Between Knowing And Not Knowing: On Sonic Grey Spaces


I love those listening to music moments when I hear something between what I already know and what I don’t yet know that surprises and invigorates me. These moments can happen anywhere, but often than not I find them in polyrhythms:

in inherent rhythms

in polyphony

or in dazzling chords and harmonic strata


With electronic music, moments of surprise invigoration happen when I have difficulty identifying sounds that inhabit a grey space in the midst of sounds I know I know (from experience playing or making them), sounds I think I know (from my previous listening), and sounds I don’t yet know. The timbral transformations in a recent piece by Autechre (which I wrote about here) fit this bill:

Another example of sounds in a grey space is a track called “Another World” by the French musician Colleen. I find this piece beautiful because it sounds harmonically familiar, yet strange, because it has hard to classify percussive timbres, and because its rhythms aren’t obviously drumming-centered. (How did Colleen create it?) It holds something back from me and so I keep returning to it.


Reflecting on what I like to listen to has gradually altered the direction of my own music making. Where I used to compose pieces for a single sampled acoustic sound, now I combine acoustic sounds with more amorphous electronic ones. I hope the music sounds “natural” (whatever that entails)—but not predictably so. I have an idea of what the music would sound like if it were performed, but I de-stabilize that sound just enough to keep myself guessing. Is this live? Is it through composed? Is it improvised? How was it edited? What instrument is that? Which part was done first? Are all the patterns from a single source? Is it theme and variations? Or variations without a theme? 

Once in a while I fool myself—I can’t figure out through listening how the music got from here to there and then over there. (Fooling oneself may be a useful short-term creative strategy.) The grey spaces between knowing and not knowing remind us that music knows many ways to hold our attention.


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