On Being Comprehensive (And Coming Up Short)

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One evening I was going through sounds on the computer, listening through effects, trying out combinations, and realizing how faint a grasp I had on the production process. I was both excited and frustrated as I felt my way through a sonic darkness. At the end of the session I scribbled a single phrase in a notebook: 

how to be comprehensive 

a phrase which maybe should have included a question mark. 

I sometimes write notes like that in the middle of, or just after, a session as a way of gauging if I’m still thinking clearly or whether I’ve gone off some subjective deep end. Keeping track of one’s inevitable oscillations between mental clarity and delusion is important, if only because it happens so often. For me, just listening to music sends my mind in many directions at once. This is why I always listen to what I’ve worked on the next morning to hear if it still sounds coherent. Writing notes is a way to keep untangling the roots of my excitement. Sometimes these notes become blog posts, which further help me learn (and share) something from the process.

To be comprehensive means to include all the elements or aspects of something, and in writing down that word I was expressing a sense that my methods are everything but comprehensive. I’ll never master my material or learn all the potentials of my tools. But when I’m in the middle of something good—a constellation of sounds that sound genuinely new (that is, less like me than other stuff I’ve worked on)—I have a fleeting sense that maybe I can figure all this out if only I learn how to work better and how to do things more systematically. But musical situations are rarely systematic, right? The ones that resonant the deepest seem to just happen, and suddenly you find yourself inside one, reacting. When you’re really in it, it feels like your life is being continually interrupted from what you thought you wanted to do.

As I was going through sounds my plan was to just listen and evaluate, maybe tweak, and maybe save something here or there. Sort of like deciding to just take a walk down a path in the woods. But then I heard something interesting, forgot my plan, and started playing. I liked how the sound was responding and how I had found a suitable part for the sound—as if the sound and my hands were talking to one another. Back to the walking through the forest analogy. I went off the path, climbed up a tree, and took in a grand view. So much for plans. 

Playing with the sound led me to quickly try to compose with it. Testing the musicality of the sound became seeing if I could come up with something using the sound that I would like to listen to. With this goal in mind, suddenly the stakes felt high and my time limited. I had forgotten about just going through sounds/talking a walk down a forest path. Just as you see a lot more from up in the trees, new vistas open when you compose around a sound’s inherent qualities, and it’s best to work fast. 

I kept at it for a while, finally recording what I did so I could go back later and…Maybe I won’t fix it. Maybe this will be the piece. I’ll refine it, but I won’t fix it. I’ll take more walks, but that view from up in the trees might have been a one-time experience.

It may sound as if I’m advocating for straying from a self-imposed path, but I’m not. For me, finding an interesting sound and then immediately working with it is an outlier case. Most of the time I don’t encounter inspiration that way and most of the time I don’t stray from my plan either. Instead, I slowly accumulate material of one kind of another. These accumulations can be tiny things—like a set of sounds, or realizing that my favorite timbres often lack high frequencies, or that a melody that sounds obvious on a piano sounds intriguing on another instrument. As these tiny accumulations accumulate a sense of inspiration begins to materialize. 

Returning to the idea of how to be comprehensive, I have a few thoughts. It requires being patient, recognizing the power of gradual accumulation (of ideas, your understanding, techniques, sounds, etc.), and being open to trying things just to hear what happens. Wanting to be comprehensive in creative work is a powerful impulse, but the reality is that any single project is always more a partial expression than a complete statement. You’re going to come up short, but that’s okay. You could be doing more, but one makes do with what one has, here and right now.  

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