I watch a fair amount of sports on TV, for reasons including ambient sound, commentators’ endless stats commentary, and because the outcome is always uncertain. (Sport competition gets interesting when it doesn’t go according to plan, which is the best narrative.) For these reasons, even with all the commercials in need of skipping through, sports make for perfect TV.
One of the clichés you hear athletes talking about a lot is the importance of managing their emotions. Since there are endless variables they can’t control, athletes are constantly devising ways to modulate their thinking—and non-thinking—in real time so that they can perform optimally under trying and at times immensely stressful conditions. Athletes have their rituals, routines, go-to moves and tactics, and even superstitious tics to help them along (e.g. Rafael Nadal aligning his water bottles as if making adjustments to a personal sundial): these are the elements they can control, even as the outcome of their performance craft will always be uncertain. Roger Federer once said in an interview that when he started playing as a professional, he would get irritated when he missed a shot and show his irritation on his face. At some point, he decided to adopt a new and neutral “game face” which would reveal little of his emotions. The purpose was not simply to deny his competitors an advantage. A neutral game face also helped him manage his emotions better by sending a message to his nervous system that telegraphed all is good—even though he has to save three match points or he’ll lose Wimbledon. When I’m watching tennis, golf, or soccer, I’m pondering the possible outcomes of athletes’ performances and their efforts to control them. The champion is, for the moment, in total control, but that could change in an instant. In fact, entire careers can change in an instant. Who knows, the champion may lose today and then never win again—his champion life could be over after this next shot. That’s one of the invisible burdens great athletes carry around with them, 24/7: When will the winningness end?
Creative work is similar to sports performance, even though the tactics artists, writers, or composers use are less visible. Rituals, routines, and go-to moves are all part of creative work’s daily equation, helping one structure minutes into productive hours. And as with sports, the most important element is managing one’s emotions, but with a difference. In sports, managing one’s emotions ideally means taking them out of the performance equation, so your hand isn’t shaking as you try to hit that forehand. This is impossible to do perfectly, of course, but that’s the goal. That’s what the tennis commentators are talking about when they speak of the underdog who, losing a match, has nothing left to lose and so becomes uninhibited and starts swinging freely and playing lights out well. In creative work, one wants to be playing lights out too, but not by taking emotions out of the equation. Managing your emotions requires paying attention to how you’re feeling about what you’re doing in the moment of doing it. It entails knowing when something is generating excitement or boredom in you and quickly figuring out a way to either build on that or fix it (or throw it out). Having said this, emotions aren’t foolproof measures of your work’s quality and so sometimes you just need to let them wander. Managing your emotions means letting them ascend to great heights for a few moments (picture smoke drifting upwards) and then watching them come back down. Managing your emotions means loving and disliking your work simultaneously, as if you can’t decide whether you’re looking at the two faces or the vase. (It’s both.) Managing your emotions means proceeding despite them—ushering the project along even though you feel neither here nor there about it, at least right now. Who knows, your opinion could change in a few minutes—you might have begun a “winning” streak without even knowing it. Most importantly, managing your emotions means understanding that sometimes they’ll be bystanders as you attend to the gameplay of your craft, ever trying to win your own trust and position yourself to swing freely.
A head count—
ten people around me
all glued to their screens
minds far way
their tech spliting
person from the personal
less talking one on one
without a phone
(no one laughs like that)
social media lacks connection
because there’s no algorithm for relating.
“To create a desire for something one needs to engage in a labor of human happiness. Need is a demanding and obscure thing that defines the dependence of one person on another. To identify it and want it is to define oneself as a person. That’s the secret of culture, the secret of cuisine, the secret of kindness. It’s also the secret of tiny Fournel on his bike in the vast countryside, miraculously in equilibrium on his two wheels, trying to catch his own shadow.”
– Paul Fournel, Need For The Bike (2003), p. 147.
When I’m browsing and trying out synthesized sounds, wishing that I were doing something else (this happens about 30 seconds into the process—it is what it is), I inevitably end up playing a few chords or a scrap of melody to hear how they sound. I don’t consider this real music because I’m just throwing my hands down at whatever keys are near to listen to how the sound presets react to my touch. So it was with some surprise that I recently used a feature in Ableton Live called Capture. It works like this: you play something—for a few seconds or a few minutes—and then, when you’re done, you press the Capture button and Ableton records retroactively what you played. With Capture, you’re always recording. Like those assistant speaker devices for the home that no one knows why exactly they need, it turns out that the software was listening all along.
What’s interesting about Capture is how the feature supports the psychological dynamics of creating. The traditional concept of recording is that you prepare to record, the red “Record” light in the studio comes on, and at that point you get a little nervous because you have to execute what you prepared, knowing that the recording is capturing everything. Your awareness that you’re recording changes your playing as you experience a self-imposed pressure to make it good. But the Capture feature removes fear from the performance equation because you’re recording retroactively. It’s like going back in time.
This idea of going back in time came to mind as I was trying out a sound. All of a sudden I liked what I was playing and my next thought was, I should stop and try to do this again—but properly. But small thoughts can have larger damaging effects because once I had the thought I couldn’t recreate whatever quality it was that caught my attention, and besides, the moment was already gone. Let’s rewind those three ideas: a quality of sound, paying attention, and the moment evaporating. In an ideal musical world I would be attuned to these changing states all the time, but that never happens; instead, working on music is an ongoing practice of trying to stay focused through sound. Fast-forward to trying out a sound: it was at the moment when I realized that I liked what I had just played that I clicked the Capture button and Ableton offered the MIDI of my past two minutes of noodling around.
I’m not totally sold on Capture though, because I think aiming for some kind of performance under the pressure of recording is a goal that always pays off with—well, a solid performance. Even if I’m just drumming a short pattern that I could straighten out later, or playing a harmony that could be copied ad infinitum, I’ll try to nail the (single) take because why not? That being said, Capture de-fears performance and provides an alternate way to (un)consciously document what you do. Capture suggests an ideal workflow in which you just play, and if you want, go back later to develop parts of what you did. Surprises in music production sometimes come when you aren’t expecting them: you were composing the whole time.