Resonant Thoughts: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s “In Praise Of Shadows” (1977)


“Had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music. Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. And so we distort the arts themselves to curry favor for them with the machines. These machines are the inventions of Westerners, and are, as we might expect, well suited to the Western arts. But precisely on this account they put our own arts at a great disadvantage.”

– Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise Of Shadows (1977), p. 9.

Musical Lines

Translate the sense
of indecision
the composer feels
when beginning

you’ll recognize
that no place sounds
like the right way to start

so how to know
that chosen options
will set a tuneful path

paved by intentions
not random timbres

that if we begin here
we won’t box ourselves in

like notes on the stave
a cage of pitches
and measured by bar lines.

Notes On Craft


“We must never lose sight of the fact that the most intelligently designed, the most versatile and the most complex piece of kit we have at our disposal is our own body.” -Deckle Edge, Craeft, p. 24

When I think about musicians I admire I always return to their sense of craft. These musicians are not just excellent at what they do. What makes them different is that they bring something extra to their playing and their whole approach to their instrument and the musical situation (a particular performance, a general style) in which they work. We might call this something extra a sense of style or personal flair, but those terms describe surface-level details—like the performer who makes exaggerated gestures just for show. That’s not craft, it’s showing off. The something extra I’m thinking about is best described as a sense of craft, a word whose Old English version, craeft, connotes “strength, skill.” When a musician approaches music with a sense of craft, you can feel a level of strength and skill that makes you do a double take. Their music making sounds has a difference about it. Whoah! What was that? It’s craft! 

In electronic music production, a musician’s sense of craft is diffused along many axes. To start, there’s the craft of performing, composing, and recording, the craft of arranging and sound design, the craft of editing, and the craft of mixing. There’s also the craft of style—that is, how the musician positions–consciously or not–his/her music within an existing style matrix. How our work relates or unrelates to what is already out there is yet another manifestation of craft (to which some musicians are tone deaf). Each craft axis is an opportunity for the musician to go deep into levels of detail and raise the music’s Quality bar.      

To understand craft, we need to attend to at least four qualities. First, craft requires dexterity and expertise. In electronic music production, this dexterity takes the form of knowing one’s way around some kind of musical system, whether software, hardware, code, or some combination of these materialities. Maybe you know an old synthesizer or sampler frontwards and backwards, or you string together the latest plug-ins to generate sounds. Or maybe you’re simply a very skilled improviser, remixer, or field recordist. Whatever you do, you need expertise in it.  

Second, craft requires attention to details and dedication to minutiae. One of the ways expertise makes itself known is through your attention to the smallest details of sound. You don’t start out like this. You start by working in broad strokes. But as you get deeper into your craft, you find yourself noticing more and more and more and more. One aspect of your dexterity becomes figuring out ways to unlock and explore those small sound details and bring them to the foreground of the music, as if to say to the listener, hear this. In other words, the craft is making minutiae massive.

A third quality of craft is that it requires patient action over time. You can’t rush craft; craft can’t be accelerated. Craft takes as much time as it takes for something to sit just right. It takes a long time not because you suck, but because time is the soil in which your expertise grows. Most of the electronic music tracks I like were not composed in a day or a week, but over months or even years. Ever water a plant and watch it grow in front of your eyes? Of course not. Craft requires time to blossom. 

Fourth, craft requires trust in a process. Musicians who bring a sense of craft to what they do can seem to transcend the particularities of their instrument. When you perceive their craftsmanship in action, it’s not longer quite a matter of whether the musicians is playing a violin or a timpani. What matters is the quality of their sound. Just as musicians trust in the process of playing their instruments, a music producer trusts in a process of marshaling the many elements of a musical system towards an end. Developing a sense of craft involves trusting that any tool, if used thoughtfully, will eventually yield enchanting sounds as long as a process is allowed to unfold over time and do its thing.   

Finally, craft is its own reward. Watching a musician with a sense of craft gives you sense that their work comes naturally to them—that it just flows and carries them along on its own currents. This happens in a music production context as well, only that this unfolding is dispersed over many iterations over time. What this means is that the producer doesn’t necessarily feel craft’s smooth ride when she’s in the middle of a project. Instead, she feels her attention to details and delayed gratification and trusts that something in all this is…adding up. Even if no one else ever hears your work, your craft is its own reward because here you are again, honing something and feeling a sense of wonder about what the music might reveal next.    

