Gong Lessons

Gongs are one of my favorite percussion instruments. Why? Because they’re drone machines that make unusual long tones, tones that are often of indefinite pitch and hard to decipher. Because they’re the orchestra’s ultimate Outsider instrument. Because they take a while to warm up, and even longer to quiet down. But the best thing about gongs is the relationship they offer my hands. A gong is highly responsive instrument, one that hums and sings my every action of stroke, rolling, pressure, and location. And the closer you get to a gong, the more you hear the complexities of these nuances. Every time you strike a gong (I play them every day) it sounds subtly different, reminding you of touch’s endless variety. 

I think about the gong’s responsiveness when I’m working on the computer and thinking about its mediations. Here’s the thing: listening to music on monitors or headphones immerses you in a sound world, but this immersion is not the same as viscerally connecting with an acoustic sound you play yourself. The sounds I make with the computer are always in some kind of relationship to the acoustic sounds I’ve made myself (or can imagine making), prompting questions like, Is this sound realistic? Does this sound convince me with its presence the way a gong does? You can get close to conjuring an acoustic sound you play yourself by getting your playback volume just right, but it’s still a different animal. It can be vivid, yet still one step removed from reality. Thinking about playing gongs reminds me that it’s the difference between listening to a sound and vibrating with a sound, resounding with it.

Speaking of resounding, here is Alan Watts talking about resonance as a form of consciousness:

“when I tap on this crystal, which is glass, it makes a noise. Now that resonance is an extremely primitive form of consciousness…when you hit a bell it rings, or you touch a crystal and it responds, inside itself it has a very simple reaction. It goes ‘jangle’ inside, whereas we go ‘jangle’ with all sorts of colors and lights and intelligence, ideas, and thoughts…” (The Tao of Philosophy, pp. 8-9).

Three Non-Obvious Production Principles

• Your initial sound matters, but only to a point, because your sound designing upon a sound will transform it far beyond what it was. The lesson: don’t obsess over your initial sounds.

• The focus you apply to a track—or your time under tension/attention—is audible in the finished result. The lesson: finesse sounds all the way through a track so that the sounds’ presences are felt and heard–as if they’re alive.

• Build tracks by adding parts freely, knowing that you may not use everything. The lesson: accumulate parts and then delete/mute some of them to reveal what is left. Practice what Nassim Taleb calls subtractive knowledge: “You know what is wrong with more certainty than you know anything else.”

Process, Not Outcome

Roy Lichtenstein, Landscape in Fog (1996)

The saying, process, not outcome is the most actionable advice for building creative work. We can’t control the outcome of our work—such as whether it succeeds in doing what we hoped it would do, or whether others find it interesting, useful, beautiful, etc. But we can choose and commit to a process to help us do the work.

A process often seems arbitrary, until the moment you commit to it. Then it blooms, revealing its potentials. Process is the artist Roy Lichtenstein committing to using Benday dots to animate his paintings (using stencils with perforated dot patterns), or composer Steve Reich committing to replicate the echoing sound of out sync tape recorders with live percussionists, or a Haiku writer committing to writing three lines using just 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern.

Recently I was finishing a collection of pieces when it occurred to me that I didn’t know why I had committed to these sounds specifically and not others. Was I really almost done? I could keep building up the pieces, I thought, and I could swap out all the sounds for different ones. Instead, I continued working with what I had. I also noticed that I had been following subtle rules: I would take away from a part, but not add to it; I would re-use an effect already in play, but not add new ones. Once I had committed to a process without being assured of a desired outcome, I was free to shape the music until there was nothing left to do. 

Listening To Autechre

When it occurs to me, I listen to Autechre on my commute and every time I do I’m rewarded with a listening experience that is unlike the time I spend listening to other musicians. What, I wonder, makes listening to Autechre’s music so unique? I thought of some answers to this question as I listened to their recent concert recording, “AE_LIVE-NIJMEGEN_221116.” 

