Attention is like clicking on something
to select and focus on it
but thinking is a click and hold
to go one step deeper
and then a menu appears
of things you can do,
choices you have,
more options for action.
“‘Silence…stands outside the world of profit and utility,’ wrote Max Picard. ‘It cannot be exploited for profit, you cannot get anything out of it.’ Its relationship to time is far more complex than the simple march of hours allows, and is perhaps, in the end, best likened to fruitfulness. ‘It is not so much the equal measure of the hours, which is the same in every day, which connects one day with another,’ remarked Picard, ‘but the equal measure of the silence with which each day is newly born.’ Silence ‘does not develop or increase in time, but time increases in silence. It is as though time had been sown into silence, as though silence had absorbed it; as though silence were the soil in which time grows to fullness.’”
– Jane Brox, Silence (2019), p. 98.
As I sound dive, searching for sounds I can play, I’m faced with a related puzzle:
What kind of music does this sound suggest?
Finding a playable sound is a good start, but also a potential rut, because a playable sound is often a sound that leads me in a familiar direction, as I play things just as I have always played them. Sometimes, though, a sound suggests a different way of playing. For example, it has happened many times that I hear something interesting and notice that what I’m doing to trigger the sound: the sound dictates a new approach. The sound may not require a triad or a cadence; it may simply ask for a single pitch upon which to soar.
In his book Principles, Ray Dalio speaks of what he calls radical open-mindedness as a way to enhance the feedback loop between making decisions, seeing their outcomes, and improving our understanding of reality (p. 136). Dalio’s concept is useful to keep in mind when going through sounds insofar as my listening indicates how close-minded I can be regarding what I think I like and why. Evidence for my close-mindedness is everywhere: I come up short in imagining a context for a sound I would never have thought of using. I dismiss sounds with a cursory I don’t like that or that’s not my sound. I pass over sounds because they’re too abrasive or too one-dimensional, or too lush and layered. Each time I’m close-minded in this way I miss opportunities to add to my vocabulary of useable sounds and combine them into new juxtapositions.
Can I become more open-minded and accept sounds for who they are?
“When software behavior is mysterious, get more organized.”
– Ken Kocienda, Creative Selection (2018)
As a seeker of books about the pragmatics of the creative process, I’m always looking for ways to re-think through making music. I’ve learned from chefs (Ferran Adria), high wire artists (Philippe Petit), filmmakers (David Lynch), architects (Kyna Leski), musicians (Dennis DeSantis), art critics (John Berger), animators (Ed Catmull), inventors (James Dyson), and mathematicians (Nassim Taleb), to name a few. I’ve written about the books of many of these people on brettworks, and I continue to return to their writing because questions of invention and how ideas are ushered to life are fascinating.
With these readings in mind, Ken Kocienda’s Creative Selection is an enthralling addition to the literature on creativity. The book is an inside look at the design process at Apple where Kocienda worked for many years as a programmer—his tenure at the company overlapped with the release of its Safari web browser in 2006 and the first iPhone in 2007. As a member of Apple’s elite and secretive “Purple” design team which developed the iPhone, Kocienda was the main architect of the phone’s touch keyboard and its auto-correct feature. Creative Selection reveals the many layers of decision-making that shaped these and other technological innovations at Apple, whose products creates the sensation that “magic was in the overall effect” (26). In essence, Kocienda has written a field manual for understanding the processes of design and coding as endless refinements of small details towards an end-goal of seamless functioning.
Kocienda and his colleagues evolved an iterative working method which the author refers to as creative selection. The method revolves around making many, many demo versions of software and hardware so that team members can try it out, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and give feedback for improvement. The demo practice always involves four steps:
make a demo,
make changes based on feedback
(often diverging some aspect of the product in the process),
and then make another demo.
“Start approximating your end goal as soon as possible” advises Kocienda. “Maximize the impact of your most difficult effort. Combine inspiration, decisiveness, and craft to make demos” (66).
Creative Selection is a treasure trove of stories about how a programmer at Apple works, illuminating the “long chain linking inspiration to proposal to plan to process to product” (112). Kocienda lets us watch over his shoulder as he recounts developing the code for the iPhone’s touch keyboard and its auto-correct. While typing on glass-faced smartphones seems normal now, in 2007 it was untested. We learn how the virtual keyboard design was the result of numerous rounds of demos in which the Purple team members auditioned various designs and then tried them out on dummy iPhones tethered to computers. What is interesting here is how every design and coding decision was informed by the results of demo sessions. In other words, decisions were always attempted solutions to a perceived problem. The Purple team never worked in the abstract, preferring to use mock-ups—“literally, we had to demonstrate our idea” (128)—that functioned in one way or another. Kocienda speaks of using “vision to spur the actions that create the results” by “closing the gap between the accidental and intentional, to achieve not just a something or even an everything but a specific and well-chosen thing” (112).
