(Musical rigor wrapped in simplicity.)
One of the most important questions any maker of things addresses in their work is How do I know then the work is done? I have worked on projects that were completed in a few minutes, as well as on projects that have stretched over years of on and off tinkering. But no matter how long it takes to shape something, there comes a time you need to or want to let it go.
Knowing exactly when the work is done paradoxically requires acknowledging that no work is ever quite done, only done sufficiently to meet your standard of doneness. There are, however, other routes to finishing and indications of doneness. Sometimes a work is done when it says pretty much what you intended it to say. I say pretty much because it’s often the case that you begin with one thing and finish with something different. If that something different still says pretty much what you had intended, you’ve done okay. How you know this to be the case is a matter of objective facts inherent in the work (is it well-built?) as well as your feelings about the effects of those facts.
Sometimes you declare a work is done because you just want to move on to something else. In plain terms, you’re getting tired of being with it. Other times you sense a threshold of diminishing returns approaching you on the horizon of your work, beyond which further labor will probably not yield substantially different results. You’ve already tinkered and now realize—or more accurately, you’ve decided—that you won’t be doing any more things to your work to improve or otherwise alter it. As the saying goes, it is what it is.
Letting Go is related to the concept of resetting, but is a little different. When we reset we pretend that this time is the first time to bracket off our actions from the noise around us so we can focus. Resetting is starting from scratch, over and over again. If you diagrammed it, it would be circular. Letting Go is a more left to right linear thought process, where we can clearly remember the first time and how it led us here to the 104th time of working on our project. Letting Go is a mindset that acknowledges that the elapsed time span of our project as we have lived with it, whereby it has had a beginning, a middle, and now, an end where we have loosened our grasp to let it fly on its own wings.
Thomas: I get to interview you—finally! Why didn’t we think of this sooner?
brettworks: I don’t know, but I was right here the whole time!
Thomas: So let’s dive in. Readers are curious:
What’s the point of your blog and what, if any, are your plans are for it?
brettworks: The point of the blog is to write, to have a reason to focus and generate ideas, and to have a platform for sharing music-related material. It started as a once in a while thing, then became a two to three times a week thing, and lately it’s been a Monday to Friday thing. It may return to a once in a while thing though. As for my plans for the blog, I don’t think very far ahead—even though I write the posts a month in advance. The main thing is to channel the excitement I feel when I encounter something interesting.
Thomas: How often do you check your blog stats?
brettworks: Several times a day. Yes, I’m one of those people.
brettworks: Because the WordPress app on my phone let’s me do that.
Thomas: What have you learned from your stats?
brettworks: Much of my traffic is random—people stumbling upon the blog because they were Googling say, “michael mcdonald” or “bollywood time signatures” or “rolex commercial” or “why does my voice sound weird.”
This is the reason why I publish “Searches That Brought You Here” posts:
I want to close the feedback loop between your searches and my findings.
Thomas: Interesting. What else have you learned?
brettworks: That there is a sub-section of readers that appreciate ideas in poetry form. In fact, poems are often “liked” while longer prose posts almost never. This makes me wonder whether I should be writing about music exclusively in poetry form. After all, poetry is like music in that it focuses on the nexus of sound and oblique meaning. I’ve started to write more impressionistically about music too, in my parenthetical descriptions for the “Brett’s Sound Picks” posts.
This is one way to stay out of the music’s way.
Thomas: How do you come up with ideas for blog posts?
brettworks: It depends. The last few months I’ve been writing about single words—like “Better” or “Attune” or “Flip.” Sometimes I respond to music that I like. My aim is to share what I admire, but there’s also a selfish motivation, which is to create reasons to seek out good stuff. Sometimes I write about my experiences making music. Sometimes I respond to a book. Sometimes I write about music’s use as a tool that guides our feelings (as is the case with TV ads). And sometimes I write because music as an expressive form seems inadequate to the task of articulate expression.
Thomas: Can you expand on that?
brettworks: Music often seems trapped in its own cliches of expression—minor and major, rousing or scary or cool, quirky pizzicato strings that accompany the people bumbling around on a cooking show, popular or classical.
Sometimes it’s as if music teases us to stay clear-headed in its presence.
Thomas: Interesting. But back to something you just said—about music being trapped in its own cliches of expression.
