising phrase a few times and ask: Can I hear all the notes clearly? Is there is enough shape to them? I’ll make the phrase have a gradual crescendo or decrescendo shape by slightly tweaking the volume of each of the three notes, up or down depending. I’ll do something similar with notes that fall on what feel like downbeats or what should be accented parts of the melody. Of course, some of these dynamic shapes are already within my original recorded performance. But I’m struck by how often these performance details are not necessarily articulated clearly enough in the parts. Maybe this lack of articulation has something to do with my using a MIDI controller whose keys are not so sensitive velocity-wise. A more likely problem is me—maybe I wasn’t thinking all that analytically about the music when I first performed/recorded it. I was just going for it. Now though, as I listen after the fact while looking at the notes, I can identify places that could be clearer and then make them so. It all feels like teaching myself in retrospect.
The other kind of change I make while looking at the MIDI notes has to do with arrangement. Here and there I find note doublings or points of overlap that are simply too busy and cluttered. Looking at the notes of all the parts as they sound allows me to see which part harbors the problem I’m hearing. My process is entirely intuitive and the question I’m always trying to answer is What is that weird sound? Ninety-nine percent of the time less is always more: deleting a note can have impressive results as I take away sounds until the texture becomes clearer, standing more revealed. In those few cases where I’m not sure what to do, I’ll listen to a spot with and then without a potentially extraneous note and then decide whether or not to delete it. In a few of these few cases I’ll leave things as they are: sometimes a little chaos is a good thing.
The takeaway from this process of editing while listening and looking at the notes is that the most effective music is that which I don’t have to touch much at all. Looking at the MIDI notes on the screen I think about how any performance—whether I’m moved by it or not—has a shape and flow to it. That’s what makes it a performance. We can tweak a recording to bits after the fact, but any power it might have lies in the ways in went about trying to achieve what it achieved, the way it created the energy it created, the clarity of its guiding logic, and most importantly, how it made us feel.
“The focus of yoga creates a really good environment to appreciate sound, in a deep listening kind of way…Intense music creates a kind of mindfulness as well, in that it can be very aggressive in displacing thoughts.”
“But at the heart of Coldplay’s allure is a talent for capturing something fundamental to contemporary living. The most I can say is this: their best songs make me feel like I am in a mobile phone advert, or sitting in a gleaming airport terminal, luxuriating in a brief moment of respite from sensory overload. They specialise in fuzzy, redemptive qualities that are almost indefinable…”
3. A bluegrass version of a Metallica song:
Rebekka Karijord’s two and a half-minute “Morula” seems built entirely out of voice. It begins with a simple sung arpeggio–a three chord, nine note statement. The voice seems processed, maybe auto-tuned, or maybe sampled. By the third time around its call is responded to in a higher register, with a contrasting shape. We also hear the original statement doubled, pitch-shifted, and staggered; the new notes add tension and dissonance to the original ones, making new micro-chords within the arpeggio. As the texture repeats and evolves we wonder: Was this sung or sampled and played? (Does it matter?) As if to answer our question, halfway through the piece we hear long open voice tones, like a virtual choir, telling us the chords that have been underlying those arpeggios the whole time. The open voices only sound for a minute before the piece ends as so many good pieces of music do: by going back to the beginning.