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

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“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

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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

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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)

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“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 everynoise.com, 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.”)