Notes on Dennis DeSantis’s “Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies For Electronic Music Producers”

 

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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.

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