Musical Failure


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.

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