Freestyle: On Musical Clichés


Make beat 1 or the downbeats obvious.

There needs to be a hook.

Write a great melody.

Don’t repeat too much.

Disguise your effects processing.

Make it sound like music that is already out there.

Make it danceable.

Make the drums “punchy.”

Make sure everything is in tune.

There’s an achievable “pro sound.”

Make it relaxing and easy to listen to.

The groove needs to swing.

Presets are bad.

Less is more.

More is less.

You should like your own music.

The musical tastes of your audience matters.

Your audience cares about what you do.

Some sounds date more easily than others.

Software sounds worse than hardware.

Hardware sounds better than software.

Real music is music you make with others.

Music performed in real time sounds better than programmed/sequenced music.

Music production isn’t composing.

Musical structure is the only way to musical rigor.

A chord progression needs to progress.

Resonant Thoughts: Mark Fisher’s “K-Punk” (2018)


“If the Nineties were defined by the loop (the ‘good’ infinity of the seamlessly looped breakbeat, Goldie’s ‘Timeless’), then the twenty-first century is perhaps best captured in the ‘bad’ infinity of the animated GIF, with its stuttering, frustrated temporality, its eerie sense of being caught in a timetrap.

This frustrated, angular time–and the enjoyment of it–is at the heart of footwork. The genre can sound like an impenetrable thicket of rhythms if the thing you lock onto first is the most distinctive thing about footwork: the coiling spasms of super-dry snares. Lock into the floaty synth pads and the vocals, however, and footwork comes on as strangely mellow.”

Mark Fisher, K-Punk (2018)

Make It Exquisite

exquisite—beautiful, lovely, elegant, fine, magnificent, superb, well-crafted

Make it exquisite. This phrase pops up from time to time as an end-goal for whatever I’m working on, a reminder that the made thing should be as well-crafted as I can make it and have some kind of attractiveness (at least for me, and hopefully for you). In writing, there’s exquisite word choice, exquisite sentences or paragraphs, exquisite form, and exquisite conception. In music, there’s exquisite chords and melodies, and an exquisite sense of rhythm or pacing. The via negativa art of leaving material out of a work is another kind of making something exquisite. Even one’s workflow can be exquisite— like when an effortless moment turns into something significant.

I thought about the idea of exquisiteness recently while watching an electronic music instructional tutorial on YouTube. I watch these videos in part to prod myself towards technical stuff I don’t know, and in part to get a sense of what other musicians (apparently) like. The producer in this video was friendly, unabashedly geeky, self-deprecating, and skilled in knowing his way around his software. But about eight minutes into the sixteen minute tutorial I was convinced that he had no taste, and it was clear to me that without taste it was doubtful he would make anything exquisite-sounding. I couldn’t stand his music, but I kept watching as he lead us through numerous “cool features” and “cool tricks” of the software, showing us how they could be mobilized to make “cool sounds.” I thought about the limits of cool: cool only means something if it sounds exquisite, right? No one ever says that’s a nifty piece of music. They say that’s a beautiful piece of music. Nifty and beautiful inhabit different strata of accomplishment: nifty can mean skilled, while the beautiful is something aesthetically pleasing to the senses.

As I watched I thought about the interactions between the producer, his software, and his music. I could see and hear a connection between the parameters on the screen and his musical choices. He tweaked a knob and the sound changed: this cool feature allows me to create this sound. I wondered why he thought the sound was cool in the first place and wished he had talked about that more. How did he come by his knowing? Rather than chase after the exquisite, the producer seemed content to simply make a cool sound and let that be its own kind of accomplishment.

One general criticism of music instructional videos—and certainly ones about electronic music posted in the Wilds of YouTube—is that they propose shortcuts and quick-fixes to hack a creative process. With electronic music videos, the unstated assumption is that if one knows how to make enough cool sounds somehow these sounds will coalesce to produce exquisite music. But so far I have never heard exquisite music in these videos. Like musical instrument stores, the videos are far removed from wherever it is that exquisite music lives. It’s as if the producers are performing music production without producing its most valuable good. Whatever its relationship to technique, taste, style, or cool sounds, how to make exquisite music remains unexplained.  

Sounding Like A Pro


I run into versions of this phrase a lot as I coast over music websites and catalogs, surveying the gear. Ads for equipment and instruction promise that if you have this or that piece of pro gear or if you play this or that way you’ll be one step closer to sounding like a pro. Sounding like a pro–which is short for sounding like a professional–is the ultimate goal because it signifies that you’ve arrived at the rarefied altitude at which the pros work. Sounding like a pro means that people will admire what you do and you’ll make money from that transaction. And sounding like a pro means something because, well, not everyone gets to be a pro.

One way of considering a music pro is someone who can play things you can’t and never will be able to. He or she may also have access to techniques and repertoire that will be forever beyond your grasp for reasons physical, cognitive, and social. This means that, over time, a pro comes to inhabit a different world from that of you, the non-pro amateur. Pros make recordings that circulate on a mass scale, they are sought after as teachers of their craft, they concertize around the world, and they have public respect and admiring fans. A pro is also anyone who makes a living from their craft–regardless of whether or not they sound very pro. Yet another perspective is that pros care about their craft to an extreme degree while also being highly reliable. In music, this sense of caring and reliability lead pros to bestowing a lazer-like quality of attention on their work consistently over time, making particular compositional choices regarding how they use what they have and ignore what they don’t have, or how they decide what stays in and what doesn’t, and finally, understanding how their work relates to what is already out there in their field. All this to say that a pro has a perspective which, unlike a piece of “pro” gear, isn’t bought right now, but rather earned over time.

