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

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“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
predictable
and measured by bar lines.

Notes On Craft

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“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.