“I quite like to build things and then forget how it works and then use it later on, and not really be able to remember what I was thinking about when I built it. It’s a little bit like working with yourself in a way, but from a time when you’re not aware of what you were thinking. You can get reacquainted with it in a sense, like you would with a person.”
(Note: This is the most beautiful music I’ve heard so far this year. Heyne’s guitar-delay instrumentation is sparse, the music goes on a journey, and the chords are deeply inventive.)
Follow Brett’s Sound Picks 2020 here.
There is a music software plug-in by XLN Audio called XO which displays all of your computer’s one shot audio samples visually as colored dots against a black space. Each dot represents a different sample, and each cluster of similarly colored dots represents a class of sounds grouped by timbre and pitch (e.g. deep-pitched kick drums, sharp snares, crisp hi hats, etc.). Clicking on a dot triggers a sound and also reveals a Similarity List of similar sounds that can be scrolled through. The idea behind the plug-in is to make it easier for a producer to locate sounds on a computer. It’s supposed to be especially useful to beat makers who like to quickly scroll through drum sounds to assemble just the right kit.
XO’s visual interface came to mind recently as I was thinking about the more general workflow question of how one goes about curating one’s own work. I imagined all of my tracks-in-progress (numbering in the hundreds) arrayed as dots against a black space, easy to access by clicking on them one at a time, and linked to one another through a Similarity List. I thought: seeing the music displayed like this would be helpful for remembering what I’ve done and how one piece relates to another.
This thought experiment reminded me that the labor of improvising, putting sounds together, editing, arranging, and mixing are only about one half of producing music. The other half is constantly curating your work—sifting through all the stuff you’ve done and figuring out if any of it has any value. Curation is tricky because it involves a number of interacting components. First, there are a few essential questions to answer:
What is good and what isn’t?
What do I like and what annoys me?
What feels finished and what needs work?
Second, curation requires urgency. What should I work on now as opposed to later? As a general, albeit breakable, rule, I do something new every day, with the goal being to make today’s project more interesting than yesterday’s. Since my preference is to work on new things, an older piece needs to have something special to earn a sense of urgency.
Third, curation is a process of remembering—a bulwark against forgetting what’s been done. Pieces are numbered, but that doesn’t tell me that No. 71 is mostly finished and interesting while No. 72 is the barest of sketches and still pretty useless. Or that of fifteen piano pieces, seven were weak, but eight have potential. Oftentimes there’s no way to remember the state of a piece until I open up an old file and listen and evaluate. Some of the pieces I revisit turn out to have been exercises or experiments that chronicled one process or another—as if I was trying to “get reps in” to solidify (and better remember) how to redo something that produced results. In other words, curation can be a process of remembering what you wanted to remember, but maybe didn’t know it at the time.
Fourth, curation is not an exact science, because the curator’s taste is changing too. Piece No. 71 might be mostly finished and interesting, but hold on—I don’t hear it today the same way as I did last June, for the simple fact that I learned something in the process of making it. Making the music helped me get a little closer to a sound, but at the same time chronicles my failure to do so—which now seems more obvious, but maybe wasn’t at the time.
This brings us to a final point, which is that we are not always the best curators of own work because we get in the way of the process. Curating is about selecting and chronicling a representation of a body of material to share with others, not censoring yourself to the point that you share nothing! Maybe the trick is to partially put aside our likes and dislikes when we’re curating so we can focus on the bigger picture of what is good enough and what makes sense to share.
• An interview that illustrates how musicians talk about the craft of other musicians. Guitarist Kirk Hammett discusses Eddie Van Halen’s techniques:
“His right-hand technique, the way he hammered on strings, with super-wide intervals that a person could not humanly stretch. It was an incredible sound. And he was using it so effectively (…)
“When we listened closer, we discovered that he had a whole muting technique that was based around chords and muting selective strings. This very subtle thing that was amazing to me. And I started muting chords and muting riffs. It became a thing that I still do to this day to make riffs heavier or more percussive. That was one thing that Eddie Van Halen just handed to me right away.”
