Fulcrum

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fulcrum – the point on which a lever pivots; a thing that plays an essential role in an activity (from Latin fulcire “to prop up”)

While the implements percussionists use—sticks and mallets and other kinds of beaters—are imperfect constructions, there are ways of holding these implements that feel closer to perfect. The key is finding the optimal fulcrum point along the length of the stick where you can grasp it between your thumb and index fingers and then—boom!—the stick magically becomes an elegant lever. As I wrote in my post Strike & Vibrate, the joy of percussive striking derives from the feeling that with a stick in hand you’ve become a complex and fluid arm-hand-finger contraption for getting objects vibrating. Finding the fulcrum is key to making this happen.

I was thinking about fulcrum points recently just before and then while playing marimba. As the song was about to start—we were about ten seconds out—I stood with mallets in hand and, without my thinking about it, my fingers were inching their way forwards from the back-end of the mallets towards their yarn heads. As my fingers walked and my hands gauged the changing weight distribution (marimba mallets are heavier on their mallet head ends), I became aware of what I was doing. I glanced down at my hands and realized that they had travelled a little more than halfway up the length of the mallets! In other words, my hands had, without my noticing it, gotten themselves to an optimal fulcrum point. As the piece began, I decided to experiment a little more by alternately holding the mallets even closer to their mallet head ends and then much further back. In each of these far from optimal fulcrum positions I lasted just a few seconds before my hands instinctively panicked and got the mallets back into the “right” position. What was interesting was the degree to which I felt my feel for the marimba was inseparable from my hands feeling good in their relationship to the mallets. My thoughts on the feel of fulcrum were reinforced a few days later when on separate days a sound engineer and another musician dropped by my instrument to say hello. On each occasion they picked up a mallet (fuzzy and soft) to strike the instrument (who doesn’t want at least one strike?!—and I never object) and each time the first thing I noticed was that they were holding the mallet too close to its end and thus there was no effortless fulcrum action happening. The mallet came down towards the marimba bars like a falling tower, and upon impact there was no optimal fulcrum point to cushion the blow, no hinge to counter the falling with a corresponding rebound move.

After these experiences I began to think more generally about fulcrums: Can we extrapolate outwards from this fundamental of drumming technique towards say, more general principles of creativity? Consider that another definition of fulcrum is something that plays an essential role in creative work by “propping” it up—by animating it in some way. While one’s instruments/equipment/gear/stuff is obviously part of this equation, in more conceptual terms a fulcrum can be thought about as a hinging balance point: between originality and derivative, between distance and proximity, between density and space, between belief and doubt, between effortless action or clunky effortfulness, and between intuitive adjustments and deliberate weighing. How one’s hands find the optimal fulcrum points along the marimba mallets becomes a metaphor for getting a feel for the up-down ergonomics of one’s own creative work. Fulcrums are a part of percussive technique that suggest that finding a balance point is the key not just for getting objects vibrating, but for handling the feels and flows of creative processes.

Musical Analogy

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To know how a music works over time
notice it aimed years later
somewhere else and far away
in a Target or Macy’s

where the song has you
under its fluorescence
tingeing the silence
as a woman sniffs diffusers
comparing the feeling
of lavender and matcha

and Howard in returns (his ears are huge)
takes the box of broken dinner plates
but fumbles the receipt
calling over the manager
for permission to override the system—

music works like that.

Arrows Of Attention: Sports Talk As Creative Self-Help

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I hung in there.

I hit some Quality shots.

I gave myself some chances.

I had a good routine and a good process—just sticking to the same old deal.

I just need to trust my shots.

I had some good looks today.

I need to make sure I’m in the right frame of mind,
trusting what we’re trying to do and not second-guessing anything.

You’re always making little compensations.

Once you decide that you’re ok with the worst-case scenario, you can start to think about what happens if ‘I apply myself and start to play well and get out of my own way.’

It’s important to keep picturing the shot you know you can do.

If you play your best you play out of control–there is no fear of the result.

 The important thing is to stay patient, to trust the process, and continue doing the work.

Angle matters.

Creative Strategies: Multiples

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multiple—having or involving several parts, parts, or members

One of the most useful concepts in creative work is the concept of multiples. There’s no hidden meaning here—multiple simply means having several parts—but there is hidden power.

