“The power of art objects stems from the technical processes they objectively embody: the technology of enchantment is founded on the enchantment of technology. The enchantment of technology is the power that technical processes have of casting a spell over us so that we see the real world in an enchanted form.”

-Alfred Gell,
“The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology” (1992), p. 44

When I trained as a musician in university, I didn’t think much about my sound because I didn’t have one beyond trying to copy the tone of my teacher. I strove after his tone, as well as his touch. (I’m still working on both of those things.) In the many years since that time, I got into making music with the help of digital tools and came to understand that one’s sound is, to some degree, a function of the sounds one works with. This is why many musicians make a big deal about the particulars of the gear they use. There are hardcore devotees of analog synthesis, for instance, or modular hardware synthesizers, or the virtues of computer software that emulates all this, or abstract coding languages, and on and on. Many musicians feel strongly that it makes an audible difference whether one uses a vintage Moog or Nord Lead, and that the Roland TR-808 drum machine will never be replicated in its virtual forms. In electronic music, touch is configured a bit differently than it is in acoustic music making, because your touch is traveling through additional layers of electrified (analog or digital) mediation. Hence some musicians believe that certain vintage instruments sound more real than anything in the computer realm. 

But I don’t subscribe to this. As I‘ve learned more about some of the tools electronic musicians use, I let myself be guided by what my ear likes—by the sounds that I find enchanting. It doesn’t matter to me where these sounds come from, but because of practical and financial constraints, I’ve taken to music software and doing sound design “in the box” of the computer. The studio for me is my laptop. (But—if you want to ship me a grand piano, I will accept it.)

I spend some time each week going through sounds—either presets or ones I’ve made or modified myself—to hear what they can do. I’ll play a few chords and listen to how they sound. Of the many virtues of music software is its endless capacity for malleability, for shapeshifting. As I play a sound, I experiment with adding in different timbre layers, or swapping out one waveform or sample for another, or changing the ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) settings, or applying my own effects chain. My problem—if it is a problem, or maybe it’s a good thing?—is that I like so much of what I hear and can barely process one timbre variation before I’ve moved, out of curiosity and excitement, onto another. I’m wandering in a vast and unchartable land, making mental notes and picking up a few gems as I move along, but there’s much I can’t fathom. Unlike a piano keyboard where I can see all of the notes, I can never see all of music software’s terrain at once. 

In a music software review by Geary Yelton in emusician (October 21, 2015), I came across the term timbrebuilding which describes well what I do when I’m going through sounds. I’m searching for points upon which to build and timbrebuilding gets me thinking about how different sounds suggest different affective states and ways of feeling. I notice that I keep returning to particular timbres, as if the timbres are themselves kinds of instruments I’m getting to know. I modify and combine sounds, I alter them in tiny ways to make them feel more personal, I smooth or sharpen their edges, and I play with their waveform DNA to see how that changes anything or everything. As I explore and tinker, I think about how my music education both keeps me on track and maybe also prevents me from more fluidly using my remarkable software which would be even more remarkable if I could flow with it more. I hear through the fluff, but also miss quirky possibilities. I look for long form structures, but miss short-term pleasures. Is the software stiff, or is it me? I timbrebuild while wondering, Is all this mere surface gloss? But then something clicks with a sound and I’m enchanted again. 


Resonant Thoughts: Tristan Garcia’s “The Life Intense” (2018)


“I hear a piece of music, and out of nowhere I’m surprised by an unexpected change of tuning, key, or rhythm. This variation might shake my ear out of its unfeeling slumber, a numbness brought on by what were all-too-predictable changes in the music at hand. Now I get the feeling that the piece is being played and was composed by someone fed up with rigid bar structures, someone interested in and excited by alterations, breakdowns, and imbalances […] Practitioners of such forms think that having to reiterate music is like being trapped in a cage made of sound. They try to escape from repetition and use variation to chase after intensity. As in every ethics of variation, it’s all about adopting different ruses to pre-empt perception, playing with norms generated alongside the action of perception, and celebrating the creative character of life while struggling to keep everything from always coming back as the same thing. It is now indispensable never to be where you are expected, to refuse to play any note or chord that could reasonably follow from the preceding one, to adopt a view in opposition to the system, to take the road less travelled, to get off the beaten path, and to give the melodic line or the rhythmic pattern a little twist. And why? All of this is a way of making it known that what is intense in life is that which does not stay identical, that which eludes systematic re-identification, and that which is free to become what it is. Improvised music accomplishes an ethical act every time it changes in an unexpected way in order to avoid being predictable. What improvised music achieves in the order of harmony and rhythm is analogous to the decision that the intense person makes while always trying to vary, to reinvent herself, and to never get caught in the trap of a predetermined destiny.”