“They found that the awe walkers seemed to have become adept at discovering and amplifying awe.”
• Grant Snyder’s illustration about how to ask a question.
“Beware of clichés…
There are clichés of response as well as expression.
There are clichés of observation and of thought–even of conception.”
I struck out a bit yesterday when I tried making something. I liked the sound, but the melody was hackneyed. It was so bad, so uninteresting, that I recorded it as a reminder that this is the best I could do at 10:30pm on a Monday.
I began thinking about clichés of producing that I rely on:
The cliché of a chord progression that is either so short that it’s predictable,
or so long that it lacks focus.
The cliché of a 4/4 beat that obviously loops around, showing its seams.
The cliché of added parts that “respond” to an initial part,
decorating and counterpointing well enough, but annoying.
The cliché of the slow build and a slow unraveling of that build.
The cliché of the abrupt ending.
The cliché of individual sounds dutifully playing their traditionally ascribed roles:
bass line, chord progression, lead melody, distortion grit, reverb resonance, etc.
Clichés can be productively useful, insofar as they get you going in a general direction. I often play parts that aren’t yet free of clichés, just so I have something to work with. Often what happens is that what I thought was totally cliché last night turns out to be totally usable today—as long as I spend time making it less cliché. A lot of what I play on the keyboard I find to be clichés of the hand, but there’s always stuff to work with. Sometimes, hidden within a cliché is an interesting accident that could be a starting point.
I deleted the uninteresting melody and tried out some more chords, playing for a while and recording. But nothing was sounding good. What I had so far wasn’t passing the Is this enchanting? litmus test.
Now I wonder: Was I looking for clichés to rely on rather than doing the more difficult work of sidestepping or dismantling clichés to hear what was behind them? Maybe the reason nothing is sounding interesting is that I have not yet done anything interesting. I want enchanting results without having put the work in—without, in fact, acknowledging how long it will take to get where I want to go.
The problem with clichés is that they prevent us from accessing more direct and meaningful encounters with expression. In other words, clichés are barriers to artistically rich experience.
Thinking about clichés reminds me of TV ads’ use of music. I sort of loathe ads, but their use of music is fascinating for thinking through clichés. Ads hijack the signifying power of music, using its sounds to telegraph in as concise a way possible the essential attributes, feelings, associations, moods, and qualities of a product or service. Here are a few examples.
Ads for various telephone service providers humanize and domesticize their invisible networks by using music for plucked pizzicato strings. I call this quirky strings music. Ads for various pharmaceutical and bio-tech companies frequently use music for marimba that is repetitive, angular, and minimalist, its patterns evoking the complexities of what actually goes into a pill that seems to have more bad side effects than benefits. I call this we are figuring out how the world works! music. Ads for beer and spirits always turn to mid-tempo, soulful and funky R&B music. This music has the good grit of an old LP and conveys the possibilities of a night out with friends. I call this who knows what will happen tonight! music. Ads for financial investment companies use well-known hits from decades past to strike just the right chord (sorry, another cliché) with their targeted age group demographic. With this use of music, the features that once made a song exciting and cutting-edge when it first appeared, are the same features that make it boring and safe when it reappears in an ad. I call this Oh I know that song! music. (Simon Reynolds calls our obsession with the past retromania.)
How does the use of music in TV ads relate to clichés in music production? They are both shortcuts to genuine creative experience. TV ads hijack music—piggybacking on its affective world—to try to sell us the feeling that we are supposed to think is inherent in a product or service. And when I resort to clichés in my own work, I’m hijacking my own capacity to discover a sound world that escapes my full understanding. By using clichés, I sell short my prerogative to be experimental and chase after surprising sounds. TV ads show us that music as sound can be bought and sold. But whenever I manage to escape clichés, for a moment music regains its mystery. For a moment, music feels like a gift.