I have an as yet unreachable goal in mind each time I sit down to produce music: I want to record each part by playing it once and so perfectly that it doesn’t require any further editing or manipulation. My goal is to approximate the kind of interpersonal telepathy and interaction a top flight ensemble of musicians might pull off under perfect performance conditions. It’s a ridiculous goal, because it’s unattainable and my performance skills are forever far from expert. So why do I persist?
The most effective “hack” I know of for making the kind of music I like to listen to is to find ways for it to capture what I call the maximum musicality with the minimum intervention (e.g. editing, quantizing, note-fixing, etc.). By musicality I mean a sense of a sound’s responding to the moment and the context in which it finds itself with fluidity, and the best way to do that is to play it. A hundred articles about how to “humanize” your beats omit the only surefire technique to achieve this: play them. But I can’t play them well, you’re thinking. My hands are unsteady. Well, this is another problem altogether. But it could also be an opportunity to do something new.
Maximum musicality does not mean some kind of technical perfection. It means a kind of maximum presence or life for the duration of a musical part’s sounding. There are many ways to achieve this, including, for instance, leaving well-calibrated space in a part. I have used this in some of my own beats to good effect: the more space I left between drum hits, the better my part sounded. In addition to leaving space, maximum musicality can sometimes involve making do with just a few pitches, or constraining a part to a narrow pitch register. When you’re playing a part, try to stay local and limit your field of search (as the entomologist Fredrik Sjoberg puts it). I try to apply these qualities of maximum musicality—technical imperfection, leaving space, and narrowing a field of musical searching—when I record a part. And to give myself the best chance of success I do one more thing as well: I play each part for a long time. There is something about in the intersection of repetition and elapsed time in music that always leads to new perceptual vistas. I’ll play a part for a while, repeating it, but also varying it in as many ways as seems appropriate to do, and the only goal is to extract the maximum from whatever it is I’m playing.
The other day I was recording some percussion sounds this way. I played along to the other parts in the music for a few minutes and then, as the other parts ran out, it was just me and their trails of resonance. I hadn’t listened like this in a while, and suddenly the little rubber pads on my controller felt like acoustic instruments: they were responding to my finger touch with what felt like an endless subtlety. I kept playing and playing, gradually getting quieter, and gradually removing beats from my pattern so that it disintegrated and faded away with the music. The sparser my drum pattern became the more melancholy it felt and I had to focus to keep the beats steady. Finally it was like I was making something that feels like music.
“Rhythm is the element in music that gives life to the work and holds it together.
It is the element of stability, the generator of form.”
– Edgard Varèse, The Liberation Of Sound
The figure of the shepherd came to mind recently as I was working on music. At first I pictured literally a shepherd—a guy in galoshes shepherding sheep in the countryside somewhere, gently prodding the furry fellows up and over hillsides. Let’s go guys! (Which reminds me of an excellent book about the subject, James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, a memoir about work steeped in tradition and connections to place.) Then I looked up the word to remember that a shepherd is not only someone who tends to sheep, but also refers to “a member of the clergy who provides spiritual care and guidance for a congregation.” Somewhere between those different images of the shepherd is how I think of musical shepherding.
What resonates with me is the idea of tending to, and guiding, a piece of music along its journey from an initial idea to a more comprehensive expression. At any given stage in the process of music production, it’s as if there are hundreds of sheep (sounds, parts, ideas, motifs, rhythms, chords, melodies, effects, my hopes) wandering somewhat aimlessly, in need of direction. There’s so many sheep that I can’t even see them all—surely some are already lost, getting into trouble over the hill, or have their heads stuck in a fence? It’s overwhelming and so the best starting place is a place of patience. The music needs my patience—it needs me to hear it out, it needs me to gently suggest ways to improve itself or carry on with confidence. Sometimes it needs to be told to settle down and get moving; other times it just needs assurance that everything will somehow work out. Like the herd of sheep, or maybe even the members of a congregation, the elements of the music are trying to self-organize and doing fairly well (considering the endless possibilities), but they need focus. As shepherd, my job is to intervene when necessary (and free that sheep’s head from the fence) by helping the music’s elements coalesce better, and also maintain a safe environment for this to happen. My general philosophy applies here: the music will thrive if it has a quiet and mostly undisturbed space in which to graze.
One final aspect of musical shepherding: I need to keep my impatience and all manner of other personal shortcomings from impinging on the music’s grazing. While the sheep might not know it, I have my own issues. For example, I’m impatient and I always want everything done today, but the music may need another four or five months yet. My impatience blinds me to tiny pockets of beauty, or brief flourishes of rhythm synchrony or accidental counterpoint that could be even better if I just gave the music more time and attention. Another shortcoming is that I want to know before I know—I want the music to be something that it may not be. Another: I want to hear the “good part” first without letting what comes before unfold into it. I’m trying to be a better shepherd because I think that the music will best find its expression when I get out of the way. Let’s go guys!
In the countryside, up and over hillsides somewhere, if the music’s elements were sheep they would be look up and think, Could you like, relax a bit? We’re good. It’s nice out today.
“Incarnated as a digital instrument…all your behavior can be redefined using a language of algorithms that can be written and rewritten to change your nature. Indeed you might not feel that you have a nature as such, as a new software upgrade might change your behavior so completely that it does not remind you of anything you’ve done before. You turn schizophrenic, polyfunctional, and metadimensional. The coupling between the user’s touch and what you output depends on the program applied at the particular moment, so you don’t really know your user’s touch. Unlike the acoustic instrument that knows its user very well, your user behaves differently every time you are played, and that is possibly because you direct the user in what is possible. What makes you really excited is when you are given the opportunity to learn about your user and establish a relationship. You memorize what has been played, you analyze their performance, and you can respond, suggest, adapt, reject, save, or tease as you like. This is where you find meaning in your existence.”
– Thor Magnusson,
Sonic Writing: technologies of material, symbolic & signal transcription (2019), p. 35.