“I realize that change itself is precisely what never changes. We can only be certain of irregularity. It’s like hanging out with a hipster.”

Tristan Garcia, The Life Intense (2018), p. 103-104. [italics added]

On Being Fluid And Deliberate


A fair many years ago at one of my music lessons my teacher, Russell, suggested that I make my body movements more fluid, more deliberate. I was playing a multi-percussion piece for marimba and some tom-toms, moving from one instrument group to another, probably rather abruptly. Russell suggested making the tempo of my gestures match the tempo of the music. He spoke of how the time of the music continues even in the silences between sections as I move among the instruments. He also spoke of the concept of theatricality: it was a question of good optics intersecting with how I might conceptualize the music differently—more holistically—and bring more power to my playing. He demonstrated so I could see what he meant, moving from the drums off to one side over to the marimba in the middle in one fluid shift of body weight and focus. As I watched I noticed that he held my attention as much when he wasn’t making a sound as when he was. It was a kind of theater because there was something magical, or at least deeply intentional about it.

Sometime recently I noticed that I had begun playing differently. Maybe it started a few years ago, but I became conscious of it only a few months ago. I noticed that my gestures at my instruments were expanding, even though no one but me can see them. The tambourine roll had become a grand left to right arm arc as I traced the jingle-jangle with a calibrated shape. The marimba playing was more relaxed, more playful. The hand drumming was more economical and easy. What I noticed in particular was how I moved from the marimba to the drum behind me. After the last chord my hands came slowly upwards off the keys, as if my mallets were wands. At the same time I pivoted 180 degrees in slow-motion—slow enough to make use of the bars of rest—to face the drum and bring my hands down just in time to play.

All this was a little theatrical: as my gestures sought flourish I had finally heeded that long ago lesson to be more fluid and deliberate.

Prototyping And Bias Towards Action, Windows Of Freedom And Unexplored Possibilities


Just as I finish a project and send it off for mastering I start wondering what do next. I have a number of partly- and mostly-finished projects in the cue (usually about four), but this is a moment I could be working on new music—music whose trajectory is still completely uncertain because I haven’t begun. Doing something new may come to nothing, but it’s also a chance to do whatever, to re-confront my habitual ways of working and my sense that there are infinitely more things I’m not doing or that I’m missing than there are paths I might take. It’s a quandary: How do I break out of my habits to find things I wouldn’t otherwise find? How do I get to those places whose locations I don’t yet know?

I once read on Twitter an interview with a Silicon Valley tech guy—A programmer? An investor? I don’t remember—who said that when you’re unsure what to do, build a prototype. They do a lot of that in the tech world—prototyping beta versions of software, fixing bugs, introducing new features. Prototyping as a verb refers to the iterative development of artifacts (which can be digital, physical, or experiential) as a way to elicit qualitative or quantitative feedback. Notice the word iterative here, which comes from the Latin iterare which means “to repeat.” So repetition is key, but how does that apply to what non-tech people do? What it means is that you experiment with making many versions of the same thing. In other words, you turn your attention from finishing a single piece towards working up multiple iterations of a single idea. Prototyping experts say that the prototype itself is not necessarily valuable, but your learnings are, so bias towards action and get going. 

In my experience, building multiple prototypes has turned out to be quite valuable, while my learnings have been somewhat opaque. For example, many of my recordings took shape after a single piece struck me as having potential. Rather than dwell on the possible merits of the piece, I dove back in the next day and tried to replicate what I remember having done in it that worked. I followed one self-imposed ground rule: don’t listen to what you did yesterday. This put me in the position of having to somehow re-create the good feeling from yesterday’s piece today, but having only my memory of it to go on as I tried redoing what worked. Even though I was committing to failure, I tried my best to come up with something in the spirit of yesterday’s accidental triumph. If what I did sucked, that was okay too, because I could try again tomorrow. After a string of days working like this, the pressure to meet the initial challenge of replicating the merits of the first piece faded away as I got into the flow of just doing something. The important thing is that I had automated questions as to the basic form of the piece and the number and kinds of its sounds. My task was to play and respond to the situation I had set up for myself. It might come to nothing, but I’d worry about that possibility later.

