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.    

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