Listening to music free of music’s listening clichés. From the get-go of many AE tracks, it never feels as if the music is sculpted for a particular audience. Instead, the music seems to exist in its own self-created, evolving world, and we come to the music as outsiders peering in. This isn’t functional music—for a dance floor or chilling out or for worship—but rather a music full of functioning. It asks nothing of us except to pay attention to as many of the music’s ever changing details as we can.

Listening to the interaction of two distinct sonic layers: one atmospheric, the other percussive/rhythmic. When you hear AE perform live, you often hear these two layers doing very different musical things. The atmospheric layer might be a glassy pad, a metallic ice melody, or sub basses more sub than you thought possible. The percussive/rhythmic layer might be distant relatives of kicks and snares, or swarms of ticking intensities flying around the room. It depends–every show’s soundscapes are different. You might be lost for a good while, only to find yourself again a few minutes later inside a deep hocketting that evokes old electro allowed to roam free from its 4/4 grid.

Listening for an hour at a time. All the AE shows I’ve seen have been almost exactly one hour long, and ditto for their concert recordings. Clearly there’s something about 60 minutes that appeals to the group. For the listener, 60 minutes is a lot longer than most songs, or movements of symphonies for that matter. AE’s 60 minutes is without intermission, and never divided up like a DJ’s playlist. This 60 minutes is one continuous unfolding of sound–presented very loud and in total darkness. As you listen you sometimes notice your own impatience. But 60 minutes is long enough for you to recover your attention, which you’ll need because you never know what’s coming up. 

Listening to music free of its own precedents. AE doesn’t re-play its own tracks, seemingly ever. Maybe the compositional DNA of compositions resides in the group’s software environments, but what is spun from that information is different each time around. So as you listen don’t expect the greatest hits. Instead, expect to get hit with something new. This is an ideal for creativity: to always be uncovering something novel.

Listening to the results of a software-based musical system curated by its human designers. This relates to the first point above about music being free of musical clichés: AE and their system don’t generate songs with verses and choruses, or sequences with build ups and bass drops, but rather layers of sounds and textural counterpoints, intensities and opening ups. The music often sounds suffused with feeling, and I occasionally hear chords I’ve never heard anywhere else.

Listening to a plethora of timbres. If such records were kept, AE would hold the record for having generated the most diversity of timbres. In any 60-minute set, you hear sounds you’ve never heard quite like this before and may never hear again. Listening to such sounds reminds you that musical variation—variations on a theme, variations on a style of song—is just half of music. The other half is variations on timbre. AE’s sound world is a strange ecology that keeps evolving new species of living sounds.

Listening to your assumptions about what might come next—or, structure. When we listen to music we enjoy anchors or conventions of one kind or another. We enjoy music that stays in one key, changes chords only to return to where it started, or uses a heavy beat to keep everything unified. Over the time of the music, these anchors and conventions create fairly predictable structures that guide our listening. AE’s music doesn’t rely on such points of stability. And so as you listen, the mental map you developed over years of exposure to other musics is of little use to orient you. With Autechre you’re hearing an alien terrain, a half human, half software life force, and you feel fortunate to be taking it all in.

Resonant Thoughts: James Bridle’s “Ways Of Being” (2022)

“The world is not like a computer. Computers – like us, like plants and animals, like clouds and seas – are like the world. Some more than others, some better attuned to its processes – and many not.”

“As John Cage discovered through his use of the I Ching, a complex dance of chance-driven and unexpected encounters was both the best way to approach the more-than-human world, and the best way of representing its heterogeneous, omnicentric reality. Cage’s realization prefigured that of evolutionary biologists, who in recent decades have started to acknowledge the crucial role that randomness plays in the creation of life itself. This has proven to be something of an uphill battle because the importance of randomness has been consistently undervalued in studies of evolution since its establishment, while the role of natural selection – competition – has been consistently overvalued.”

