Reflections On Several Musical Projects: Thinking About What Worked (For Now)

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Reflecting on some recent musical projects of mine, I noticed a number of techniques and strategies I used to build them:

I used my own (sampled) sounds. I’ve written here before about my frustrations with making electronic music. But using my own sounds makes the process personal and somehow more sensible.

I improvised a performance rather than composed a piece. For me, performance still means something. And by performance I mean making musical decisions in real-time–without stopping, without going back, only going forward–and living with them. In his classic psychology of music textbook, The Musical Mind, John A. Sloboda talks of composing and improvising being the same process, only taking place at different rates of speed. True enough, but with composing you can always go back and change something. Improvised performance doesn’t allow for that. And this is a good thing.

I stayed in one key (per section or for the entire piece). Depending on the effect you’re going for, sometimes key changes are overrated. Sometimes we don’t want change and surprise, just an extended moment in one tonal place.

I used percussion sounds. This relates to my point about sampling above. Percussion sounds are the ones I know best because I’m around them a lot–my hands touch percussion instruments every day so they feel familiar.

I avoided steady beats. At least when I’m mediated through controllers and computer software, I’m not crazy about my own beats, so why use them?

I kept the pieces brief. The brevity of the pieces is a function of my performances, which raises the question: Why are my performances brief? Maybe it’s a matter of paying attention for just a few moments before things return to their everyday scatter.

I used software to copy, transpose, and time-shift. As far as I can imagine, this is the best use for software: having it carry out tasks that would otherwise drain the moment of its intensity.

I followed a process. (See point above.) In general outline, the process was: perform, play with the materials of that performance, and edit. It’s like writing, actually.

I made a series of pieces in the same style. There’s a few reasons for this. First, making multiple variations of a thing helps reveal what that thing is. Second, making multiple variations frees me from thinking about the process so I can just get into the moment. Third, an accumulation of pieces takes pressure off any individual piece to represent the bunch. Some may be–and were–cast aside after a few listens, since not all performances are equal. Equally valid, sure, but not equally compelling to listen to.

I stopped once I felt I had explored the process enough and before I knew exactly what it was I was doing. As the saying goes, the key is knowing exactly when to stop. In this case, I wanted to stay somewhat surprised and one step behind myself.

On Musical Analogies: Notes On Design

There’s a lot to think through in this video that features the designers Dieter Rams of Braun and Jonathan Ive of Apple. In the first part we hear Rams enumerate his ten principles of good design. Good design should be:

innovative,
essential or useful,
aesthetic,
understandable,
honest,
unobtrusive,
consistent in every detail,
long-lasting,
environmentally friendly,
and have as little design as possible.

It struck me that these principles are useful for thinking about making music, designing music, improvising music, composing music. In fact, thinking about some of the opposites of these qualities–opaque instead of understandable or inconsistent instead of consistent, say–brings to mind musics that don’t work so well as music. Running through the list, you can probably think of your own examples!

In the second part of the video Ive discusses the understated design of Apple computers (e.g. smooth contours, lights that disappear when not lit) and how the machines are assembled out of single slabs of aluminum that provide materials for multiple parts. At one point Ive says that the company’s design team’s goal is more about staying faithful to a particular process than achieving a particular design per se. He sounds like a purist–like a music composer, actually. Speaking about the MacBook Air, he notes:

“The design of this in many ways wasn’t the design of a physical thing, it was figuring out a process.”

Another thing I like about this video? Its soundtrack features a wonder of process and good design–a drumming pattern (RLRRLRLL) called the paradiddle. As Rams talks, listen in the background to the percolating keyboard part floating along on its own paradiddle rhythm.

On Philippe Petit’s “Creativity: The Perfect Crime”

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“When is something worth pursuing?
I think when the outcome advances the efforts of humanity.”
– Philippe Petit

In his recent book, Creativity: the perfect crime, Philippe Petit reveals the elements, flows, techniques, and routines of his very long career as an artist. Petit is high-wire walker, juggler, magician, lock-picker, and all around street entertainer, perhaps best known for his walking between the Twin Towers of World Trade Center in the early 1970s. He’s currently (and intriguingly) artist-in-residence at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. At once a mix of memoir, how-to manual, and an empirical-phenomenological exploration of the kinesthetic foundations of craft, Petit’s Creativity is inspiring and informative, revealing the inner life of a most interesting individual.

Petit brings the reader into his world by drawing on his various performances or artistic “crimes” from over the decades, especially his wire walks, which require meticulous planning–from staking out locations, making plans and organizing equipment, rehearsing and setting up, to taking that first step out into the unknown. Each component of each performance is an opportunity to engage creativity and think rigorously through the act soon to be, to “toy with an idea until it becomes a fixation” (20). For Petit, a performance is a crime in the sense that it’s an opportunity to find “imperfections in the system…as tiny portals through which…to explore, to understand, to create” (22).

One of the book’s many charms is the extent to which it conveys its author’s sensitivity to his environment. Petit believes that “the tactile experience provides a tangible link between what I formulate and the solid creation I must achieve” (26). Among the things he notices is the influence of his immediate surroundings on his work, including what he calls “negative space” (57), and the importance of maintaining an intimate connection with one’s artistic tools. Explaining a difficulty he once had with a juggling trick, Petit describes perceptual sleights of mind in which he imagines himself becoming the moving balls, and then transforming himself “back into being the juggler” (83), setting his senses “into a state of wild openness” (97). Passages like this recall the work of philosopher-ecologist David Abram, specifically Abram’s discussion of training in East Asia. (See my notes on Abram’s Becoming Animal here.)

