Working Knowledge: Performing, Tinkering, Composing

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“Think dynamically.” – Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game (2018)

Somewhere around 2002 I began making electronic music on a computer in a kind of old-fashioned way because I didn’t know any better: using a MIDI keyboard, my goal was to physically play every sound myself, one part at a time. There were a few reasons for this workflow. First, playing seemed the most efficient way to record: why program something if you can play it? This connected to a second reason, which is that my performance expertise—technically average though it is, but who says expertise necessarily involves virtuosity?—is based upon knowing how to play a few instruments. For many years, especially when I was a teenager and into college, I spent quite a lot of time practicing drum set and then percussion, inspired by our university’s music conservatory environment which fostered equal parts competition and fear. I practiced in the hopes of showing my teacher I understood his lessons and that someday I might have the control to play somewhat freely and hopefully, powerfully. (The control is still intact today, though some of the proficiency is not, which is perhaps a topic for another blog post.) A third reason for performing every electronic sound myself was that, back in 2002 I didn’t understand what digital technology could do for my music. I understood how a kick drum could be cut and pasted into a monotonous steady stream (and who wants to do that?), but the utility of other, much more subtle production moves such as effects processing, were unknown to me. If you want to hear an example of music I played all the way through, listen to This Would Be The Time, one of my now vintage Answering Machine Music pieces. This piece, along with a few others, features the voice of my friend Fred, who used to leave colossal messages on my answering machine.

These days I’ve adapted my old-fashioned goal of performing every sound myself. (You can read more about performance here.) I still begin pieces by playing something—by improvising, by flaneuring around the keyboard doing whatever strikes me as interesting right now. But after that stage—and I will sometimes wait a year or longer to revisit the file!— I set to work refining that playing through a kind of steady state tinkering. By tinkering I mean what essayist Nassim Taleb refers to as making small errors that are of little cost and can lead to discoveries. Digital music software is supremely suited to facilitating tinkering in search of discoveries. Consider, for example, what can be done with a brief solo piano improvisation. If my performance is decent (decent enough for me not to trash it), it can certainly be heightened in various ways: “wrong” notes can be replaced with more “right” ones, note velocities finely tuned (see my post on editing music for articulation), the tempo can be infinitesimally slowed down or sped up (or gradually accelerated or decelerated over time), spatial effects (e.g. reverb, delay, EQ) can be snuck in and out like a felt ambience, the ending can switch places with the beginning, the middle section can be inverted, transposed, and played at half speed, notes can be deleted (as per Taleb’s via negativa or “negative way”), and so on. I apply this kind of first-order tinkering to the solo piano in layers, over the course of many, many re-listenings. This in turn sets the stage for a second-order tinkering, whereby the initial tinkered-with solo piano improvisation becomes the basis for other possible parts, specifically: notes, phrases, bass lines, melodies, chords, and sections can be copied to generate new musical action, juxtaposed with the original performance to create unexpected rhythms and (my favorite discoveries) accidental counterpoints. Even effects can be saved and re-sampled and off we go again in yet another direction. It’s as endless as you want it to be. But remember too that tinkering is an option one doesn’t need to exercise. Sometimes you tinker just to learn that where you are isn’t in need of alteration, just like once in a great while you don’t even want to change a thing about your life.

What I’ve adapted is not only my workflow process, but also my understanding of where the composing is happening. Am I composing when I’m flaneuring among notes on the keyboard? Working out a theme? Making a mistake and correcting it? Am I composing when scrutinizing MIDI data in front of me on the screen, considering it from bird’s eye perspective and then trying this or that tinkering to alter it and make it sound better? The answer is that composing is all of these things that happen in the course of a dynamic and ongoing interacting with sound. The most significant felt fact I’m learning through my work is that there’s a fine line between a music that sounds just so-so and then, with the right tweak, suddenly becomes super expressive. I say felt fact as this happens to me over and over again: I’m trying out various small changes that don’t work until suddenly something does and the music is inexplicably singing. The music in its early iterations didn’t sing; it wasn’t doing much when I first played it through and began editing. But somehow and with delight I arrived at expressiveness despite myself and now the music is saying something.

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