Musical Decision-Making Under Conditions Of Opacity and Serendipity


I begin composing by improvising, and there are three elements that make up this process: opacity, decision-making, and serendipity. First, some definitions: something that is opaque lacks transparency; decision-making is reaching a resolution after consideration; and serendipity is the occurrence of events by chance in a beneficial way. 

These ideas capture the flow of the creative process. The process begins with opacity (1), a condition whose nature is not yet clear. Maybe I’ll begin with a single note that could be harmonized in any number of ways, a rhythm in need of a counter-rhythm counterpoint, an interesting sound, or one cool chord. The only way to move forward is to make a decision (2) about what do to next. My decisions are made quickly by my hands perpetually trying out shapes and movements at the keyboard (or twiddling virtual knobs). As Deckle Edge notes in his book Cræft, “the most versatile and the most complex piece of kit we have at our disposal is our own body” (24). I find if I play long enough, my hands find something. 

What my hands find helps me make decisions about what to do next. But even as I commit to these decisions, each one leads to further opacity (3) because new possibilities open at every turn. Out of this arises more decision-making (4) and sometimes, serendipity (5) in form of delightful discoveries I wasn’t planning on encountering, but now that I have, I hear their potential. I make more decisions based on these discoveries (6) which leads me back to the opaque condition where I began, only this time around, the music has evolved a bit.      

opacity (1) > decision-making (2) > further opacity (3) > further decision-making (4) >

serendipity (5) > further decision-making (6) [repeat]

The three elements of this process keep repeating themselves, and once around the cycle can take seconds or minutes or days. One thing I’ve learned here is that each element demands a slightly different mindset. Opaqueness requires patience to grasp what is making something unclear. Decision-making requires action in the form of tinkering or trying things out. And serendipity requires letting what is happening happen. No matter what I’m working on, I can trust the opacity-decision-making-serendipity flow will usher the piece along, as well as me with it.

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