What excited me most about Creative Selection is how, page after page, the book inspired a re-thinking of the creative process, and of course, I thought about how Kocienda’s concepts might be relevant to composing music. Kocienda shows the endless problem-solving that programming entails to devise “the algorithmic task” (203) to make software do what you want it to— seemingly effortlessly. (As I typed those last two words, my iPhone auto-correct jumped to life, fixing my spelling on the fly. Ha!) Kocienda describes the lengths he went to in figuring out how to make this touch magic happen. The main tasks were deciding on the size and layout of the keyboard, how it would respond to typing, and the coding necessary to make that work. “I had to constantly ask myself whether what seemed like a good solution to me was actually a good solution. I didn’t know. Typing on a small sheet of glass was new” (160).
With regards to auto-correct, this functionality would depend on how iPhone users type. Kocienda “imagined what a series of keyboard touches to type a word would look like as a picture, a geometrical pattern, a key-tap constellation“ (202). With the shapes of these patterns in mind, he envisioned “a process of building a pattern from the user’s taps and searching the dictionary for the closest-matching pattern from the ideal set (202). The coding or algorithmic task “became finding the keyboarding constellation that looked most similar to the one a superhuman typist would type” (203). With this brilliant solution (illustrated with helpful sketches of the iPhone’s screen), Kocienda narrates his move from the conceptual to the practical. “On a conceptual level, it was about designing the keyboard as a means for people to communicate their intent to the device and structuring the software so it could understand that intent (174). On a practical level, programming for an “excellent user experience was as much about preventing negative experiences as facilitating positive ones (167).
Creative Solutions has plenty of stories like this that get you thinking about the iterative nature of the design process. Within these stories are useful lessons for thinking about creativity in other domains of practice. Here are some of the lessons:
First, make demos—lots of demos. Demos are where you try things out to see if and how they work.
Second, get feedback. Every creative choice should have a reason for being and bring you closer to a desired outcome. “Persist too long in making choices without justifying them” says Kocienda, “and an entire creative effort might wander aimlessly. The results might be the sum of wishy-washy half decisions (184).
Third, the creative process happens in small steps, each of which helps a project evolve into a better working version of itself. “We improved our demos in incremental steps. We evolved our work by slowly converging on better versions of the vision” (221).
Fourth, these incremental steps involve tuning and optimizing (206) details of a product so that it works as well as it can. “No detail is too small” Kocienda says (249). He describes many examples of the programmer’s work, such as:
“rewriting source code to improve the programming instructions, fixing compiler error messages, rebuilding the code, running the program or app, debugging, and then going back to the source code, to make edits and repeat the process over and over again” (74).
Finally, consistent tuning and optimizing eventually coalesce into working solutions. In my favorite sentence in the book, Kocienda sums up the mechanics of these solutions. “The best solutions” he says, “were an accumulation of small decisions carefully weighed against each other as we sought to tame the complexity of so many compounding overlapping factors” (244).
In sum, Kocienda writes with great clarity and humanity and his book is a deeply compelling and accessible adventure that brings the reader not only into the world of Apple, but equally into the thinking of a programmer grappling with coding solutions to complex problems of human-machine interaction. There is a lot of thought-provoking material in these pages about the systemic nature of creativity as a process of problem-solving practiced by technologists, and no matter what your metier, the concepts in Creative Selection have utility far beyond computing.
“Rhythm is the most perceptible and the least material thing.”
– Leopold Sedar Senghor (quoted in John Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility).
I find making electronic beats difficult, which is strange because I have the dexterity to play them on a controller, and at least in theory, I know what makes a good one. But recently I made a beat which, as of this morning, still sounds half decent. Let’s take a look why.
What makes making beats difficult is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong because a beat involves numerous qualities interacting. First and foremost, a beat is construction in time. A beat has a tempo (which can be just right or not), it makes musical time manifest, and it conjures a flow with a feel–a moving energy out of its relations. A metronome click is a kind of beat, though not a very interesting one. A jazz drummer keeping time on the ride cymbal is another kind of beat. The EDM four-on-the-floor is yet another. As a construction in time, the most apparent quality of a beat is its timing. Is it steady? Does it push forward or drag? Does it sound human- or machine-like? (Or both?) It’s difficult to play a beat that feels steady yet flexible. In the same way we stretch our limbs to lengthen our muscles and keep them supple, a beat ideally exercises a built-in sense of mobility.