The lesson? Creative work is failing without worrying about it.

Curating The Week: Informal Language, Artistry and Asceticism, Blogs


An article about writing.

“Informal language is the athletic clothing of ideas.”

An article about artistry and asceticism.

“If it is fact that a kind of excess often accompanies the making of art, then there’s another kind of excess — less cinematic, for sure — that seems closer to the point: Artists, even the hedonistic ones, are fundamentally, one might say excessively, ascetic.”

An article about blogs.

“As any serious blog consumer can attest, a carefully curated blog feed, covering niches that matter to your life, can provide substantially more value than the collectivist ping-ponging of likes and memes that make up so much of social media interaction.”

On Creative Strategies And Controlling Time 


“I think that controlling time is what leads you to success.”

-Rafael Nadal

I often think about how to work better, which means how to do more with less, and how to stretch my attentional dollar. Working better comes down to using time with more focus by having a creative objective for the moment. But this approach doesn’t come naturally to me. My default is to perpetually wander (which I like to think connects to a sense of wonder), so I work at having objectives. You could call it an experiment that I’m free to quit any time I wish. But I haven’t quit yet because the approach works. 

In an interview on Tennis Channel, Rafael Nadal spoke about what makes great players so great. In a memorable formulation, he says: “I think that controlling time is what leads you to success.” Nadal said that the greats have super fast reaction times, allowing them to assess and respond to a situation almost before it has transpired and make micro-adjustments on the fly. This observation reminded me that what tennis looks like from a viewer’s perspective is different from what it feels like for a master player. Great players shift their thinking into a more intuitive gear, a gear not so encumbered by conscious deliberation.

Outside of sport, controlling time is required to maintain a creative objective and there are numerous ways to do that. The first way it to allocate a tiny amount of time to a task. These blog posts are often written this way—as “warm ups” for more substantial writing that may never materialize. One advantage of using tiny bits of time in this way is that they’re easy to fill. Caught on a crowded subway car with eight stops to go? No problem—take out your phone and write some notes. A second way to control time is to allocate a single task to a given time span. I do this with improvising, or editing, and always limit the work to a single type: as much as I want to edit something I’ve just played or written, I’ll leave that for another session. A third way to control time is to take a few moments to consider how the work (the music, the writing, etc.) is affecting your sense of time. Is it taking you out of time? Is it returning you to an earlier time? Is it pointing towards future times? Does it seem impatient with time or luxuriate in it? I thought about these aspects of time recently while I was experimenting with delay-lay-lay-lay effects. I was delightfully caught off guard by how a few pitches can transform into a grand, liquid sound, and I was surprised by how this sound re-booted my sense of time: I just sat there, mesmerized, and for a while could think of nothing but the virtues of echo. Very seductive. All of the work we do has a relationship to time in the sense that it took us time to make it, and in the sense that it shapes how we feel time. In fact, one of the reasons why “great works” are great is that they deeply affect our sense of time. That’s why we call them “timeless”—they seem unaffected by, or outside of, time. 

Back to Nadal’s quote about controlling time. In addition to referring to players’ reaction times, he was saying that it’s important to control one’s focus, not get ahead (or behind) oneself, and stay in the moment. For me, working better is figuring out ways to use time to access different patterns of perception. Surely there’s more than one way to feel and inhabit this passing moment?   


How I Use Brett’s Sound Picks


My Spotify playlist, Brett’s Sound Picks 2018, is an ever-growing collection of favorite pieces of music from the past year. Once a week I comb through new releases in search of good stuff—and I keep finding it. The playlist now has almost 80 tracks.

I listen to it often to get ideas, pressing Shuffle to hear what comes up. The musics surprise me, in part because I don’t always remember a piece I added, and also because some the music is exceptional.

So, a suggestion: consider creating your own collection (of music, quotes, recipes) with enough items that you’ll find fresh juxtapositions when you press Shuffle.