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.