Resonant Thought: Henri Lefebvre’s “Everyday Life in the Modern World” (1971) 

880999.jpg

“Does music express the secret nature of everyday life, or compensate, on the contrary, for its triviality and superficiality?…Music is nothing else but number and proportion (intervals, rhythm, timbres) and it is at the same time nothing else but lyricism, profusion and dream. It is all vitality, exuberance and sensuality and all analysis, precision and permanence; but only the greatest composers know how to reconcile the two facets.”

– Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World (1971), p. 20.

An Article On Creativity In Electronic Music Production

9780415789226.jpg

My article “Popular Music Production in Laptop Studios: Creative Workflows as Problem-Solving  Within Ableton Live” is available in Perspectives on Music Production: Producing Music (Routledge 2019).

The article takes a problem-solving approach to creativity by exploring electronic music production techniques within Ableton Live, one of the most influential and widely used DAW (digital audio workstation) software programs:

“The visual, conceptual, and sonic affordances of Live encourage workflows for manipulating sound as malleable material, while the software’s clips and scenes layout invites thinking about music as a modular structure…Creativity happens in action–in the moment-to-moment details of problem-solving as musicians choose this sound over that one by tinkering with timbres, beats, and form. Ableton Live’s design and capabilities usher its users across music production’s enchanted terrains by opening workflow possibilities whereby even the most unrelated sounds find ways to get along.”

The book is available here.

On Clearly Articulating 

IMG_2187

articulate—express an idea or feeling fluently or coherently
(from Latin articulare ‘divide into joints’)

Well-articulated music has amazing communicative power, and when I listen to other musicians play the first thing I notice is how it articulates (or not). For drummers and percussionists, it’s impossible to hide behind sloppy articulation because the sounds we make are for the most part sounds of quick attack and decay. This exposes us—revealing in an instant our time sense, our sound, and our phrasing. Sometimes you’ll hear a musician substituting volume for articulation and this is not a pleasant sound. A loud sound can be beautiful too, but only if it’s thoughtfully articulated and controlled. I once watched a percussionist lose his articulation because, it seemed to me, he was so enjoying cramming in an excess of (improvised) notes. I was enjoying watching him cram in those notes, but cringing at the sound. The musician’s quality of sound—his articulation—fell by the wayside as he chased after ever more filigreed patterns. As I listened I wished I could turn him down and hit a magic button to fix his articulation. 

I think about articulation often when I’m working on electronic music because I could be doing more to stay conscious of it and to refine it in my work. I frequently notice a re-occurring sloppy articulation situation: I’ve added supporting parts to a main one and these parts add a pleasing sound wash, but none of them are articulated enough. In other words, I can’t really tell what each one is doing from moment to moment. This isn’t a problem of timbral articulation (though I can certainly address that by adjusting say, EQ), but a problem of musical articulation. Instead of several articulated lines (melodies or chords), the parts make a single blob of sound. It sounds fine, but it could be better if each part were more coherent.

One way I do this is by breaking up the monotony of having every part always playing. A part can be muted here and there without necessarily interrupting the coherence of its line. Music perception is interesting that way: our ears compensate in subtle ways for what’s missing in the music, a fact which makes the music even more interesting. Along with muting, a part’s volume can be temporarily lowered or raised to background or foreground it. While adjusting volume like this is a bit laborious, the effect is powerful because it creates the sensation that the parts are listening to one another. It’s like if you and I were playing a duet and you step up to take a bit of a solo. If I were listening well, I’d immediately lower my dynamic so your soloing would shine even more. When you finished, we’d both meet in the dynamic middle somewhere and continue on.

When a part is muted or has its volume altered momentarily, this sets up conditions for creating a call and response between it and other elements in the music. I’ve written about call and response elsewhere, but what is most powerful about this ancient musical structure is how it creates articulation between multiple parts. As I said in another blog post, call and response gets “the music listening to itself at the various layers of its rhythmic action.”

Zooming out to a more global-structural view of a piece of music, one can think about articulation in terms of how well all of its parts combine to coherently express a feeling. No matter how the parts are arranged and edited, the goal is to sustain some kind of attention in the listener. One of the delights of electronic music production is that I’m constantly finding interesting things to listen to that I never anticipated encountering. For example, after I edited a part by bringing down its volume, all of a sudden a new composite sound in the music reveals itself. Here I was making one part more articulated and in that process something else in the music emerged. As my attention bounces all over the music’s surface, I wonder: How would another listener hear it? Maybe the most useful kind of articulation expresses a feeling without boxing it in, suggests a mood without defining it, and offers a mix of sensations without resolution?   

Tweaking A Beat

IMG_2294

The beat could be anything,
or something quite simple.

The beat was for nothing,
or for being interesting in itself,
for creating a mood.

I choose the kit at random
and found its kick and snare:

boom – – – kah – – boom – – boom – kah – – –

A generic a place to start,
a beat heard so many times,
in so many iterations,
that it feels like finger-tapping vernacular.

The computer loops my four bars and I listen.

The rhythm is generic
because it’s a classic design –
three kick hits and two snares,
with different spaces between them.

I listen to the four bars and wonder:
How would I change them
but keep the form intact?

The looped listening turns my ear
to the sounds and my wishing
for more difference.

The kick could be lower,
or softer,
the snare could be higher,
or louder.

But we don’t know what we want
until we hear it.

I tweak the onscreen knobs,
changing the parameters,
changing the sounds.

Playing the beat is one gesture
complete in itself,
tweaking its sound is another,
layering changes
upon the rhythm like a scrim.

Rewind the tape:
we don’t know where to go
when we begin a project,
but initial moves
set up what comes next.

I adjust the Delay
to hear what happens,
the beat multiplies,
quoting itself
in a stereo bounce.

I hear the layers of change—
the beat,
the pitch and timbre tweaks,
the bounce.
What else can be done
if there’s no end to the doing?

The beat could be anything,
or something quite simple.