Production Stories: Working On Minutiae

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Composing is often a labor of working on minutiae that or may not ever be noticed, but certainly felt. When listeners listen to music, they notice everything, even if they don’t realize they’re noticing it and instead just feel it. Listeners take in tempo, instrumentation, grooves and repetition, themes and variations, singing and lyrics, stasis and movement, disjuncture and flow, energy and stillness, emotion and affect, among other parameters perhaps too murky to articulate. (“That music is creepy for some reason…”) We also bring to the music our entire personal histories—listening through everything we ever heard.     

Composing is a labor of making explicit the noticing of the listener by reverse-engineering it in advance. The composer thinks through the implications of each and every sound—not just melodies and chords and beats and rhythms, but timbres and noise and resonance and reverb. The test-subject is him/herself, pursuing a simple question, over and over: How does this make me feel? Of course, the composer knows his/her experiment is anything but scientific. The meanings of musics aren’t universal, and what he/she likes might not be what you like. (After all, you’ve had different experiences.) But somehow composing encourages a suspension of disbelief, and while working on a new project the composer can hear the music’s meanings as inherent in, or synonymous with, its sounds. As artistically arrogant or socially myopic as it sounds, the composer has complete confidence that his/her music is doing what it’s intended to do for anyone who cares to listen the composer’s way.

It’s the labor of working on minutiae that saves the composer from falling into a deep solipsism. The reason is that minutiae keep us busy: even in the simplest of compositions, there are a thousand decisions to consider, a thousand micro-paths to audition, a thousand ways of shaping sounds that affect their aura and impact. Working on minutiae keeps the composer grounded by keeping him or her working from the ground up, practicing practice before theory, and phenomenology before interpretation. Working on minutiae quickly organizes the composer’s actions into a series of tinkering steps powered by simple questions for prompting further action: 

How does this sound? As a variation, how about this? What if I combine this sound with that one? What if I remove the sound? What if I copy the sound and transpose it? What if the sound were slowed down? What if the end became the beginning? Why is this sound not sounding right? Do I even like it? (Should I go stir the soup?)

My useful work—the work that sets me up well for tomorrow’s work—happens when I’m working on minutiae. It’s in these moments that I’m not trying to say anything, but rather just trying out different ways of possible saying by trial and error. No pressure. For instance, I might take some time going through dozens of preset effects until I find one that strikes me as something someone like me would like to listen to, or someone like me would use or work from. If I find such a preset, I go into tunnel vision mode, ignoring the other possibilities of the software to focus exclusively on what the preset can do, how it’s assembled, and so on. Sometimes I narrow it down to a single knob, delighting in the potentials of a single parameter and making mental notes upon mental notes. This is working on minutiae in action. In theory, there’s always time to go back later and keep exploring. But in practice, I hope to never go back. Besides, how much time does one have anyhow?      

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