Frames Of Attention: Deciding On Musical Materials

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One of the primary tasks involved in building a piece of music or a piece of writing is figuring out as early as possible in the process what materials you’re working with. Our process won’t reveal itself until we’re further along it, so there’s so sense worrying about that until we get there. But our materials we can decide upon now, even if that deciding feels arbitrary because, at least in the case of electronic music production, what constitutes one’s materials is perpetually in flux and potentially has no end. I can decide, for instance, that my piece will use at maximum one or two tracks of percussion. I can also decide on the (initial) sound sets for those tracks. My rationale is that two tracks of particular sounds afford me exponentially more options than one track does (especially in terms of polyrhythm and timbral call and response), but that any more than two tracks will be overkill. Am I missing out by not adding more tracks and more sounds? Maybe. But I gain a sense of clarity from having chosen to make do with just one or two tracks. I feel this clarity as I get to work figuring out what I might do with my chosen palette of percussion.

As I get further along the process of recording parts with my decided upon two tracks, the limitations I’ve set for myself come in handy. Now I have a super narrow frame for attention: each track of percussion has only three or four sounds, thus I only have 6-8 different sounds total for accomplishing whatever I’m trying to do. Though it’s difficult to capture in words, the moment of confronting a super narrow set of options feels like a crux of composing insofar as in that instant I have to decide how to make do with what I have. Conditions aren’t ideal, so I invent a way forward despite them. In sum, improvising with, and adapting to, the moment happen because I decided beforehand on the materials that set the conditions for creativity.

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