I spend a fair amount of time trying stuff out in the depths of my music software. Okay, I’m not actually going that deep—imagine a swimmer ducking under water and going down oh, six feet down. But it’s deep enough to feel the blue calm below the water’s busy surface, deep enough to enjoy the weightless feeling of music’s different dimensions. As I try different sounds and settings in the software I get ideas for “pieces”—a word in quotes because nothing’s a piece yet. It’s just an idea that sounds like the kind of music I might make if I were making a piece, which I’m not doing because right now I’m just trying stuff out. Such are the micro-delusions one weaves into the production process to keep things light.
Anyway, recently I made a keyboard sound and was experimenting with an arpeggiator. I set my hands down into an F-sharp Lydian-ish configuration, holding the keys to hear the arp sound kick into action.
I kept a few fingers in place then moved a few others, listening to the changes. I played for a while, and soon I felt I couldn’t lift my fingers from the keys for fear that the sound would stop and worse, I would forget what I was doing. Feeling sort of trapped, I kept playing, moving a towards a progression that I didn’t understand.
What happened next is a juncture I frequently arrive at: I want to stop what I’m doing so I can figure out what it is that I like about it so I can do it again, but this time “officially” by playing a cleaner take while knowing exactly where I’m going with the notes.
Not gonna happen.
I ignored my urge to stop, assess, and edit because analysis doesn’t always help. (And for the record, I wasn’t thinking F-sharp Lydian as I played, just staying around the black keys.) At the juncture where you’re musically lost, stopping to think about it doesn’t help as much as keeping going, building from practice, not theory, from the bottom up, not the top down. Being lost is a good state to be in because in that state we interfere less with the direction of the music.
When I returned to the music the next day to add a second part I found myself back at the same juncture:
What am I doing?
I still had no idea: I played a second part through and was lost the whole time.
If only I could figure out the structure of the first part…
Despite being lost, I was listening and trying to respond to what I heard. That’s key: look for a way to fit in. I liked the sound of this second part and I knew that ten more go-arounds at it would probably not make it more interesting. It might get even worse!
This brings me to the lesson of such improvising-composing experiments: the One Fell Swoop Principle. The idea is do as much as you can, all at once, to turn a production experiment into a bona fide piece not next week, but right now. This mindset has you feeling like a beginner grasping without success for the “ideal” sounds and “appropriate” tools and forms, but having to make do with what’s at hand. (Which reminds me of that David Sudnow quote: “Good notes were everywhere at hand, right beneath the fingers.”) The power of feeling like a beginner is that you have to rely on your intuition to get on with your partial understanding of what works and is easiest to do at the moment. Anyway, there will always be time later to refine the music, there will always be time to perfect the ideas you stumbled upon while trying stuff out, right?
Count them —
outside the theater
perched like metal birds
bell polyrhythm chimes
feel it —
inside the headphones
pulsing to the footsteps
drone notes divided
around the passing car
kick drum and bass currency
music’s chump change.
One of the wonders of music is how it holds our attention despite being built upon moments that keep disappearing into a past of its own making. As the adventurous musicologist David Burrows (who was one of my teachers) observed: “music takes place in its own almost total sonic absence” (“A Dynamical Systems Perspective On Music“, p. 529). When we listen to music, we’re carried along a series of moments strung together out of rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, or by the plain fact of juxtaposition-succession, as if the music is saying to us, now this, and now that, and then…this! I recall Prof. Burrows once riffing in a seminar about what makes a well-written book—he may have used Harry Potter as an example—which is that it sets in motion a series of happenings that make the reader want to know the answer to the question, And…then? It’s wanting to answer this question that keeps us turning the pages. Good music is like this: it compels us to keep listening to figure out what will happen next.
In music production, the producer has a panoply (and frankly, an excess) of tools with which to alter the music to make it sound more compelling and engage the listener’s attention in various ways. Most of us are familiar with the conventional techniques for building a piece so that it changes over time. Some of these techniques are transparent and annoying. For example, the four-on-the-floor kick drum is both of these things because, although it can be powerful, its presence often comes at the expense of other more interesting ways of generating pulse and momentum and groove. A music drowning in reverb is another annoyance, because, although it’s an evocative tool, reverb is often used at the expense of more careful articulations now lost in the mix.
Ideally, the electronic music producer uses tools to create subtle means of propelling the music so that it becomes not less, but more interesting over time. For me, the good musics keep you coming back to them because
you can’t figure them out and you’re not entirely sure how they were made,
they sound enchanting, and
they draw you into their designs so that you notice new things each time you listen.
For me, the musics that fit this description (see Brett’s Sound Picks 2019, for a start) tend to be more complex than simple; or even better, they sound simple but underneath that simplicity are layers of complexity. By complexity I don’t mean excess, such as incorporating a ton of chord changes or a million sounds, but rather subtlety. And by subtle I don’t mean hard to discern, but rather understated. The good musics that keep you coming back to them are understated while at the same time compress a lot of information into themselves to conjure a rich world in which you listen and everything feels inevitable and then you want to listen again and again to re-live the sensation of And…then? Like the playing of a great musician, a complex, subtle, and understated music production exudes a dynamism that appears to have no end.