Timing Techniques: Listening Over People, Rhythmically Resisting, And Super Rhythm


There’s a spot in the show where I have a solo—a moment to set the time for everyone else. The conductor thinks he’s in charge, but no, he’s actually following me in my moment of laying it down, which is simultaneously my moment to test a hypotheses. The hypothesis is this: at some point in the next three minutes, the musicians around me will sway and drift timing-wise. My timing will move around too, but not as much. It used to move around quite a bit, but not anymore.

In the context of the my solo in the show, there are two tricks to keeping a steady timing. The first is listening over people. I’ll ignore an off-time sound in my foreground and move my attention to the background where there’s another musician more on-time (or with my time). I first wrote about this technique in my blog post Listening Over And From Afar, but it’s become even more vivid since then. Now I visualize my listening—like an easily thrown baseball arcing towards second base, or a sweetly struck seven iron cruising high before dropping softly on the green. When I listen over someone I listen to something else in the music to keep myself locked in. It’s the listening equivalent of throwing one’s ear from here to there, in a great trajectory. You could call it ventrilo-listening.

The second trick to keeping a steady timing is keying into the tempo of my hands so that I not only hear their time but acutely feel it. I suppose all drummers do that: drumming is a cadence, a rhythm of regularity, a study in steadiness. Ever watch the walk of a disturbed person as they move down the street? Their movement has no smoothness to it—it’s jerky, or oddly lurching, unstable and unmeasured. Their tempo is off. When my hands get into a flow they become like well-adjusted antennae, alert to any disturbances in the groove system. And as I said, at some point in the three minutes there will be a disturbance. 

Depending on the musicians playing on a particular night, the rhythmic disturbance may or may not be contagious. In my experience, novice musicians are more prone to being swayed, and when this happens the musical texture can quickly become unstable—a little like a disturbed person lurching down the street. I look forward to noticing the onset of this moment of instability, trying to track its dynamics while at the same time holding down my part. It reminds me of an exquisite line in Russell Hartenberger’s book about performing the music of Steve Reich. Hartenberger describes the feeling of being in the middle of a long rhythmic phasing section in which two drummed rhythms gradually go out of sync and create musical tension: “I sometimes stay in an irrational relationship for a while if I feel comfortable there” (97). At the show, the most common way a moment of instability plays out is that someone begins dragging the time and this causes other musicians to do the same. Maybe this happens because it’s natural for us to try to stay in sync with one another, as if to demonstrate our sense of empathy. My impulse is to immediately adjust myself to what I hear around me, but my experience with this repeating situation has changed me. Now I resist, sometimes quite forcibly. Like, I’m so over this.

It took me years to learn how to rhythmically resist and to know what this feels like. It can be hard going, because when you don’t go with someone else’s dragging time there’s an audible moment of rupture, where it becomes apparent that something is amiss. Through their playing, each musician is asking the same question and answering it: Whose time is the right time? Well, I think mine is! What is hard is maintaining one’s flow past the moment of rupture to the point that the other musician(s) wake up a bit to what is transpiring. Musical time is a constant negotiation that way, with each musician giving and taking, over and over again. Once you pass the moment of rupture—where two time senses are phasing by one another in the night—clarity follows: this is where the time is. It’s not perfect time, though. As I play, I listen to other musicians move in and out of my time, some of them more fluidly than others, and every movement around me affects my timing in small ways. Yet I keep insisting on my time, and by doing so give the other musicians something to push off of. Or maybe they’re not really listening. In any case, it works.

In contrast to rhythmically resisting and moments of rupture, there are, thankfully, occasional moments of super rhythm. Super rhythm happens when a musician is keyed into my time and all of a sudden our combined rhythm feels much more than the sum of our parts. There’s a genuine meta-groove interlock between us—our notes respond to one another and the time pushes and surges, almost rushing and always energized. Usually I start smiling when this happens, because it feels so easy to play under these conditions. I wish it happened more often.

Breakbeat Thinking


Back in the early 80s
the turntablists found the breakdowns
the funky bits where the band stops
and the rhythms keep running

soon the samplers were grabbing
hook-textures from old records
reinflating the past to pop it in the present

it was about finding the rhythm in things
the grooves of juxtaposition
a well-timed turnaround
an accidental counterpoint

now that computers are artists
samplers of culture
flotsam memes and GIFs
forwarded funny impermanent stuff

we find breakbeat thinking
still listening for the cycles of things
in wherever you aim it.

Resonant Thoughts: Kodwo Eshun On Listening


“Sometimes listening to music is more about listening to your own ways of listening, hearing your own ways of hearing. Wondering what you’re hearing. And sometimes you need time to do it, and that’s when the anxiety sets in. Everyone around you says that listening is time-wasting, but you have to remind yourself that listening is an active form of creating.”
Kodwo Eshun