Thomas: From that perspective, what are you most interested in listening to these days?
brettworks: I guess any music that pushes against those cliches and offers an alternative that compels through other means. Before I go further though, I’ll say that this cliches of expression idea is from the writer Geoff Dyer.
Thomas: What’s the quote?
brettworks: In addition to cliches of expression, Dyer speaks of “cliches of observation and of thought—even of conception.” And although he’s talking about novels, his idea that any work can be “cliches of form which conform to cliches of expectation” equally applies to music I think. Thanks to Dyer’s idea, when I listen to music now I sometimes think about cliches.
What was your question again?
Thomas: What are you listening to these days?
brettworks: Right. Usually I listen to instrumental music.
Thomas: Can you give an example?
brettworks: Some of the music in my “Brett’s Sound Picks” I like a lot. (I have begun curating a Spotify playlist for 2018 that I’ll be adding to. Feel free to follow it or just listen to it.) I recently heard a piece by the English jazz trio GoGo Penguin that’s remarkable—it sounds like an approximation of electronic music. You’d never mistake this for classic jazz or conventional electronic music—instead it sounds like an emerging musical category, like acoustic techno-mimetic music or something.
Thomas: Is that a commonly used phrase? Acoustic techno-mimetic music?
brettworks: No. But I think it describes what music like this seems to be aspiring to. The music of Dawn of Midi could also be described like this. So, I like music that chases after new aesthetics, that tries out different ways of being. “Mainstream” pop has a lot of interesting production work happening inside it too. You hear it in the music’s details—in a meticulously shaped hip hop drum sound or pad timbre, for instance. I often love those details more than the songs themselves.
It’s like the songs are vehicles for the sounds and not the other way around.
Thomas: Interesting. Where do you discover new music?
brettworks: I often read about new releases on boomkat.com. Sometimes I hear about things on Twitter, and sometimes Spotify’s algorithmically-derived “Discover” recommendations lead me to something.
Thomas: When you encounter a new music, how do you listen to it?
brettworks: At first super fast—I’ll scan a whole album then quickly return to a single track and listen to it obsessively until the sources of its power begin to make sense. It’s not the most sympathetic way to listen, but for me it works to bypass too much conscious thinking about whether or not the music is “good” or whether or not I “like” it.
Thomas: Air quotes!
brettworks: Yes! I put those words in quotes because I think we don’t like a music because it’s good, we like it because we’re sympathetic to the way in which it’s going about doing the work of defining itself.
Somehow we resonate along with how the music is doing its thing.
Thomas: Okay. Switching to another topic: Why do you think your ventrilo-dialogue with Rihanna is so popular? It took a few years, but it’s catching on!
brettworks: I don’t know why that is and it’s a little worrisome! I think the popularity of the post has to do with people wanting to hear a singer talk about her voice, or peel back a celebrity persona to move from being an object of attention to being a vehicle for other ideas we can focus on if we move past the spectacle of it all.
Anyways, let me remind readers that Ventrilo-Dialogues are speculative fiction.
Thomas: What is your favorite brettworks post?
brettworks: My favorite post is one of my first ones on the appendix in C. Wright Mills’ 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. The appendix is called “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” and in it Mills lays out principles by which the blog tries to live. Mills says you need to pay attention to the subtle sources of your ideas and then meticulously cultivate and document those sources as a kind of ongoing craft. (For some reason I always picture Mills at a drafting table, putting his ideas into diagram form.) I wish someone had shown me this book when I was in high school—I came across it by accident in graduate school while exploring the library stacks. Mills’ appendix is inspiring because it explains how to combine far-out, almost trippy idea generation with empirically-grounded thinking. You can read the post here.
Thomas: Thanks for taking the time, brettworks.
brettworks: You’re welcome. Next time I’ll interview you!
(This organ music is mobile, regal, and torsioned, like a state of being you’ll aspire to. Does it sound like Olivier Messiaen filtered through Steve Reich—contemplation meeting sped up thoughts, chords refracted in rhythms—showing the travels of musical influence, from them to him to us?)
• LEGO nothing commercial. This search brought you to my post on the music used in a Lego commercial. I wrote:
“The music also conjures feeling through that piano sound. For a long time now, the piano has been the ultimate symbol of the middle-class home and of having the financial means, time, and space to take music lessons and practice. The instrument might also be coded as having a feminine sound. In the Lego ad, we never see the young girl playing piano, but we might imagine her being able to play something like this two-chord progression. Finally, the piano sound is an acoustic touchstone that we can relate to as the sound of an instrument that many of us learned to play–a little or a lot–when we were children. Its resonance and warmth suggests an interior world of thinking, imagination, and creativity.” Read the post here.
