Resonant Thoughts: Ole Thorstensen’s “Making Things Right” (2015)


“That the idea or conception of something is adjudged superior to its concrete implementation is a natural consequence of a society in which theory has become increasingly important. The execution is dirty and imprecise, while the idea is pure and unsullied. Theory is always flawless, until you try to apply it in practice and get human failabilities and material faults thrown into the mix.”

— Ole Thorstensen, Making Things Right (2015), p. 31.

Music Production Mindsets: Letting Something Help You Decide


When I first began dabbling in electronic music production around 2000 or so, I had a big Yamaha synthesizer hooked up to my computer. The keyboard had its own built-in sound presets, and I managed to configure its various MIDI channels to the DAW software (Logic) so I could select a different sound for each track—drum kits, bass, strings, brass section, electric guitar, and so on. I never altered these sound presets because I wouldn’t dare get into programming the keyboard using its tiny LED screen—I was afraid I would never be able to find the “Exit” button in all those editing menus! I also can’t say how good the preset sounds were, but I remember that it was easy to decide on which sounds to use because my sound selection was rather limited. I had my go-to sounds and then forgot about them, moving on to the more interesting—and controllable—task of playing each part.

Many years later, I notice that I have new ways to limit my choices while working. For instance, even though now I have thousands of sound options, I’m always looking for ways to simplify my process, alert to any small detail that will help me decide on a direction in which to go. Ideally, that detail will almost make the decision for me. I’m reluctant to search for things or try out a bunch of possibilities if I have in front of me something that’s doing the job. Just as when I started out, I want to travel the least possible distance to get the piece (the music, the writing) going. Here’s an example. I’ve recently been playing with some samples of one of my earlier recordings. While I have the option to alter the samples in any way I want, my goal is to do absolutely nothing with them and to let them decide a direction for me. Even a single sample that sounds just right could be enough to build upon. That’s the goal: do the minimum to get the maximum. Less is more, as the saying goes. Or as Richard Sennett puts it in his book The Craftsman (2009), the starting point “is the calculation and application of minimum force.”

This may sound a bit like throwing dice to determine one’s pitch and duration values (John Cage), or drip-throwing paint on a canvas (Jackson Pollock) to see what happens. But I still have to decide what to do next and which conventional means of developing an initial idea (repetition, harmony, variations, etc.) to use. Noticing a small detail and taking it seriously as a possible direction merely simplifies what could otherwise be an overwhelming production process. Could a whole piece be built upon this little fragment? Sure, why not?   

Wind Music


Occasionally this time of year, when the evenings are warm and breezy and I’m walking the dog down a quiet neighborhood street late at night, I notice the sound of wind in the trees and stop to look and listen. If you look up, you see the wind’s twisting upwards path upon the oscillating tree parts against the darkened sky. As the wind blows, the branches bend and the leaves flutter up and through one tree and onto another—a perfect visual representation of vibration passing itself along receptive mediums. The wind-blown branches and leaves create a layered, white noise complexity that rises and falls in a surround sound shhhhh. It’s beautiful and relaxing to listen to as a reset for my ears.

I never quite hear this kind of layered complexity in music, at least not in the music I listen to. In music I hear beautiful textures and moving consonances and dissonances, but never a wind breath stirring thousands of tree branches and tree leaves into vibrational synchrony. The wind offers lessons: exact repetition doesn’t happen in nature, you don’t hear exactitudes in a breeze rustling trees or the irregular-regular sounds of crashing ocean waves, and natural soundscapes are infinitely layered and chaotic.

What makes the sound of wind in the trees interesting is the depth of its complexity and the simplicity of its depth as a single, author-less sound triggers countless leaf responses to create an immersive texture that would be impossible to score or otherwise recreate outside of this time and place. It’s as if the wind, the blowing leaves, and your noticing is what creates the music. 

Resonant Thoughts: David Sumpter’s “Outnumbered” (2018)


“Spotify’s genre system places all songs as a point in 13 dimensions, grouping together those close-by points as genres. The dimensions include objective musical properties such as ‘loudness’ and ‘beats per minute’, as well as more subjective emotional properties, such as ‘energy’, ‘valance’ (sadness) and ‘danceability’. These latter, subjective measurements are established through listening sessions, where human subjects listen to pairs of songs and state which of them they think is saddest or more danceable. The algorithm learns the difference and classifies other songs appropriately.”

David Sumpter, Outnumbered (2018), pp. 74-75.

(This passage on Spotify’s Discover algorithm led me to Glenn McDonald’s, a fascinating graphical map of hundreds of musical styles. It’s beautiful. McDonald writes:

“This is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 1905 genres by Spotify. The calibration is fuzzy, but in general down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.”)

