Musical Failure

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failure – a lack or deficiency of a desirable quality

I’m listening through an almost finished piece, trying to get a sense of how the music moves. There’s a lot I like: the mix is clear (the music has only four parts), the effects and EQing are minimal, the tempo is unrushed, and some kind of building and falling structure is apparent. I won’t edit this piece to death, as it’s doing more than I thought it could ever do. I might even want to listen to this music—as I’ve been doing in test runs in various states of repose around the room (couch, floor, standing while looking out the window). But woven into the music’s working are a string of small failures which I don’t know how to fix, because they come from how I do things.   

When I’m working, I sometimes think about failure in the sense of all the things I could be doing but am not. Somehow, I came up short—again. There are many kinds of failure, but most relevant to music is failure of imagination and failure of execution. Failure of imagination includes failure of conception or not adequately thinking through and committing to a vision for the music, as well as not taking enough risks (however you want to define them). Failure of execution includes sloppy technique, unclear relationships among parts, and creating a form lacking a discernible logic. This breakdown of failure into its component parts sounds clinical, but it’s useful for thinking through any music. Consider: How many times has a piece been ruined for you because some aspect of it that was not adequately thought through? That’s a failure of both imagination and execution. Conversely, think of the delight you find when a musician goes to extreme lengths to carefully craft a performance and how enchanting it is to experience that. (I had that experience last year while listening to Jon Hopkins.) As I work on a piece, I try to make it fail less by making whatever I have incrementally more sensible and therefore more satisfying to hear.

A third type of failure relates to musical equipment. The techno-musical system of the computer and its software sets a high bar in terms of what I can do but am not doing with my materials. Here’s the thing: I’m never making full use of my system. I continually come up short in that at any moment of making a sound, there are thousands of potentially more interesting yet unsounded sounds I missed. I dig over in this corner while treasure lies just a few feet away. I listen to this but not that. Recently I spent an hour late one night going through sounds deep in the software. I found some gems (and saved them), but with each discovery I wondered what else I was missing from somewhere else. Music is endless in its offering routes for making it that will never be taken.    

The lesson from thinking about musical failure is to be clear about what we can and can’t control. One can improve (somewhat) one’s execution of technique, part relationships, and form. But other kinds of failure are simply facts of workflow to be aware of.

Composing By Playing

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I want to begin the piece carefully, by considering my options and plotting a sensible route. But I can’t design from the top down, only from the ground up, so I begin playing to hear where that takes me. Whenever you’re in doubt about what to do or how to proceed, just start playing. 

By playing I mute my sense of knowing ahead of time where I’ll go with the piece. 

By playing I listen to what I’m able to do now, instead of what I think I could do someday. 

By playing I can change course at any moment
if that sounds like a good direction to go in. 

By playing I can enact and refine my capacity for responsiveness,
for tuning in to what’s happening. 

Playing feels risky because my playing won’t be perfect, and my thinking won’t be airtight the way a printed score presents it. I’ll make mistakes, fudge notes, and head down dead ends. I’ll wish I had lingered longer on a tone, or passed by it more swiftly to get somewhere else to say what I really meant to say. Had I written a part that tells me where to go, I could have avoided these mistakes. But there is a flip side to playing without knowing where you’re going, which is conveying yourself to the listener. 

I’m not hiding behind theory, I’m audible in my practice. We’re in this together because you can hear my process bringing me imperfectly from one moment to the next. It’s not everyone’s music, but for me improvising always feels musical. 

Musical Mindsets

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When I think about strategies for composing music, I often think in terms of problem-solving within the process of doing whatever I’m doing. Most often it’s as simple as hearing what I don’t like, then trying out various solutions for fixing it. (Deleting notes is by far my favorite solution.) Other times it’s a little more complicated and the solution is not so clear, such as when I hear something I like but I’m not bowled over by it. Can the music be fixed, can it be saved? Or was it just a weak idea from the start? This kind of problem-solving can be a delicate practice, because I don’t want to act in haste. I want to be sensitive to an idea that may require nurturing and time. More and more these days, I simply save a project idea if it’s not immediately compelling me to develop it further right now. Let’s see how it sounds in a few weeks or a few months. Sometime time does fix things.

Problem-solving is effective for dealing with something you have already put together, but less useful for the moment just before you begin because there’s as yet no problem to solve except for your mindset. Mindset refers to an established set of attitudes held by someone—as in, Tom takes a problem-solving approach to music production. The specifics of these attitudes fascinate me and I recently took note of some of my own go-to mindsets when I’m working:

casual mind
focused mind
adventurous mind
curious mind
frustrated mind
confused mind
susceptible mind
associative mind
optimistic mind
humorous mind
excited mind
frantic mind
ruminative mind
empty mind

I usually begin a project not with optimism but with a frustrated and confused mindset. Not an ideal way to begin, I admit, but at least this mindset acknowledges how lost I feel regarding how to proceed. Then I get going with a cool chord or coherent sentence and I have something to build on. As I develop the project by trying out various things, connecting bits to make larger bits, my mindset becomes fluid, shifting from frustrated to curious and associative, and eventually, quite focused and excited. The focused and excited mindsets in turn lead to a sense of optimism that maybe this can work.

So I wonder: Where do our mindsets come from? And can we tweak them towards neutrality so we can get out of our own way?  

How Do You Listen To Music?

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How do you listen to music? Do you listen analytically, trying to dissect it into its component parts? Do you listen impressionistically, letting it roll over you like waves? Do you lock into the beat or sing along to the melody? What in the sounds draws you in and keeps you there? Is this where you want to be? If not, where do you want to be?

I approach a music by feel, at least at first. After just a few moments I have a sense of whether the sounds are moving me or not. I should but don’t give the music the benefit of the doubt—it needs to prove itself and make its case to me, swiftly and with conviction. The music must take a stance and weave its magic sooner rather than later or else there won’t be a later. When I listen I’m hoping to experience a sense of enchantment, wonder, magic, surprise, epiphany, connection, and insight. I’m an impatient listener, but if the music is interesting I’ll bring to it everything I’ve ever heard, marshaling my past listening to bear on the now. We’re in this shared present together and I want the music to work.

Once a music has proved its interestingness, it can get comfortable, make itself at home (free to open my fridge and have a snack, but don’t touch the Icelandic yogurt) and hang out with me. I’ll be re-listening to it from time to time, sitting down with its sounds and asking questions through my noticing. As I get to know the organization and contours of the music I’ll ask it to reflect on why it went here and not over there—how it came to be. Sometimes the music will be mum on the matter, and other times it will open up. “This seemed like the most sensible course” it might say. “I mean, one can only repeat something for so long. I had to change and evolve because I want to keep your attention.” I keep prodding: But did you know in advance you’d turn out like this? The music pauses, pondering the implications of my question and sensing that I want to know more than it’s designed to reveal. “Well no. A music never knows beforehand how it’ll go.”