James Bridle, Ways of Being, pp. 178, 234

Consequences Of Sound

“I think sound is a very interesting phenomenon. Why people are so influenced by music: they didn’t know how strong the music influences us for good or for bad. You can kill people with sound. And if you can kill, maybe there is also sound that is the opposite of killing. And the distance between the two points is very big. And you are free–you can choose.” 
Arvo Pärt 

“Music is a meaningful context which is not bound to a conceptual scheme.” 
Alfred Schutz, “Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship.”

We take it for granted that different musics have different affects, but do we think much about the effects of these affects? Is musical sound a semantically vague symbol onto which we project our own meanings, or is it a more powerful force that that—a force, as the composer Arvo Pärt notes above, with the power to influence us for good or for bad?

I haven’t thought much about the effects of musical affect, but I do notice that I turn to certain kinds of sounds more than others. I prefer slow attack sounds over fast attack ones. If I use percussion (which is mostly fast attack sounds), I prefer resonant sounds over harsh and clangy ones. (I prefer gongs to cymbals.) I like mellow timbres with their high frequencies rolled off. When I use brighter sounds, they tend to be without low frequencies at all, which makes them timbrally thinner and more delicate. I generally like acoustic-sounding sounds, though I also like synthetic textures—such as deep sub bass sounds.  

Sound production textures are another window onto our preferred sounds. A “dry” mix is one with little use of reverbs or delays, which are often associated with a “wet” ambiance. When an individual sound is presented dry (i.e. without reverbs or delays to create ambiance around it) it sounds more “up front” or foregrounded in the mix. Such sounds are as if right in front of you; we might even say that such sounds are “in your face” or, to put a label on it, aggressive. When an individual sound is presented wet (i.e. with reverbs or delays around it) it’s located further back in a mix’s dimensional space. Such sounds are as if reluctant to come to the foreground, which is the affective opposite of in your face. I like the suggestiveness and subtleness of these sounds, and I spend a lot of time trying out different combinations of wet reverb settings to achieve affects that feel suggestive yet ambiguous.

Pärt’s idea that sounds have power to influence us for good or bad gets us thinking about how any sound or music works on us. If you want to subject yourself to a simple case study, watch some TV commercials and pay attention to what the music is doing—or trying to do—in relation to the subject matter in the ad. Is the music trying to convey a sense of epic cool in say, a car ad? A sense of quirkiness in a telephone company ad? Nostalgia in an investment banking ad? Humor in a laundry detergent ad? Sadness in a rescue animal ad? Toughness in a Walmart ad? (The company managed to licensed an AC-DC song.) TV ads remind us that just as music can be bought, so can our attention. So: take a moment to register the relationship between how the music sounds and how you feel. Something is happening, and once you key in to what’s happening, you’ll never watch TV ads the same way again. What’s happening is that the sounds are directing your feelings. While music is semantically vague—as Schutz says, it’s a meaningful context not bound to a conceptual scheme—it’s directly suggestive, which is the source of its affective power.

Of course, advertising sets a low threshold for tapping into music’s affective potentials. The problem with advertising—besides the obvious annoyances that someone is trying to sell you something and the assumption that every product or service deserves a soundtrack!—is that its vocabulary of affective gestures is small. Ads chase after obvious vibes—like epic cool, quirkiness, nostalgia, humor, or sadness—while the music we love is often about non-obvious vibes, vibes you can’t quite put your finger on, vibes that can’t be commoditized. 

If you write music yourself, you can’t help but reflect on why you make the music you make and to what ends you’re making it–in other words, the consequences of your sound. Your sound preferences may be obvious to you, but do you wonder about what you hope your sounds could do for others? Your music’s affect may seem obvious, but will I feel it like you do? (One person’s favorite energetic song is another person’s annoyance.) We are all, as Pärt notes, “so influenced by music” and rush headlong into its symbolic worlds and meaningful contexts, hoping to be changed.    