The way to apply the multiple concept to your work is simple: conceive of and build multiple versions of whatever you’re working on. For example, if you’re writing piece of music for say, marimba and violin (a nice combination of timbres and short-long note durations), start with one piece and finish it. But while doing so plan to do at least three or four, or even better, ten or twelve more pieces for the same instrumentation. This achieves a few things on different levels of conception and execution. First, it forces you to figure out if your materials or your concepts or your process is repeatable. Can you stretch the initial concept? Clone the basic idea? Reproduced the aesthetic? Thinking in terms of multiples forces you to critically consider the rigor of what you already have. Second, multiples encourages you to think in broad strokes. Maybe this means moving beyond short melodies or chord progressions you’re invested in, towards more general notions of call and response, mutual filigree, or harmonic dissonance. While your fantastic melody might be a one-time thing, these more general concepts of musical form and action are easily multiplied—who knows what you’ll find! This connects to a third effect of multiples, which is that it directs you towards the endless interesting realm of variations. Variation is the ur-key to creativity in that “new” works often take shape in the form of variations on an older theme. Finally, multiples directs your attention to the future, giving you something to look forward to. Tomorrow will arrive and with it you can resume your marimba-violin pieces, or whatever project you’re working on.

I’ve been applying the multiples concept for several years. With music, I work up as many pieces as I can around an idea until I’m tired of it or else can’t seem to find anything new. For my recent recording, Quietudes (2018), I composed twenty pieces around the idea of quiet music for a string keyboard sound: a solo chordal lead and two accompanying melody parts. Following the multiples concept I generated as much as I could. Then at a later date, I returned to the pieces and narrowed them down to the seven that made the final recording. An even more recent example: as I was writing this post I began brainstorming other creative strategies that relate to Multiples. Here are a few: Framing, Distance, Doubt, Belief, Stillness, and Derivative. How to do they relate? I haven’t figured that out yet, but the important thing is the process of trying to multiply the multiple concept.

So: think in multiples.

Catching Signals: Notes On Junkie XL’s Film Scoring Videos

“Hello! This is Tom—Junkie XL—and welcome to Studio Time with Junkie XL, who else?”

-Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL

Even as YouTube has become a vibrant, open-to-all marketplace for amateur music producers to show off their production workflows (a topic I have been writing about in some forthcoming essay collections), it’s not as often that professionals use the space to share their techniques. Maybe they’re too busy? One delightful exception to this rule is “Studio Time”, the channel of Tom Holkenborg, aka Junkie XL, a Dutch electronic musician (a drummer originally), DJ, producer, and now, a film music composer. While originally known for his trance music, Holkenborg has over the past few years become a sought-after composer for Hollywood movies such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Deadpool, and Tomb Raider. The “Studio Time” videos, which are self-produced (without sponsors), show Holkenborg to be an affable presence with a no-nonsense yet rather obsessive focus on all things music and sound. This evenhanded enthusiasm makes him a wonderful teacher. His educational agenda could be summed up thusly: Hi, this is how I work.

If you’re into music composition, let alone advanced electronic music production techniques, “Studio Time” videos are fascinating and engaging for a number of geeky and philosophical reasons. First off, Holkenborg’s techno-musical system is vast. As he shows us in one of his early videos in the series, he uses Steinberg’s Cubase music software. Cubase is a digital audio workstation program that is popular with Hollywood composers, some of whom claim that it “colors” the sound less than other software. Holkenborg’s Cubase is set up with a composing template that has hundreds of MIDI tracks pre-loaded with high-quality orchestral sound sample libraries ready to go. You want soft strings? Epic brass? Medieval woodwinds? Choirs? Thunder percussion? It’s all here. But Cubase is just the brain of the system. The software is powered by several PC computer servers humming away in another room. Also, inside Cubase there are dozens of virtual sampling, synthesizer, and sound design plug-ins. If that weren’t enough, Holkenborg’s studio is packed with many of the major (and minor) analog and digital synthesizers from the 1960s to the present. There are Rolands, Korgs, Yamahas, Emulators, Oberheims, drum machines, samplers, sequencers, vocoders, guitar pedals, and taking up the entirety of the back wall, Holkenborg’s gargantuan “Wall of Sound” modular synthesizer (not to be confused with Phil Spector’s thick-textured “wall of sound” production aesthetic in the 1960s). Amazingly, all of this gear is hooked into the Cubase-driven system to form a vast assemblage of tools, ready for when Holkenborg wants to record anything he can imagine.