A second quality of a beat is that it usually comprises several different sounds in tension with and in opposition to one another. The most common sounds in popular music are bass drum (low pitch), snare drum (high pitch), and hi hat cymbals (even higher pitched). The relationship between low and high sounds is often call and response-like, in that these sounds alternate in a kind of complementary dialog. The sounds of hi hats or other percussion (hand drums, claves) often function as a steady timeline that provides a backdrop for the bass drum-snare dialog. Other drumming cultures show similar pitched concepts in play: the tabla drummer in Indian music plays high-pitched strokes in his right hand, while his left plays bass tones on a second drum (the bayan); djembe hand drummers in West Africa are joined by the lower-pitched djun-djun drummers who provide bass tone counterpoint to their treble solos. And so on.
The mistake I make when I try to make a beat is that I do too much. I’ll persist in doing too much for a few minutes, fully realizing that what I’m doing sucks. But I give myself permission to make ugly sounds. At some point, I focus and realize that all I need is a bare minimum of sounds. This is what I did recently when I made a beat that was half decent: the beat didn’t need anything besides a bass drum and a cross stick (the rim of a snare drum). I recorded the pattern I had been playing for a few minutes. So far so good. But as I listened to playback, the pattern was still busy: there was a bass drum hit after the snare serving no purpose. The bass drum hit was preventing me from experiencing the beat in a way that I wanted to but couldn’t. So I went through the 16 bars and deleted the extra bass drum hits. A little better.
A third quality of a beat is its sounds. One thing even the most amateur of amateur electronic musicians have no shortage of is sounds. There are thousands of drum sounds on my laptop and most of them I’ve never met. Occasionally I encounter one in passing (e.g. I’m auditioning a kit while sound diving) and can’t believe what I’ve been missing. There are mellow drum sounds and aggressive ones, sounds that are overly genre-marked (e.g. hip hop sounds, dubstep sounds, etc.), retro and cutting edge sounds, sounds of vintage drum machines, and slick recreations of acoustic kits. One of my production problems is that I kind of love them all because there could be a perfect context for them out there somewhere, though maybe not in my music. My problem is that I’ll never get to know all these sounds, and even the ones I get to know I may not find the ideal use for. So when I’m listening to a sound I try to figure out what I like about it, and also how to remember how to find it again. It helps to save things as “Favorites” but that list is growing quite large–soon everything will be a favorite. At the moment, my working framework is that I go by gut reaction to a drum sound’s timbre. Sounds have built-in affect and if you listen to them closely, they suggest a mood in which to work.
A fourth quality of a beat is its receptiveness to effects processing. By effects I mean something as simple as EQing the beat to make it feel different. But it doesn’t stop there. Reverb can add space, delays can add motion, filters can add groove, and so on. You can also combine effects to make effects chains which seem to have no end. Where does one stop with effects? My strategy is to do the least possible to create an effect that is apparent.
Finally, and this is something I’ve been mulling over: a beat is like an idea that can be developed. In music, the default for most producers is to simply repeat the beat. This ensures that at the very least you have a rhythm that you can rely on because it continues unchanged for a while. You can stop thinking about it. But there are other and possibly more interesting ways to develop a beat so that it grows or evolves or disintegrates over time. As I was making my half decent beat I realized, while looking at the screen, that I had a few phrases in front of me that I could play with. I could play parts of the phrase or the entire phrase; patterns could be reversed or inverted, played double time or half time; even individual notes could undergo changes. Considering these possible alterations seeded an idea: there is so much more I can still do, but maybe what I have is already enough.
When I studied music in university, my percussion lessons frequently touched on the topic of phrasing. My teacher would listen to me play through a piece and then suggest ways to improve its rendition. Most of the time, this involved considering alternate ways to play a passage, which I needed because I was so concerned with getting through a piece that I hadn’t spent much time thinking through it. Sometimes we worked on patterns of hand alternation called sticking patterns. An example from rudimentary drumming is a sticking pattern called the paradiddle. To illustrate the feel of playing a paradiddle, tap four equally spaced taps with one hand, and then the other: RRRR, LLLL. Next, tap four alternating taps: RLRL RLRL. Now tap with the paradiddle sticking: RLRR LRLL. The paradiddle sticking feels different from the RRRR and RLRL stickings and this difference is slightly audible—sometimes only subliminally felt—in the sound of the tapping. For the percussionist, there are other ways to alter phrasing besides sticking. You can tactically use dynamics, shaping a passage from soft to loud or loud to soft. You can micro-accelerate or micro-decelerate the tempo to alter the excitement level. Or you can coax contrasting timbres from your instrument by striking it in different ways. Techniques of sticking, dynamics, tempo, and timbre help make what are often sharp-attack, briefly sustained, and indefinitely pitched percussion instruments sound more dynamic.
