Notes On Anti-Automated Music


“The higher the creativity component of a profession,
the more likely it is to have disconnected inputs and outputs.”
– Naval Ravikant

No one, especially me, wants to listen to automated music—music, acoustic or electronic, that’s on auto-pilot, that just unfolds without responding to its environment or to the subtleties of its own exigencies. (I also don’t want to listen to a musician playing a memorized piece.) No one wants to listen to automated music because it doesn’t make very compelling perceptual demands on us. (Which is the main reason Muzak sucks.) Instead, we want anti-automated music—music which, no matter what its style or instrumentation (or popularity), resounds with some kind of thoughtfulness. Music that makes us tilt our head and go, Wait, what? 

In music production, getting some kind of thoughtfulness into the music so that it avoids automation is simple in theory, yet involved in practice. The task is figuring out ways to translate your sensibility, taste, and decision-making into audible musical details. To do this you need to devise a repertoire of techniques for shaping all aspects of the music according to your exacting standards and predilections. I think about it as being your own virtual band where you get to play all the parts simultaneously, plus you’re also the sound engineer and the audience too, listening on. In short, you’re an omnimusician. No detail is too large or small to escape your attention because you notice everything that’s happening at all times. At least, that’s the ideal.

In music production, musical techniques are virtually infinite. For me, it begins with a repertoire of go-to moves on keyboard and percussion instruments. If all else fails (and how do I know all else won’t fail somewhere down the production line?) I can always play something on these instruments, and, in the worst case scenario, if I have nothing to say I can at least repeat what I’m doing right now and see where that leads me. My go-to moves help me discover chord shapes and melody vectors, bass lines and rhythm webs—all good things upon which to build. But once these initial ideas are inside the computer, another game begins in a major way, and this game has neither rules nor time constraints. It feels as if I could play it forever, limited only by my own time and energies. In its sense of endlessness, music production feels like what James Carse calls an infinite game. “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning” he says, while “an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” 

With my ideas in the computer, a task is to figure out how to create thoughtfulness out of the material by spinning it in various ways: 

Sounds can be changed.
Structures can be re-structured.
Parts can be multiplied.
The whole can be resampled into something new.
A moment can be interrupted.
A harmony can be removed.
A melody implied.
A space conjured.
A timbre morphed.
A stereo field reduced.
A rhythm sliced and diced.
An ambiance suggested.

And on and on and on and on and on.

(The tools of digital music production are vast, but remember that your ever-changing taste is your most powerful plug-in.)

At first, making changes to music feels merely experimental—a sort of, I wonder what will happen if I do this questing for variations. But remember that each change you make to the music makes it less automated and conventional and more enchanted, more human. The process is simple: you try something and if it sounds good you keep that and build on it. Also, each change is additive and an incremental refinement of what you started with—the music is literally accumulating traces of your little changes. After a period of making changes that feel merely experimental, the music will eventually start to vibrate differently. There will be more going on in it that you can consciously grasp at once, and you’ll hear it anew, wondering how it was that you got to this point. I’ll remind you: you got here by making small additive changes whose sum has begun diverging from its parts. What began as a very linear process (Let me just record this sequence of chords…) is becoming nonlinear as your output becomes disconnected from your inputs. 

In my experience, the more I refine a piece the clearer the connection becomes between a non-automated sound and audible thoughtfulness in the music. As the music is distilled and its parts refined, it becomes easier for me to discern which details are doing the Good Work of generating an engaging listening experience and which details have yet to pull their weight in the mix. The small things that I worked on in layers are now speaking back and speaking up, reminding me of Gregory Bateson’s definition of information. “The elementary unit of information” he says, is “a difference that makes a difference.” In sum, the specifics of what techniques you use are not as important as whether or not the techniques make audible your decision making. Good music lets you hear thinking inside of it—the differences that make a difference—and so the best way to make anti-automated music is to refine it at every step of the production process until it’s finally talking on its own.       

(Speaking of non-automated music, have you listened to Brett’s Sound Picks 2019?)


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