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?