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.