I thought about my percussion lessons in phrasing recently while I was editing music. (Musical editing comes up regularly on this blog. See for instance my posts Editing for Articulation and The Editing Mindset and Editing Music While Listening And Looking At It.) I listened while looking at the MIDI notes, trying to make sense of what the melody line wanted to do. A representation of a performance in MIDI is a goldmine of information in that it displays the shapes and contours of the melody’s rise and fall, and below that graphic, the velocity (volume) for each note. As I listened to the music while looking at it, I noticed something: notes almost always get louder as I phrase a melody from a lower register to a higher one, and softer when the melody descends.
I phrase higher pitches as though they are inherently more energized than lower ones, hence deserving of a louder dynamic—more oomph. It’s as though moving to a higher register is taking a scalar journey to arrive at an important destination: let’s-go-up-the-scale-un-til-HERE! But there were a few places where my playing became softer as I moved higher, and usually something about this loud to soft dynamic shift didn’t sound right. Had that been my intention—to go for a gentle upwards gesture? As an experiment, I changed the velocities on a rising three-note, low to high phrase so that it became louder, not softer. It made a big difference: now it sounded better because it sounded more sensible. I was surprised by how this dynamic reversal could impact what the music was trying to say. It was as if sound and gesture had been brought into alignment.
From this I learned three lessons:
Phrasing conveys micro-information inherent in the rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and timbres of the music.
Phrasing is a perceptual tool that slings our attention around the music’s various depth layers.
Phrasing is music’s subliminal messenger.
Watch some tennis and consider working.
I’m still watching tennis.
I open up the music file, listen for five seconds, and realize it isn’t happening—
the beat is plodding
(my enthusiasm is low).
I consider going back to watching tennis.
(Are mornings even optimal for making music?)
Almost anything could improve the piece, but what?
I should just try something, anything.
Anything but doing nothing.
Just for kicks, I compress the beat to make it double time—
it sounds better
(enthusiasm is rising).
I recorded the original beat live but now it’s superhuman (mistakes and all).
The beat sound like compressed energy.
Its variations come at faster rate and it’s more interesting now.
I forget about tennis.
I work on the piece and its new double time beat
(enthusiasm is high).
A double time part creates space in the others
because musical relationships are always contextual—
something fast makes something else seem slow by comparison.
I play a new bass to go with the beat—
the skittering drum hits pushing my fingers to play fast.
(Incorporate the bass variations now—you can’t add them later.
The bass could be one continual variation.)
I fiddle with the drum sounds (getting to know this sampler):
there’s too much mid- rather than high-range frequencies (easily tweaked).
A “full sound” is a mix that at minimum includes
crisp highs and rich lows.
What happens in the middle is tricky though.
I pan various percussion elements.
(Is over-panning a thing?)
I remove annoying drum hits—annoying because they’re predictable.
My ideal drummer or beat is reliable without being predictable.
I consider quantizing parts, but why destroy the music’s imperfections?
My mistakes lead me to new places.
Am I confident enough to share them?
Energy beginning to diminish, but the piece is still sounding better.
I grab a tangerine and then get sidetracked trying to peel it with grace.
At least make the music’s opening clear:
just one sound (marimba) and the double-time beat.
The other sounds have yet to convince me that they belong:
they’re nice individually, but in the mix, greedy.
Ironically, after all this beat-tweaking my favorite part is the end
where the beat runs out.
The beat ran out because in making it double time I cut its length by half.
I could cut and paste it to make it longer, but that’s a no.
The end is where the music takes a turn.
I’m trying to remember how this happened.
I think the turn was triggered by a second marimba part
that I had transposed into new chords.
I played along to that new part
not knowing what those new chords were,
but trusting that they had a relationship to the original.
Now, in the space left by the double time beat that has run out,
that relationship between the chords is getting clearer.
I want to remember
that the music’s taking a turn at the end
happened through a series of steps
which created a divergence
from the piece’s initial gesture.
Remember the concept of divergence—
it’s what brings a curve to music.
I save the file and thoughts of tennis re-appear.
I think I’m done.