Good Notes Are Everywhere At Hand

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“Any theory’s relevance depended on its possible bearing for my practice.”
– David Sudnow, Ways Of The Hand (2001), p. 19.

“Good notes were everywhere at hand, right beneath the fingers” wrote David Sudnow in his 2001 book, Ways Of The Hand. Originally published in 1979 as a deep (and fairly reader-unfriendly) phenomenological dive into the experience of learning to improvise jazz piano, the rewritten book has sat on my bookshelf for years as a reminder of the kind of writing about music that is possible when the words are grounded in one’s first-hand experience of making it. But more than inspiring ways of writing about music—writing which, no matter how descriptive, is for me always a kind of second-hand, after the fact experience—Ways Of The Hand inspires me to think about lessons latent in playing and now, producing music. 

I’ve talked before about pursuing a sense of synergy in music—that sense that everything is cohering in a way that feels bigger than the sum of their parts. One of the ways to arrive at synergy is to heed Sudnow’s advice that good sounds are everywhere around you, notably right beneath your fingers. He’s right. In music production, no matter where you are along the process of building a track, you may have everything you need in front of you. For me, the key to taking advantage of this fact involves two steps: noticing, and then trying things out. As the music-in-progress plays, I have to notice something—anything—that I didn’t notice yesterday, otherwise nothing’s gonna happen today.

It can something as simple as a level that’s too loud, or a weak sauce moment where not enough is happening, or some annoying bit that’s jumping out too much. (You want a reliable technique for working? Keep fixing the annoying bits.) Once I’ve noticed something, I set about fixing it or improving it, and herein lies an opportunity to experiment. What usually happens at this point is that fixing something triggers a deeper noticing of something else close by (or not). My mind begins to consider possibilities and my listening gets newly attuned. (I believe Sudnow used the word attuned quite bit…) It’s a little like having a temporary sense of my dog’s sense of hearing, where she tracks every novel sound (dog walks by outside, a bell sound on the TV…) and keeps looking at me for assurance. What was that? Did you hear that? As I track the sounds, fixing one thing becomes adjusting three things. 

Fixing and adjusting leads me to the second step of pursuing synergy, which is trying out solutions. I think about Sudnow’s idea that good notes are everywhere at hand as I look at the numerous effects Sends channels I’ve set up for the piece. For example, there’s one channel with a reverb on it. The reverb is there to provide a sense of space to some of the track’s melodic parts, creating a space in which they can float around. A delay effect on another Send does something similar, creating a space in which a sound can bounce and bobble. These and other (conventional) effects are my good notes right beneath the fingers, and there’s no rulebook as to how they should be used. Moderation is good, but so are moments are extremeness. So: I wouldn’t normally have reverb on say, a drum sound, because drum sounds have hard attacks that trigger resonant craziness in the reverb which then covers the percussion. But once in a while a single drum hit put through the reverb can sound interesting, even necessary. I discovered this by accident, when I brought up the level of what I thought was another effect and then realized that the reverb was interesting. Another example of trying trying out solutions is EQ. Normally EQ is a corrective tool used to fix imbalances in the mix (often in subtractive, rather than additive ways). But it can be used to do other things. I’ve used it to remove resonance from an instrument so that a bass line say, becomes ghostly without any weight to it. In sum, the lessons in noticing and trying things out in music production are endless, but they pivot on the fact that when you pay attention you have everything you need everywhere at hand.   

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