• who is Michael in the music lesson. the concept of music and discipline. These searches brought you to one of my most read posts, a review of Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson. Wooten is a remarkable bass player and his book is a remarkable hybrid of fiction, memoir, self-help, and New Age-ish Quest narrative. I wrote:
“The Music Lesson is an idealized account of the musician as a kind of deeply knowing, in-tune seer, healer, and phenomenologist. Michael and the other teachers in Wooten’s life are voiceboxes for the author’s own musical philosophy, and while these at times cartoonish characters are a writerly conceit, it’s a conceit that works well to get Wooten’s many thought-provoking points across. Moreover, it perhaps goes without saying that it’s difficult to talk about philosophical aspects of musical experience without risking sounding cliché or even New-Agey. So hats off to Wooten for trying. I’m glad that I stuck with his zany story to its end.” Read the post here.
• Stevie explains chords. This search lead you to my post on the inimitable Stewie Griffin, the baby in Family Guy who sings a song about music theory. It’s awesome. I wrote:
“The remarkable thing about this song is how economically (not to mention humorously) it explains not only basic western music theory but also how musicians–even cartoon musicians–put this theory into action as they write songs about their experiences.” Read the post here.
“I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world.
I do have all the time in the world.”
– John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook (2011)
For a while now—maybe a year? two years?—I’ve been thinking about what I call One Good Idea, Then Bail. In brief, the concept describes a process of recognizing when you have stumbled upon a single decent idea over the course of a day and then, upon this recognition, immediately suspend working on the idea. What constitutes an adequately decent idea? That’s for you to figure out and it depends on what your line of work is. But no matter what your métier, the One Good Idea concept can guide your creative work habits by helping you aim at an easily graspable goal—a single idea—while setting the bar of accomplishment quite low.
For me, one good idea could be found on the macro or the micro level of working. For example, it could be a title or concept for a project. My recent recording Quietudes began just this way. I had been thinking about the word quietudes and one day, after wondering if it was a real word (it is), I began working on music whose goal was to describe it. Or a good idea might be a single pattern found under the hands that leads you to a melody. Depending on how it goes, an improvisation can be a good idea too. When I’m recording, I’ll assess what I just did not by listening back to it but by reflecting on how it felt in the moment. If I wasn’t feeling much of anything as I played, I assume the music isn’t good, delete it, and try again. But if the music created some reserve of feeling, throwing an emotional curve or slider, I’ll save it and immediately quit for the day by moving on to something else.
Moving on to something else is the Then Bail part of equation which has several functions. You get to turn your attention elsewhere which prevents you from tiring from your idea before it has even matured. And this doesn’t mean you’re acting flighty: turning your attention elsewhere could be the beginning of a new good idea! Bailing is also away to informally mark that you’ve done something worth saving or remembering that might be returned to later on. (If I’m composing, I’ll go back to my saved pieces to re-assess them. Often they’re not as good as I had hoped they could be, but recognizing that is part of the One Good Idea process too.) Another way of considering it: bailing after one good idea is a temporary release from the responsibility for having to think about it any further, which is welcomed because arriving at that idea may have already zapped you of energy.
The One Good Idea, Then Bail concept is one way to take pressure off of the self-imposed imperative to produce by quietly acknowledging that we can only do so much today. Maybe this is a lazy notion, or maybe it’s a technique for mobilizing laziness. Either way, having one good idea in the bag is a way to preserve the comforting assumption that I’ll resume the work tomorrow.
• A very short film showing starlings flying in synchrony.
“There was only the track, or the idea of it. The way forward was often unclear, the trail ambiguous and sometimes impossible to see. Like writing, it was infuriating and freeing, terrifying, and absolutely necessary to me.”
“[Nabihah] Iqbal emphasizes the importance of redefining the boundaries of field recording, which has its roots in Western colonialism. She praises the democratization of technology in ultimately helping us to achieve this. ‘I think it’s amazing how it has made the whole world of music more accessible to everybody, whether it’s making field recordings or recording your own music or whatever,’ she says.”
(Beginnings can grab you, middles might compel, but sometimes you listen to seven minutes and forty-six seconds of music to arrive at its beguiling final three.)