Notes On Finding Real Musical Beginnings

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It was bothering me how so many of the pieces simply began with a marimba part theme—which really wasn’t a theme, but rather a place where, many months ago, I happened to have begun the music. The marimba themes were placeholders, not real beginnings, and it was bothering me that the pieces began without real beginnings. The music just sort of started, without much regard for the listener (me, and eventually, you).

As I sat there looking at the screen, a tad dejectedly, I thought about how an ongoing problem posed by producing music is figuring out new ways to hold my attention as the piece develops and I get to know its sounds better. I shouldn’t have felt dejected, because after all, it had only been a few minutes since I had decided to become bothered by the problem. And besides, feeling this way wouldn’t change my conviction that the piece’s opening sucks. The challenge was how to make a musical beginning that draws me in and convinces me of what will follow? I also realized that I had failed to make use of options for the music that were right in front of me. The problem is never that I don’t have enough musical materials. The problem is that I can’t pre-hear the potentials of the materials I have.

Not knowing how to get where I wanted to go, I began playing with my sounds. It’s easy to do this with digital audio software, because all of my parts are displayed (in the Arrangment page) as left to right sequences—like spools of colored cloth unfolding over the time of the music. As I play through the piece, I can hone in on a small section (say 2 beats, or 2 bars) and loop it so that all of the parts within that section of musical time repeat. Depending on where you loop the music, this can create pleasing breakbeat-type loops that highlight grooves otherwise hidden in the mix. But with rare exceptions, I don’t find this sound enchanting-sounding because most of the time its repeating seams are too audible. Besides, hip hop and disco DJs were doing this breakbeat isolating in the late 1970s using turntables, so the technique isn’t exactly making full use of my software’s recombinant potentials.

Things get more interesting when you juxtapose loops of different lengths, and this is what I did as I searched for a sound that sounded like a real beginning for the piece. I discovered that I liked the marimba theme better when I omitted its first chord and made an odd-length loop (7 bars) out of what was left. I then carved out a second odd-length loop from a second marimba part to provide counterpoint. Now I had something—a true accidental counterpoint something: the parts were familiar (since I had played them and chosen their initial sequence) but they were arranged differently now, and made a chord progression I never would have happened upon without my digital tools. Against these two parts was a bell part (it too truncated to a new length), a few long tones from a pad, a low bass tone, and also the resampled marimbas as a kind of rhythmic backdrop. I tried a few more parts as well, but they crowded the texture so I ditched that idea. (As Nassim Taleb reminds us, the beauty of making many small mistakes is that they don’t harm us yet are rich in information.)  

In sum, I solved several problems at once. First and most importantly, I improved my mood. I also found a way to re-cast what I already had into something new by creating loops of sections and juxtaposing looped parts of varying lengths against one another. (Terry Riley’s “In C” now comes to mind.) The more I experiment with such recombinant moves, the more I realize how much untapped energy lies in through-composed music. Last but certainly not least, I solved the problem of how to make what sounds like a real beginning for the music.    

Flowing Through Music’s Forward Flows

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1
Electronic music production is about forward flows.

Forward flows means that
the musical place where you began
is never where you’ll end up.

Forwards flows means that
whatever you do to the music
will cause it to spin headlong into the unknown,
away from what it was
towards what it might become.

The music is changing, and so are you.

2
You have some tried and true techniques, 

but the ever-changing music makes ever-new demands
for how to interact with it.

This means that no technique you’ve already used
remains tried and true.

(Sorry, but it’s true.) 

3
So you improvise.

Each day you listen to what you have
and respond by improvising
a way around,
a way out of,
and a way forward
from where you presently are.

4
The goal is move the music closer to a state of enchantment.

5
How do you respond by improvising,
and how do you know where to go? 

You move in the direction of your attention.

6
You attend to something—anything—in the music that’s calling out
for a closer listen,
a repeated listen,
a more critical or sympathetic listen.

Wait, what was that sound?
Is that what I want? 

7
This musical something could be beautiful or problematic,
almost unnoticed or super annoying. 

It could be a single note or a long phrase. 

It could be the music’s beginning, end, or middle. 

It could even be what’s not yet sounding in the music. 

The specifics don’t matter. 

What matters is that you’ve noticed something
and are now noticing
yourself noticing.

You’ve begun!

8
You work with the thing you’ve noticed. 

You play with it—

turning it up or down,
moving from here to there,
muting it, morphing or effecting it,
simplifying or complexifying it,
 truncating, stretching, or looping it. 

This play is the work
and your producing a game
of creating balances
among everything you notice in the music.

One more time lest we forget:
producing is a game.

9
As the sound of thing you’re playing with changes,
so too do the sounds around it—

changing one thing affects everything else in the mix.

Now something else jumps out at you:

 Listen to me! I’m over here!
it seems to say.

So you shift your attention over there
to see what you can do,

by adjusting,
adjusting,
and adjusting.

10
Now you have two or more musical things as your focus.

It’s as if they’re in dialog with one another,
reminding you of the music’s bigger picture:

balance.

11
When you return the next day
you hear the changes you made, 

to the two or twenty things in the music
that had jumped out at you. 

Now you hear them in new relationships to one another
and to the music as a whole.

Incrementally, the music is becoming more interesting,

slowly moving towards enchantment.

What had been background things
are now foregrounded in your attention,
and today you build again
on this newfound awareness.

12
You’re improvising a way forward
from where you presently are:

built one step at a time upon your noticing,
the music is becoming

a more accurate reflection
of what you would like to hear

if there were no limit
to how well you can listen.