From Obvious To More Subtle Music

Queens Sky

When the music is obvious it what’s it’s trying to do, I lose interest in it because I’m not pushed to try to figure it out or track its changes through a thicket of subtleties. This applies to stuff I listen to as well as my own productions. I spend more than half of my composing time transforming the music I already have into a more interesting, subtle, and less obvious sound. Whenever I can, I strive after this sound ideal in moments of improvisation, but that rarely works out. Or it works out, but only to a degree. One reassuring fact of music production is that anything can be dramatically improved upon if one has time to refine it. 

Here are three techniques then, for moving from obvious to more subtle-sounding music:

Remove material. The most efficient way to make almost anything better and more subtle is to remove part of it. Removing creates a space for other parts (e.g. for call and response), and also for the listener to insert herself into the music and wonder what will come next, and when. One problem with continuously-sounding material is that it fills all the space in the mix and thus makes it difficult to make subtle gestures. So: remove.  

Turn an abrupt change into a gradual one. Abrupt changes are dramatic, but they don’t allow the listener to participate in getting from one musical place to another and so don’t make substantial demands on our attention. Instead, it’s in their nature for abrupt changes to catch us off guard and fling the music in another direction without warning. Here and there this can be the right thing to do, but…not so fast! Take your time with transforming the music and its parts. For example, instead of drowning a sound in reverb from the get-go, you could slowly grow the reverb around the sound so that a halo of resonance only becomes apparent over time as you track the sounds from their beginnings to their ends to experience this subtle shift in space. Think about the proverbial watched pot that never boils. Have you ever tried watching one get to a rolling boil? If you stick with it for a few minutes and get over your own impatience (and your superstition that watched pots will never boil) you’ll notice yourself noticing little things—more bubbles, more water motion, more sound—that you never would have noticed had you walked into the kitchen when the water was already at a boil. So too can music be like a slow boil that draws your attention towards its processes, so embrace gradual changes.  

Tweak a single parameter so that it begins to sing its own line within the music. This idea builds upon turning abrupt changes into gradual ones. What I mean by a parameter singing its own line is this: think of every facet of the sounds you’re working with as changeable. In other words, it’s not simply voices and melodies that “sing.” A rhythm can sing too. Or a timbre. Or volume. Or panning. Or a sound’s ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release). Or the mix’s frequency spectrum. Or the timing of a delay. Or the Threshold of a compressor. And so on and on and on. Whether you’re removing material, turning abrupt changes into gradual ones, or tweaking single parameters, you’ll conjure enchantment by trying to make every part of the music sing.     

Searches That Brought You Here: Jason Mraz, Ray Hudson, Tricia Tunstall

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Jason Mraz why is he singing reggae. In a post on Mraz’s song, “I’m Yours” I write: 

“It’s easy to think of reggae music as ‘laid back’ due to its easy tempo, effortless groove, and sense of cool. Perhaps it’s this laid back cool that Mraz chose to gesture with in his hit song? In this sense, ‘I’m Yours’ can be read as submitting to reggae’s deep comforting reach, with or without really knowing–let alone engaging with–the extent of its struggles.” 

Ray Hudson techniques. If you haven’t watched La Liga soccer, you need to do so just to hear Ray Hudson’s verbal flow! In a post on Hudson I write: 

“Hudson plays the role of exuberant interrupter, riffing on the game like a preacher with a microphone driving himself to exhaustion, yet somehow willing his body to keep going because the game unfolding in front of us is simply that good, that magical.”

Notes on the piano lesson. In a post on Tricia Tunstall’s book, Note By Note, I write:

“Piano lessons, Tunstall says, are about (re)situating music as an autonomous practice–to save it from being merely a thing downloaded and listened to as a soundtrack for something else. Note By Note captures the piano lesson itself as a kind of autonomous practice. It’s a space to learn about the development and limits of skill, concentration, and the musicking body.” 

On Copying, Manipulating, and Pasting Musical Parts 

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One of the few rules of composing music I almost always adhere to is to play every single part myself in real-time. Based on the kind of music I like to listen to, I’m convinced—or I’ve convinced myself—that this approach produces the most reliably interesting results in the shortest amount of time. If I want variation, I can play it; if I want consistency, I can play it; if I want to take an abrupt left turn, I can play it. Or at least I try aiming for these things. I find that even when I fail—which is every time I play—I’m closer to a sound I find interesting than I would have been had I used a pre-fab sample or loop or other quantized bit of Lego-like musical building blocks. Playing the music into the computer when I could just mouse-click-program it into a semblance of a living musical thing now feels like one of my essential practices. Playing rather than programming it makes sense: it makes sense of the years I spent practicing and trying to reproduce all those cool sounds and phrases I heard on recordings and from my hands of my teachers. Most of all, playing the music keeps me on the cutting edge of myself. Aware of my technical limitations, I still try to nail the parts in a single take every time I sit down. The goal is to achieve, in one fluid gesture, a genuine sense of sonic surprise, so that when I re-listen I go, Wow—how did I come up with that? 

The one exception I make to my rule of playing every single part myself is that occasionally I copy a part, manipulate it in some way, and paste it somewhere else. I did this recently in a piece that has a bell-like sound that functions like a timeline that plays a repeating rhythm. (Think of the bell part in West African music or the clave part in salsa.) The timeline part was pitched to the key of the piece and I was curious to hear how it would sound if it were joined by a friend. I copied the part, which involved bouncing it down to an audio file which was then re-inserted into the piece. Next I transposed its pitch upwards, and offset it from the first timeline so it could be a kind of response to that initial part’s call. I repeated the process for a third timeline part (imagine salsa music with three clave players!) and fit this part in with the first two. The two copied timeline parts had the same little imperfections of the initial one (which I had played), but because of their alterations in pitch and time they sounded different—different enough to add something to the music.

For some of my readers, copying and manipulating and pasting one musical part to create a new one isn’t a big deal. In fact, entire electronic dance music idioms are assembled mainly using this technique. But as I get deeper into music production, I give myself license to ponder the implications of how I work and which ways of working work best. I keep an ever-lengthening “database” of everything I’ve tried while composing. If the technique makes the list, that means that it actually helped a piece forward in some way. And sometimes one’s notes leads to new ideas. When I made note of Copying, Manipulating, and Pasting musical parts something else occurred to me to try next time: Begin a piece with the timeline, and build it up from there. Here I was thinking that copying a part is an exception to my rule of always playing parts in real-time. But what if that’s not its main point? In trying it out this technique I could re-think how a piece can begin.