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