Musical Endings

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I spend a lot of time working on the endings of my tracks. One reason for this is that I’m both glad the music is almost over, and also sad that I didn’t done more with the time I had allotted for it so now I’m trying to conjure more interesting sonic stuff just as the sounds are fading out or otherwise reducing themselves. When you’re in the middle of writing a track, your attention is all over the place because you don’t know where you’re headed, and certainly don’t have any idea how the music will end. In fact, when a groove or constellation of sounds is working well, ending seems optional. In fact, in any DAW (digital audio workstation) software one can just loop sounds so that they continue forever. And that’s a long time but I’m here to tell you: when you inevitably arrive at the music’s end, it’s satisfying to finesse multiple levels of detail, treating every decision of sound design and arrangement as, well, precious.

My preferred type of ending is a gradual reduction of parts and sounds, so that the music appears to slowly unravel or disintegrate. Gradually reducing is a staple structuring device of electronic dance music, but technology-influenced composers such as Steve Reich have also been using this technique for decades. Unraveling and disintegrating are more compelling to me than the classic fade out, whereby the musicians keep playing their parts as their sounds slowly vanish in the mix’s distance. (Here is an article on the history of fade outs in popular music.) It’s also more useful than an abrupt ending where everyone stops on the “and” of beat 4, or worse yet, come together on a final downbeat punctuated with a giant cymbal crash. As I hear it, unraveling or disintegrating parts and sounds involves altering the music such that it gradually loosens its hold on the listener and the sound-to-silence ratio shifts. It’s about taking things out in subtle ways to subtly cue the listener as to what’s happening.

As I craft endings, I re-evaluate the overall form of the piece and decide if now is really the time end. Sometimes it’s clear that  

the music must go on!

and so I’ll extend and transform the ending into something substantial. Recently this involved writing codas for some tracks, so that when you think the music is over it returns. I wrote several codas, but then reversed course on two tracks on which the codas sounded indulgent. Such are the editing choices necessary when producing music. At these moments, it’s essential to distinguish between what one likes and what is actually needed. This is way of thinking that I could apply to other aspects of making music: to bring what I like and what is actually needed into alignment so that either route brings a similar result. 

Working on endings sometimes gives me new ideas for beginnings too. A few times I was fiddling with an ending and began listening to a sound on its own. I wondered if the part couldn’t also work at the beginning of the track, and a few times it worked well. One lesson from this is that musical elements are almost always modular: that thing over there could also work right here if you alter it a bit. Another lesson from working on endings is that it gives you a chance to revisi details inside the music that you may have temporarily lost track of. 

The most interesting part of musical endings though, is that they up the level of my concentration and so they’re fun to listen to. This is especially so then the music’s volume begins diminishing and the track’s parts are falling apart. I lean in closer towards my monitors, turn up the volume slightly—manually overriding my fade out—and try to hear everything going on. Is this what I want? Can I hear too much or just enough of what is dissolving? I especially love those moments where I notice a sound for the first time, the moments when a sound is felt as much as heard, the moments when the music finally moves like it was moving towards something all along. 

(Here’s another blog post about musical endings.)

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