Okay For Now


One of the concepts that’s on my mind when I’m producing music is the notion of okay for now. Though it may sound slacker-ish, the mindset describes a settling for whatever I’m doing at the moment and not worrying about if it’s good or bad or where it may or may not be going. (Note: I have many more sketches for pieces that haven’t yet gone anywhere than I do finished tracks. No rush—or as John Berger said: “I have all the time in the world.”) A reason for the okay for now mindset is to focus on smaller tasks and in the process suspend bigger questions about whether all the time I’m devoting to these tasks is “worth it.” I’m happy to report that it’s always worth it when your work feels like a Quest and you can accept that what you’re doing in the moment you’re working in is okay for now. 

This is not to say that I’m settling for making music that I don’t like: I try not to work on things I’m not feeling, and I often make stuff I dislike. Over the past year, one track took the better part of six months to go from something I disliked to something I like. I stuck with it only as a test to see if was, in fact, improvable. Another track I finally abandoned after I realized that no amount of tinkering could save it from being just ok. Back to settling: the okay for now mindset involves suspending judgment as much as I can so I can keep flowing. Another way to describe it: getting into a mindset where you don’t personally care that much about the music you’re making or the fact that it’s yours; you’re just its shepherd, bumping it forward (wait—all those sheep are mine?), not trying to make anything “serious”, just working with the unfinished sounds to make them sound okay for now.

It turns out that the okay for now concept works well when you combine it with working in layers, which is a powerful tool. Good examples of working layers are shown and explained is this video of the painter Gerhard Richter and this article on the painter Vija Celmins. When you work on music production in layers, each day you’re doing different things to or with the sounds. One day it could be improvising and recording, another day it could editing and sound design, and so on. Each day’s work raises the question of whether not what you’re doing is adequate to move the project towards wherever it needs to go. I don’t have the answer to that question, but adopting the okay for now mindset helps me suspend concerns about the layers I’m currently working on. Though this may sound even more slacker-ish, I consider the layer of work a success if I do something that I don’t dislike, and if it sounds okay for now that’s even better. If by chance I tinker my way into something that sounds quite good, that’s enough reason to write a short blog post about it.        

Curating The Week: Excellence, Learning, and Magicians


An article about excellence.

“Excellence is mundane. Excellence is accomplished through the sound of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time. While these actions are ‘qualitatively different’ from those of performers at other levels, these differences are neither unmanageable nor, taken one step at a time, terribly difficult.”  

An article about learning.

“The direction for improvement is clear: seek detail you would not normally notice about the world…As you learn, notice which details actually change how you think.”

An article about learning from magicians.

“The way to extraordinary growth and changes often involves a fundamental ontological or ‘lens’ shift in how you see the world. Magicians are wearing not just better, but fundamentally differently shaped lenses to the rest of us. And regardless of your skills and experience, it is likely that you are a magician to someone else.”

Musical Vantage Points


What is your vantage point on the music? From what position do you listen—from a point of doubt, sympathy, skepticism, good cheer, confidence, or anxiety? Does your vantage change as the music changes, moving from a positive glance to a negative sneer? Does your positioning allow you to hear the music as it is, as you wish it would be, or some combination of both? Do you have a sense of the music’s big picture vista as if you’re looking through binoculars, or are you caught up in one of its foreground details as if looking through a microscope? Can musical vantage points be changed, and if so, how? 

While mixing I’ve been thinking about my positioning. By this I don’t mean how far my ears are from the monitors—although that too is important, and for the record, the monitors are about three feet way. Rather, my positioning is where I locate my critical listening self with regards to what I’m hearing. I find that as I mix the music I’m also playing with different mixes of my attitudes and noticing—as if moving faders up and down to alter my perceptions and compensate for my aural blind spots. Even though I think I’m hearing the music sounding better—meaning, more as I want it to sound—I’m not entirely sure that I should trust how I hear.

Some of this perceptual doubt is a good thing and I recommend that every musician try out mixing because it’s wonderful way to study the nuances of your hearing. Mixing multi-part music is an especially useful teaching tool, because it requires you to discern different musical lines and timbres simultaneously and figure out ways to have them play well together. What happens is that as you find a rough balance among parts you begin noticing new details within this balance, which in turn inspires new mix adjustments. Soon your noticing is on overdrive and you’re scrambling to adjust to the demands of what feel like new listening vistas. And doubt creeps in: Am I noticing what is most prominent or just what I’m most attuned to? Is the drum part too loud, or does it only seem that way because something else needs adjusting? Would someone else notice what I notice, or would they have different vantage points?