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.  

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