Curating The Week: Excellence, Learning, and Magicians


An article about excellence.

“Excellence is mundane. Excellence is accomplished through the sound of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time. While these actions are ‘qualitatively different’ from those of performers at other levels, these differences are neither unmanageable nor, taken one step at a time, terribly difficult.”  

An article about learning.

“The direction for improvement is clear: seek detail you would not normally notice about the world…As you learn, notice which details actually change how you think.”

An article about learning from magicians.

“The way to extraordinary growth and changes often involves a fundamental ontological or ‘lens’ shift in how you see the world. Magicians are wearing not just better, but fundamentally differently shaped lenses to the rest of us. And regardless of your skills and experience, it is likely that you are a magician to someone else.”

Musical Vantage Points


What is your vantage point on the music? From what position do you listen—from a point of doubt, sympathy, skepticism, good cheer, confidence, or anxiety? Does your vantage change as the music changes, moving from a positive glance to a negative sneer? Does your positioning allow you to hear the music as it is, as you wish it would be, or some combination of both? Do you have a sense of the music’s big picture vista as if you’re looking through binoculars, or are you caught up in one of its foreground details as if looking through a microscope? Can musical vantage points be changed, and if so, how? 

While mixing I’ve been thinking about my positioning. By this I don’t mean how far my ears are from the monitors—although that too is important, and for the record, the monitors are about three feet way. Rather, my positioning is where I locate my critical listening self with regards to what I’m hearing. I find that as I mix the music I’m also playing with different mixes of my attitudes and noticing—as if moving faders up and down to alter my perceptions and compensate for my aural blind spots. Even though I think I’m hearing the music sounding better—meaning, more as I want it to sound—I’m not entirely sure that I should trust how I hear.

Some of this perceptual doubt is a good thing and I recommend that every musician try out mixing because it’s wonderful way to study the nuances of your hearing. Mixing multi-part music is an especially useful teaching tool, because it requires you to discern different musical lines and timbres simultaneously and figure out ways to have them play well together. What happens is that as you find a rough balance among parts you begin noticing new details within this balance, which in turn inspires new mix adjustments. Soon your noticing is on overdrive and you’re scrambling to adjust to the demands of what feel like new listening vistas. And doubt creeps in: Am I noticing what is most prominent or just what I’m most attuned to? Is the drum part too loud, or does it only seem that way because something else needs adjusting? Would someone else notice what I notice, or would they have different vantage points?

On The Ambiguous Appeal Of The Musically Worn


As I produce a track I’m constantly looking for ways alter its sounds so that they’re damaged and unclear, and some of my favorite effects processing plug-ins are those that destroy or roughen what is pristine and soft to make it more textured and fascinating to listen to. An analogy of the radio dial comes to mind. You may remember back in the day twisting the knob to move between different stations. As you left the precise frequency range of one station, the clarity of the music would be replaced by a lonely mix of white noise, hiss, and static as you searched for the next in-range station along the frequency spectrum. I used to make cassette recordings of my radio dial-twisting movements when I was a teenager. I loved finding those precise locations where the signals of not one but two different stations overlapped and I could hear two broadcasts at once—sort of like a DJ’s mixing two different records. On a few occasions I hit upon interesting juxtapositions—where say, a New Age guitar chord would mix with a voice or a jazz trio in just the right way. I recorded these accidents and when I played them back to listen to, it was the liminal, performative moment of hearing one sound disappear into or layer with another that I considered my composing contribution. Even though I didn’t create the cool juxtaposition, I was surely the first person to encounter it in just this way. It was the ambiguity of the two radio stations mixing together that sounded fascinating, and my noticing that ambiguity helped me understand composing music as an activity extending beyond organizing notes.

Back to plug-ins: I like software that destroys, distorts, or heavily saturates sounds to create an ambiguity that is similar to what I heard when I twisted the dial between radio stations. Ambiguity is fascinating in that it requires the listener to piece together what is partially cracked or broken or in some way unclear—in other words, to “resolve” the sound back into coherence. In communications theory terms, we would speak of the balance of signal (information) and noise (interference) within a specified bandwidth. Too much clear signal and the music is boring, but too much noise and the music is obfuscation and incoherent. Negotiating signal and noise is what that old game of Telephone was all about too, right?     

Another analogy: imagine hearing a I-V-I chord progression, but instead of the second I chord you hear something a little off, tonally speaking. Your ears are expecting that reliable I chord and so almost fills it in, while the actual sound you hear is stubbornly and ambiguously something else (for instance, maybe it’s a I chord decorated with dissonances). Here, the music is asking you to help make its sense and I love that. Of course, extreme ambiguity—like a wall of noise—is often frustrating to listen to because there will never be a clear interpretative way through the thicket. Speaking for myself, I want a challenge, but not an impossible task. The Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, which I’ve talked about elsewhere, comes to mind. Wabi means rustic simplicity, while sabi means beauty that comes with age and is visible through an object’s patina and wear. With software, a producer can add layers of ambiguity to sounds that sound and feel similar to how time and the elements age an object in a pleasing way. 