Brett’s Sound Picks: Autechre’s “32a_reflected”

(In “32a_reflected” tones hover, suspended, frequencies piercing at high altitudes, a swarm and hum drone growing into an almost tonal form that keeps resolving without identifiable chords. The tones feel like an ending but we don’t know when that ending will happen. The end will be without cadence, without melody, yet an idea can coalesce—a feeling— through timbre awareness and ambient sonics. Without falling from its heights, the music alights just so, like a decision that has taught us patience.)

Music Production Mindsets: Building Upon The Faintest Traces


Beginning a new piece of music is the most exciting moment, as long you don’t get ahead of yourself, get bogged down in as yet unnecessary details, and instead stay focused on the task at hand. But what is this task, exactly? For me, it’s being on the lookout for something enchanting. The other day I was beginning a new project (coming to a theater near you—in about two years). I loaded up an audio file from one of my earlier recordings into my sampler. The piece was instantly sliced into fragments of itself, each fragment assigned to a pad on my MIDI controller. The pads lit up a greenish-blue, as if they were suddenly alive and radiating excitement, which in turn made me excited. I paused for a moment to consider the workflow so far. A few decades ago this kind of sample-mapping would have been truly laborious. Today it took me ten seconds. 

With no idea of what it might sound like, I randomly tap a pad in the middle of the grid matrix. The pad sounds a shard of a chord in which I can hear piano, finger cymbal, and reverb resonance. I touch it again. There’s a ton of information to process when you listen to even a one second sample, and so repetition becomes a way to refresh your memory of its details. I then move to other pads, one at a time. I turn on the “Poly” mode so I can play two pads at a time (mono feels limiting). What am I listening for? It’s too early to know. I move all over the grid, hitting pads in the middle and in the corners, up high and down low, trying to remember what sounds where. (The sampler has re-shuffled the samples from my original source into an unfamiliar deck.) I remember those 1980s video games like Merlin, Simon, and Fabulous Freddy that combined tones and colored lights to test your memory for spatial patterns. This is like that, except the end goal is to find something that could be a new musical beginning. I keep tapping, gravitating to a few samples, but not committing to anything.

While the number of pads on the grid controller is fixed, its configuration is open. I adjust the “Sensitivity” knob, moving from the default 100 percent downwards to 87, then 84, then 50. Each downward turn makes the sample slices longer and re-scrambles their arrangement across the grid. I find that if a slice is too long, you hear too much of the original music and that’s just not interesting. (Just like Puff Daddy sampling an entire Police song wasn’t interesting.) I don’t want to hear the original piece; I want to hear some aspect of it that I never noticed before. I turn the sensitivity back up to the ninety-percent range and keep tapping. For all the meticulous documentation on how to use the controller, its manufacturer doesn’t offer guidance on the musician’s key responsibility, which is figuring a way to make something that sounds enchanting. Even at this early stage of production, it could take me five minutes or five weeks to wrangle the sampler’s parameters so that I hear something appealing. It’s possible too that nothing will work. But I’ve decided that something will work and that I’ll know it when I hear it, so I keep tapping. The minutes tick by: tap, no that doesn’t sound good, tap, no that doesn’t sound good. I keep going, trying to imagine how each sample could be part of something as yet conceived. I wonder if I’m listening as holistically as one should when auditioning samples? Part of the fun here is the uncertainty of the process, coupled with pondering whether and how the sounds could work in a new context. Tap, tap. The more I tap the more I forget that my original plan was to discover something enchanting. It doesn’t matter now, whatever

And just when it feels as if nothing matters, I hear something. It’s a pad in the upper left-hand corner. How had I missed it? It was right there the whole time. It’s a chord I can’t identify—with a short attack but a beautiful long decay too. (There’s no clicking artifact, the sound of a sound being cut off—I don’t want to have to start editing this early in the game.) And a second pad nearby goes with it. There’s a tonal relationship there, enough that I can alternate between the two of them. Game on! I tap faster now, searching the rest of the grid for a third sound—something neutral, something with which I can alternate those two sounds in the upper left-hand corner. I find a shorter percussive sound on the lower right. It was there the whole time too, but maybe it needed the other sounds to help it be noticed? I can do some kind of low-medium-high pattern with these sounds, a pattern that repeats and leaves space. Space, I’ve discovered, is way underrated in music. The more space I leave, the more options I have down the line. (In music as in life.) This moment was worth the tedium that led up to it and now I quickly work out a few patterns.

What’s interesting about auditioning sounds is the rhythm of the production process, which began the moment I loaded up the samples. The intensity of the process was dialed up as those three audio bits suggested themselves as a potent combination, shifting my attention to focus on just them. Now they’re singing individually, even though there’s no piece yet. But I can take comfort in my feeling that the samples contain faint traces of some yet-to-be music. Maybe a whole something could be built upon them and the next steps will be to start thinking about how to do that.