I know some ways to work, but there are so many routes to get musical things done that each session is a re-thinking of how to work. (Begin anywhere Cage said.)
I began with marimba chord samples that I had recorded a few months back.
I played between 20 and 30 different chord rolls—plenty to make something out of later on, which is today!
I had hoped that one of the marimba chords would turn out to be so interesting that I could ignore all the others, but that didn’t work out, which is okay.
I narrowed down my choices to a handful of chords that sounded better than the rest and played the chords on the grid controller. The goal was to de-familiarize them and come up with a new sequence. Playing the chords by tapping the rubber pads, I left space after each one so that they could resonate within their own echoes. I recorded sequences that were odd lengths—not 4 or 8 bars, but 15 or 23 bars long. Why? I’m trying to surprise myself.
With these chord sequences as placeholders, I began trying out other parts.
What might “go” with them?
I have thousands of sounds that could potentially sound good with the marimba chords, but it rarely works out that way. Most of the time, very few sounds fit. In fact, on this project I have only found three or four sounds that fit.
An ongoing music production question I have is
Why is it so difficult to find sounds that fit?
Sometimes nothing fits, which is its own kind of helpful information.
The challenge with finding sounds that fit is that it takes a while to get to know both the sound I’m trying to fit to and the sounds that could potentially do the fitting.
I’m surprised that a sound that fits is not one with a similar timbre to the marimbas but rather one that contrasts by occupying a distinctly different frequency stratum of the mix.
This suggests a lesson: pay attention to contrast.
As I auditioned sounds I was simultaneously writing new parts that might work with them. Like the sequenced marimba chords, these new ideas are also placeholders—attempts at filling out the mix in a meaningful way.
(How you define a musically meaningful mix might differ from how I do. I like hearing a sense of space and being able to pinpoint everything that’s going on within that space.)
Even though they’re placeholders, I try to make these parts as complete as possible by performing them as well as I can, thereby giving me a decent chance of sequencing a part that can be used later on. Sometimes what was once a placeholder part becomes, with a bit of editing, a final part. The for now unattainable goal is to play everything only once and perfectly. That would be something, wouldn’t it?
You never know, so make the part excellent the first time.
While I’m trying new sounds and new parts, larger-scale forms are suggesting themselves. If a part is sounding good, I’ll keep playing it for a while. This playing can outline a possible new section that I’ll then have to fill in with other parts. It helps to be able to see everything I’m doing as a left-to-right sequence on the screen.
This suggests a lesson: the arrangement page is the musical score.
Everything I do in terms of part-making is potential scaffolding to hold up something else later on.
Accidents and errors are sprinkled through each aspect of the workflow—from sequencing the marimba chords, looking for contrasting sounds, recording placeholder parts, to noticing the emergence of larger-scale forms. Here are two examples:
I solo a part and like the sound of that, so I delete all the other sounds that were once around it. Musics don’t always have to be busy. Now the sound can shine on its own.
I accidentally drag the marimba sequence a few beats too far and now one of its chords is newly juxtaposed against another part. The accidental counterpoint sounds interesting so I’ll leave it (for now).
(Accidental counterpoint often sounds more interesting than my deliberate counterpoint. Why is this?)
Accidents and errors are welcome and I go with them if I like how they sound.
But in general, chance procedures aren’t the ideal way to develop the kind of music I like to listen to because I like the sound of intentionality.
One way to develop the music is to question it at each of its passing moments. I don’t mean question the music while making it! I mean question the music when I’m listening back to what I’ve done and thinking about how arrange it into a more cohesive and intentional whole.
The following questions come to mind as I listen:
Is this boring me? If so, why?
Is this repeating too much or not enough?
Is this part adding something?
Is this part getting in the way?
Why is this part even in here?
Is this part distracting from the main one?
Do I need a main part?
Is there even a main part?
What aspect of the part is irritating?
Are the details within this part sufficiently audible?
Is this effect drawing attention to itself rather than the effect it seeks to create?
Is static what you want for this section, or should it be changing?
Why is this music reminding me of (…)?
Is the tempo a bit off?
Is the percussion merely adding energy without helping the mood?
How else can I incorporate pulsation into the music?
Has the music become out of touch with its overall sense?
If only the end section sounds good, do you even need the beginning?
Could I start from the end?
Do I like this piece as it is? If not, why?
I know some ways to work, but what makes music production fascinating is the complexity of the possible interactions between a musician and the technologies/musical system at hand.
At any given moment, a sound can morph in infinite directions. Likewise, at any moment, my understanding of what the piece is can shift.
Am I engaging the production process in a way that is both systematic yet also open-ended and exciting?