Intuitive Practice And Conventions Of Practice

While running recently I came across some construction spray painted markings on the road that got me thinking about the relationship between intuitions and conventions in artistic practice. I stopped at the edge of the road—I often look for reasons to interrupt a run—and studied the fluorescent markings. I saw a curved line with arrows on each end facing straight lines. I imagined the curved line as representing the intuitive practice that underlies craft, and its arrows pointing in varied directions conveying a sense of open-ended exploration. The two straight lines represented the borders, boundaries, and constraints of conventions. I read the markings like this: the curved lines of practice are hemmed in by the straight lines of convention. I took a few photos and resumed running.

As I thought about the curved intuition paths of practice, I realized how connected and constrained they are by straight-lined conventions of practice. In fact, in music production there’s not a single thing I think about doing that isn’t shaped by what I’ve already done previously in other contexts and my intuitive practice today is constantly shaped by practices that produced results in the past. Put another way: our past practices become our conventions. Here’s some examples relevant to producing music.

Gestures you’ve used before. By gesture I mean those ways of playing an instrument—your idiosyncratic moves—that steer your sound. To paint the picture in broad strokes: if you’re a metal guitar player, you have your ways of getting a heavy sound. If you’re an R&B singer, you have your ways of elaborating a melody. If you’re an EDM producer, you have your ways of making giant composite pulses. Your moves are your unique techniques and facilities, but also your limitations and, for better and worse, adherences to clichés of style. 

Sounds you’ve used before. If you produce music, you likely have a palette of go-to or preferred sounds. This possibilities for this palette are vast—from bespoke sample libraries to saved presets, from software hybrid instruments to vintage hardware ones and cherished acoustic ones. Sounds you’ve used before help you make new music. But paradoxically, using them also disinclines you from seeking out new and unfamiliar sounds. The more experience you have the more necessary it is to seek out novel ways of making music—not because it’s harder to take this path, but because doing so returns you to intuitive practice. Still, sounds you’ve already used subtly accumulate in your mind’s ear as a kind of template for the kinds of sounds you’ll continue to like going forward.

Conventions of production. There are numerous conventions of production you can turn to because they’ve proved themselves useful in practice as evidenced by the fact that others have used them effectively to make music. For example, you can sidechain this sound to that one to duck the former under the latter (e.g. a bass making room for a kick drum), you can layer sounds to create composite timbres, you can add delays to create rhythmic motion, you can process sounds so they morph and shape-shift over time, you can leave rhythms unquantized to create a more human feel, and so on. But just as often our experience-earned intuitions steer us beyond conventions. Instead of sidechaining the bass to the beat, why not remove it altogether? Instead of layering several sounds, how about using just a single sound? Also, how would it sound if the entire mix was processed? And could the piece be closer to mono than stereo? Sometimes conventions of production can be read as a map whose empty spaces show what hasn’t yet been tried. 

Arrangement conventions. Once you have a few parts sounding together, there are conventional ways to arrange them. Foremost among these is to have only one part enter at a time, to give the listener time to register the changing texture of the music. It’s also a convention to fade parts in and out of a mix gradually over time, to have build ups and bass drops at climactic moments of a piece, or to filter sweep to indicate that change is about to happen (or is happening right now!), and so on. But who’s to say a piece can’t begin with every part sounding at once, and then move from there to sparser textures? Or maybe the perfect arrangement is that which feels like a mash-up, achieved by mixing and matching different clips (modular blocks of sound) of the music’s core parts? Sometimes the best arrangement is a performance that went from here to there because that’s what the musician played.

In sum, when the producer creates music, she’s having a dialogue—between moves that have been used before (conventions of practice) and options appearing in the moment (intuitive practice) to discover new sounds–or sounds that feel new. This dialogue reveals production as a game of noticing connections among sounds and a craft of building form out of those connections. Like the painted curved arrows and straight lines encountering one another on the street, the encounter between intuitions and conventions defines production as a game within a craft and craft within a game.