Petit notices his environment because his attention is constantly fluttering about, observing, remembering, and interrupting. But Petit always goes with his own flow. The problem with paying attention, he tells us, is that “the seriousness of it will rarely allow for uncommon intellectual detours, for mental demultiplication” or what he translates as a reduction in gear ratio (97). The key is to trust that order will eventually emerge out of the chaos of deep perception. Petit even suggests the term sensefulness to describe blending one’s senses to make a new, composite meta-sense. Elsewhere, he encourages his readers to experiment by questioning their own work–and questioning the questioning–to create openings and provide connections (145), to experiment with “the mirror image of a concept” (163), and to notice the aliveness of seemingly inanimate things. “Inside the most ordinary objects” Petit says, “hide the richest creative opportunities, waiting to be awakened” (197).

There’s a lot of detours in this book too. For instance, every so often Petit has a word in blue type (boldface on my Kindle edition) that leads, like a secret portal, to a mini essay on the topic elsewhere in the book. He also includes hand drawn illustrations of his idea lists, schedules, tools, performance and living spaces, and so on. The idea lists are particularly compelling, especially as Petit explains how he cross links the concepts and re-writes them to reveal new relationships. And yes, Petit talks about–and talks to–his tools (juggling balls, floppy hat, among other props), all as part of maintaining his life at a particular pitch and allowing it to be an ongoing ritual full of hidden meanings, his projects ongoing explorations of epiphany and getting into the zone.

These are just the highlights. By turns maverick, playful, serious, and fearless, Creativity is a book to remind you how art can be a very, very special kind of intellectual and physical adventure story.

On Pacing, Saying Something, And Music

I’ve been thinking about pacing. In running, pacing is a matter of speed: take the wrong pace–a pace that’s too fast or too slow–and you’ll soon be in trouble. Good pacing is a matter of listening to your energy level and adjusting accordingly. As you warm up, your pace can increase considerably, as if in tune with the exuberance of swift motion itself.

***

In blogging, tweeting, and with social media in general, pacing is a matter of interval–how often one speaks and broadcasts to others. Talk too often and you can become annoying; talk not often enough and your activity loses its presence. These two poles of pacing inform sharing content via the web. What’s the optimal pace?

 ***

In music, pacing is not the same as the tempo or speed of the piece. Nor is it a matter of density–how beats are subdivided into say, eighth- or sixteenth-note slices. As I’m thinking of it, pacing in music is more amorphous–it has to do with saying something and also the rate at which this saying changes over time. Pacing, in other words, is the speed and quality of growth as measured by our sense that something has been stated.

What exactly is this something stated? It can be a melody, a rhythmic insistence, a harmonic tension, a set of proportions or relations, a timbre. Or–even more interestingly–it can be a general feeling that is conveyed: a sensation felt and remembered even after the music has stopped sounding. The important thing is that whatever seems to have been said makes perfect sense in the context of the sounding music. Put another way, the music’s content and form are in synergetic balance.

Here’s a piece I’ve been enjoying lately. It’s “OH” by the electronic duo Plaid. The piece throws out a few perceptual curve balls, beginning as it does in what feels like an unstable 4/4 meter at 98 bpm, which then reveals itself to be a 6/8 meter at 144 bpm. Soon the numerous oscillating layers of the music are revealing their relationships, and the piece settles into saying its own something:

 

On Music For Thought: Dub (Re)Mixing As A Metaphor For Mindfulness

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After reading Paul Sullivan’s excellent Remixology (Reaktion Books, 2014), a history of dub music and dub aesthetics from Jamaica to their infection of electronic musics in cities and scenes around the world, it struck me that remixing is an interesting metaphor for cultivating mindfulness.

Dub pioneers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, The Scientist, and others innovated ways of creating instrumental versions of popular songs. In the recording studio, these producers and sound engineers dismantled tracks and put them back together in altered forms known as “versions” or “dubs.” The technology they used in their work was the standard equipment of the studio from the late 1960s until quite recently: the multitrack mixing console, magnetic tape, and effects processing units. What Perry and others achieved with their best versions was nothing short of game-changing, especially for anyone interested in electronic music, groove, and remixing. In a way, those Jamaican dub pioneers were the first modern music hackers.

***

The notion of “life-hacking” is popular these days insofar as our interest in quantifying and optimizing ourselves physically, cognitively, and otherwise increasingly seems like a useful and progressive thing to do. It’s in this spirit that I suggest thinking metaphorically about the processes of the dub remixers as containing concepts that can be applied to our lives.

To start, consider some dub remixing techniques and aesthetics:

stripping things down.
The remixer mutes parts, silences voices, and reveals the essence of the music.

substituting one element for another, recontextualizing.
The remixer plays with different sounds, re-arranging and having them play new roles.

foregrounding groove.
Stripping down the music the remixer reveals its bass and drum rhythmic backbone.

EQing to emphasize or shape sounds.
The remixer brings out various frequencies to reveal sound colors or timbres that were in the mix all along, just hidden.

creating space by adding reverb and delay effects.
The remixer builds a huge, immersive environment for the music, letting it bounce off virtual surfaces at various rates of speed and play.

noticing malleability, fungibility.
The remixer finds every musical element flexible to the nth degree, capable of shape-shifting and mutation.

engaging creativity, imagination, audacity.
The remixer uses the music–as much as the music uses the remixer?–as an experiment in re-design and thinking anew.

***

Practically speaking, how exactly would one apply these dub concepts to one’s life? I’m not sure. Scanning through the list though, I notice that they’re all fundamentally oriented around perception and altering elements–of music, of consciousness–with the goal of changing how they appear to our senses. This alone is music for thought and maybe useful advice in other realms too.

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