Brettworks 2019 Posts On Music Production




Notes On Perfect


It’s said that perfectionism is a dangerous trait that leads you on endless goose chases after forever unattainable standards. Or that perfectionism catches you in its net of your own making, as the depth of your aspirations slowly suffocate your ability to finish things: If only I could fix this, this, and this, then it would be…perfect.

I had wanted the music to sound perfect. Perfect meaning: you can hear the right parts at the right times, the volume of harmonies to beats balance just so, and there is spatial clarity and dynamism and coherence that draws you in without you knowing it. Perfect meaning that everything that needs to be in the music is there, and everything unnecessary jettisoned as if they never happened. Perfect meaning the music trusts the listener to actively get it. And Perfect meaning the cumulative and iterative improvising, editing, and arranging I had done but now only half recall somehow add up to the appropriate sonic sum.

But I didn’t arrive at Perfect. Yes, I arrived at something that I like, but I’m nagged by the possibility that what I like could be/could have been better. The problem is, I don’t know how to make it better. Yes, I could try out new things or re-organize what I have or maybe scrap everything—which would be the most epic edit of all!—but I’m not sure Perfect is worth that additional exploration (and let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water, come on). Also, I don’t know if I would recognize Perfect if I encountered it. Another interpretation of this dilemma is that Perfect has already done its job, itemizing how many shortcomings I have. In no particular order: I have don’t have the right energy or vibes, I keep missing obvious things, I don’t know what needs to be known, my ideas are thin, I overcomplicate trivialities, my technical know-how is spotty, my execution tentative, and what was I thinking when I began? This is how Perfect cuts everyone down to size.  

One by-product of producing/composing music then, is that each project feels like a failure to arrive at Perfect. There are too many variables, too many unknowns, too many real and imagined shortcomings of the maker, and too little time-well-spent to get everything just right. But this is okay, because now that Perfect has disappeared over the horizon what’s left is the Imperfect music. Alone and adrift in the world, your music depends on the goodwill of strangers, singing its ragged song for them in the hopes that, at least for the moment, this sounds good enough.  

On Musical Stasis And Directionality

In some of my favorite musics there’s a tension between a sense of stasis and directionality. Stasis describes a music that “stays in one place” through repetition of one sort or another, while directionality describes a music that “goes somewhere”, usually through melody and harmony. A vamp or a repeating breakbeat is an example of a staying in place through repetition, while a I-IV-V chord progression is an example of going somewhere through pitched changed. I’m using quotation marks to describe stasis and directionality because music never stays in place or goes anywhere—except in our imaginations and insofar as sound is oscillation over time. And different musics unfold by different means. Sometimes rhythmic variation creates a sense of going somewhere, while static harmony enacts stasis.

The other day I looped a few measures from a track and tried making a new something out this shard of music. You could say I was remixing a musical moment. I muted a few parts and highlighted some others to create a texture with space. I liked the loop, so I copied it three times to make room for some small variations. But after listening for a while and then returning to the original track to see where such a loop might fit in, I realized that its stasis had no place in my music’s directionality. On its own the loop was cool, but it lacked a broader musical purpose: it felt like an ad hoc, playing around with carefully crafted elements (which it probably was), or surfing upon a laboriously generated wave (which it definitely was). Perhaps someone with more inclination, imagination, and skill would derive more interesting loops from my track, but at the moment I’m not feeling it.

Writing about it now, examples of stasis and directionality in the musics that have influenced me come to mind. Here are a few.  

I thought about the sound of Indian classical music, where you hear the stasis of a drone backdrop and a single raga through which the melodic soloist weaves directional melodies that take you on a journey of moods and intensities: 

I thought about West African drumming, where you here the stasis of the repeating bell timeline and interlocking drum parts through which the master (lead) drummer weaves rhythmic patterns and directional phrases that highlight and syncopate against composite rhythms inherent in the ensemble: 

I thought about ambient music where melodies and harmonies happen, but they don’t go anywhere far, because they repeat and/or because they make use of a very limited palette of pitches: 

I thought about four-on-the-floor music that extracts subtle directionality from deep rhythmic stasis: 

I thought about electronic music so layered with micro-change that the boundaries between stasis and directionality are dissolved: 

And I thought about music that keeps its rhythmic element static while surging towards a harmonic end goal, one semitone at a time:

Maybe that’s what I’m getting at: a music that finds a balance between being in its moment and heading towards its end goal.