“I like everything to evolve, I don’t like sounds to be static really…
I like the idea of trying to create this musical world where everything is fluid
and any sound can at any point just change.”
One of the most compelling qualities of Jon Hopkins’ music is how its elements shift, develop, and mutate over time. Even in textures where you think you hear all that’s going on—like there appears to be an obviously steady kick drum—there’s always more, (and that kick isn’t obviously steady either). The shifting and mutating of the music’s parts is audible, but sometimes subliminally so. You feel change happening and sense organic growth, but you’re not sure how it works or even when it started. The way it works is that Hopkins’ music has been changing the whole time. Like the best classic minimalist music (such as Steve Reich’s Drumming), the effect of this growth is that even a simple-sounding track is neither simple nor does it produce a simple effect.
In recent articles in support of his recent recording, Singularity, Hopkins describes some of his aesthetic goals for his music. In the New Yorker, he speaks of using Ableton Live software, whose capabilities encouraged him “to imagine how one sound could lead to the birth of another.” Hopkins explains how the track “Feel First Life” uses “a synth sound that gradually morphs into a choral sound. That idea of a 15-part choir appearing out of the fabric of electronic sounds was what I was looking to do all those years ago.” In an interview with Resident Advisor, Hopkins shares technique details of how he crafts his music to evolve in a subliminal way through sound tweaking and morphing. A piece can consist of over a hundred tracks of audio or MIDI, “not playing simultaneously, just bits all over the place.” Each of these tracks receives “lots of infinitesimal tweaking across loads of parameters…It always comes down to minutiae on a screen. It’s just an accepted fact. A lot of effort goes into making things sound like they just happened naturally, but there’s always a lot of work behind it. But I kind of love that.” Hopkins says he’s often “trying to clean up evidence of the sound morphing techniques that I use. Sometimes I’ll hear a noise and then it stops dead, so I go in and find a sound I worked over a hundred times and realize that I didn’t quite filter the end out properly.”
Hopkins composes his music entirely within Ableton (“in the box” as it used to be called, though this practice is no longer unusual because many “studios” today now consist of a computer), using numerous plug-ins (e.g. reverbs, delays, EQ, filters) to create chains of effects processing for each of his sounds. In a Stoney Roads interview, he says “I love the fact that the plugins around now allow you to really just have total control over where something sits [in the mix]…These are also just really interesting and creative elements of mixing a track for me.” In the Resident Advisor interview, Hopkins describes how a piece can begin with a few piano chords or even a simple rhythm finger-tapped on his desk, but after this first step the musical assemblage-making begins. No matter what the sounds are or how the track unfolds, every parameter of the music’s sound receives automation of one kind or another. For example, if a sound has reverb applied to it, automating this reverb can make it gradually increase in intensity over a while, and then disappear. In Ableton or any other DAW, automation can be drawn in onscreen as an inclined line or manually controlled using knobs on a MIDI controller. This automating of musical parameters to create continual growth or morphing is a key element of Hopkins’ production craft. Interestingly, he also describes automating things that many musicians wouldn’t necessarily consider to be musical per se, such as the mix’s stereo field. For example, on the piece “C O S M” Hopkins narrows the stereo field “to about 60%. It gradually gets even narrower and the frequency bands reduce as well. It all happens so gradually that you don’t think the sound is getting crap or weak. But when it opens up, there’s a lot of impact.”
Here is “Feel First Life”, the track that slowly transforms itself from synthesized sounds to singing voices:
If you’re curious about Hopkins, you may also enjoy this Song Exploder podcast interview.