A second striking aspect of the “Studio Time” videos is they reveal the labor required to put together a single film score cue. A five-minute scene has music that is calibrated and synced to the film action down to the second, which requires a watchmaker’s precision to devise meticulous tempo mapping and time signature changes. As organized within Holkbenborg’s Cubase template, the music for a cue can have dozens or even hundreds of MIDI tracks playing here and there, each track triggering a different orchestral sample, synthesizer, or piece of audio sound design. It’s one thing to set up a software-based techno-musical system that can handle all of this information. But it’s another to have the know-how to incorporate so many sound elements seamlessly into a soundtrack. Prior to watching some of these videos, I didn’t know that a piece of music could have so many tracks, so many micro-layers—layers that make the music lush with immersive, suggestive details that nudge your feelings in omnidirectional ways. Note too that Holkenborg’s compositional work doesn’t end with sequencing electronic tracks. As he explains in detail in one video, later on in the process groups of tracks (or “stems”) are bounced down, and the MIDI information for the orchestral instrument parts is exported and converted (by orchestrators) into notation to be played by real string, brass, woodwind, and percussion players. These recordings are then folded back into the soundtrack’s final mix. Transforming Holkbenborg’s eloborate MIDI sketches into a full-blown film score soundtrack is a process with many, many steps.

The “Studio Time” videos also show the extent to which every sound in a contemporary film score can be, and often is, processed. Electronic musicians have long been experts in this domain because they understand the importance of sound design for transforming a music’s affect, for giving it power. Think about the grand rhythmic filter sweeps or drum rolls in EDM that set up climactic moments, or the giant reverb tails that saturate ambient music. In one section of a video about composing a cue for the film Tomb Raider, Holkenborg shows us how a synth bass line consists of two slightly different sounds mixed together, each of which is processed differently. Even acoustic sounds are never left untouched: every track receives some kind of sound processing, be it reverb or delay,  EQ, or more obscure- and zanier-sounding effects. Why you ask? A sound is processed to make it brighter, darker, more resonant, more edgy, softer, fatter, more huge, more brittle, to stretch or compress or syncopate it, and on and on. The important thing is that processing changes the sound’s feel—something I hadn’t thought much about prior to watching these videos. That composite synth bass line from Tomb Raider, by the way, was processed using different reverb settings and delay timings for both its front and surround outputs. (Film music is mixed in multi-channel surround sound.) In sum, while the scale on which Holkenborg works might be beyond the reach of amateur music producers, his workflow offers solid composing lessons. Here are a few of them: a brief composition can have many, many tracks; you can, and should, design your own sounds; layered sounds are new composite timbres (i.e. two bass sounds become a sonic sum more than its parts); every sound can be processed to make it more interesting and better-sounding in its context; reverbs and delays create space and depth; a piece of music can begin anywhere; and most important, stay organized. I’ve learned a lot from these videos!

Perhaps the most interesting philosophical quality of “Studio Time” is that the videos are a masterclass in how a musician listens. Casual music listeners—which we all are when watching a movie or listening to a song— can sometimes identify the different sounds of the orchestra’s instruments, or maybe even notice the tone of a synthesizer pad or hear a Roland TR-808 kick drum sound. Our experience with listening to music is endlessly cumulative, as we build upon what we have already heard with sounds newly encountered. (We notice, for instance, that 808 kick drums persist all over popular music.) The difference with accomplished musicians and composers is that their experience allows them turn up listening’s intensity dial. Put simply, they notice minutiae of minutiae. Watching Holkenborg play through his cues and explain his workflow we get a sense of how his advanced listening skills as an electronic music producer have carried him over into film scoring: being a one-person production unit who combines composing (beautiful melodies, by the way) with mixing and engineering has earned him an extensive creative toolkit. We get a sense of how he remembers and understands the dizzying sound nuances in all his gear—from that hundred-dollar guitar fuzz box he bought when he was a teenager to the high-end Waves reverb plug-in tucked away in his software’s drop-down menu. We get a sense of how he understands the possibilities for layering sounds and effects, but not only that: he remembers these sound and effects layers and has a sense of how they can be mobilized again, maybe in a new permutation, to support the action and psychological undertones of a film. In short, watching “Studio Time” gives us a sense of how the composer is like an antenna catching signals, making the leap from sound to meaning by hearing music and sound design suggesting and paralleling moods, feelings, and stories.

Resonant Thoughts: Erling Kagge’s “Silence” (2017)

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“Negative beauty—by virtue of all that is not present.”

“I am constantly interrupted, interruptions engendered by other interruptions. I rummage around in a world that has little to do with me. Attempt to be effective until I realize I won’t get any further regardless of how effective I’ve become.”

“The essential thing is the contrast between a little and a lot. It works every time. Your brain is eager to tune in when the music is in a borderland where it can fluctuate—suddenly it’s quiet, a sound follows a soundless pause, or else you dance and wait for the tone to shift or the volume to change. It feels like your brain is expanding outwards.”

– Erling Kagge, Silence (2017), pp. 58, 75, 109