On Musical Shepherding 

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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.         

Resonant Thoughts: Thor Magnusson’s “Sonic Writing” (2019)

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“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.

On Musical Manipulation

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manipulate—handle or control typically in a skillful manner

If you zoom out far enough from the minutiae of music production, you see that the grand contours of your production moves are made up of unequal parts recording (audio, MIDI) and technology-assisted manipulation. As I practice it, recording is straightforward enough: at an acoustic instrument (yes I still play those) or using some kind of controller (keyboard- or pad-based) I play parts and record them. I might practice or rehearse ahead of time, or simply improvise on the spot, but I always play something and then record it. This typically takes place early on in the process, as I’m trying to flesh out a set of sounds, devise different sections of music, and most importantly, capture some exciting performances that surprise me or sound enchanting in some way. Even though I know I’m nowhere near finished, recording is an attempt to quickly render the shape of a finished piece. In an ideal world, I’d just play everything once and it would be perfect. But since I don’t live in such a world, recording is just step one. 

Once parts are recorded, the manipulation begins. Techniques of musical manipulation are probably endless, but the ones I turn to initially are super simple: turning the volume of a part up or down, muting a part, or deleting a part (or part thereof). Adjusting volume is the quickest way to hear if a part is working but isn’t in an appropriate dynamic relationship to the other parts, or else not working no matter what its dynamic relationship. Muting and deleting are similarly powerful because they allow you hear how a part sounds when it isn’t there (!) 

Once a piece is underway and parts have been committed to, techniques of manipulation blossom in response to the needs of the music. These techniques are endless, but there are some that I return to often: 

re-shaping
interrupting
modulating
warping
morphing
fading
amplifying
filtering
rhythmifying
reverbing
delaying
softening
sharpening
blending
compressing
expanding
inverting
reversing
mirroring
accelerating
tightening
loosening

When you approach your recorded music with these techniques of manipulation, fundamentally you’re aiming manipulate each part to the point where it lives a colorful life for the duration of the piece, dynamically interacting with everything around it. Manipulating the music is laborious, but rewards patient listening and re-listening to your experiments as you try out sounds and keep asking yourself, Is this helping the music become more itself/more resonant/more expressive?

What is interesting to me as I reflect on this list of techniques is how almost all of them are modeled on what an acoustic musician can pull off while performing on a single instrument in real time. In fact, one could make the case that skilled performers are music’s supreme manipulators, able to use their instruments to seamlessly control sounds so that the music seems to magically come alive.

Curating The Week: Distraction, Sublime Frequencies, Disco’s Influence

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An essay on digital distraction.

“The problem of concentration is recursive. Any strategy for sidestepping distraction calls for strategies on sidestepping distraction.” 

An article on Sublime Frequencies’ world music recordings.

“The label Sublime Frequencies…was initially a response to the reigning approach of ethnomusicology, which they perceived as prizing a kind of detached, academic expertise. Sublime Frequencies’ early releases reveled in zealous naïveté and randomness. Its CDs skirted legality—adherence to copyright would have made releasing many of the recordings, full of unknown performers, practically impossible.”

• A video essay on the influence of disco and the 12-inch single on pop music.

“Any music that’s made electronically and made with an experimental purpose—its beginnings, in many ways, is the 12-inch remix.” (Paul Morley)