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.
• 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.”
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?
As I produce a track I’m constantly looking for ways alter its sounds so that they’re damaged and unclear, and some of my favorite effects processing plug-ins are those that destroy or roughen what is pristine and soft to make it more textured and fascinating to listen to. An analogy of the radio dial comes to mind. You may remember back in the day twisting the knob to move between different stations. As you left the precise frequency range of one station, the clarity of the music would be replaced by a lonely mix of white noise, hiss, and static as you searched for the next in-range station along the frequency spectrum. I used to make cassette recordings of my radio dial-twisting movements when I was a teenager. I loved finding those precise locations where the signals of not one but two different stations overlapped and I could hear two broadcasts at once—sort of like a DJ’s mixing two different records. On a few occasions I hit upon interesting juxtapositions—where say, a New Age guitar chord would mix with a voice or a jazz trio in just the right way. I recorded these accidents and when I played them back to listen to, it was the liminal, performative moment of hearing one sound disappear into or layer with another that I considered my composing contribution. Even though I didn’t create the cool juxtaposition, I was surely the first person to encounter it in just this way. It was the ambiguity of the two radio stations mixing together that sounded fascinating, and my noticing that ambiguity helped me understand composing music as an activity extending beyond organizing notes.
Back to plug-ins: I like software that destroys, distorts, or heavily saturates sounds to create an ambiguity that is similar to what I heard when I twisted the dial between radio stations. Ambiguity is fascinating in that it requires the listener to piece together what is partially cracked or broken or in some way unclear—in other words, to “resolve” the sound back into coherence. In communications theory terms, we would speak of the balance of signal (information) and noise (interference) within a specified bandwidth. Too much clear signal and the music is boring, but too much noise and the music is obfuscation and incoherent. Negotiating signal and noise is what that old game of Telephone was all about too, right?
Another analogy: imagine hearing a I-V-I chord progression, but instead of the second I chord you hear something a little off, tonally speaking. Your ears are expecting that reliable I chord and so almost fills it in, while the actual sound you hear is stubbornly and ambiguously something else (for instance, maybe it’s a I chord decorated with dissonances). Here, the music is asking you to help make its sense and I love that. Of course, extreme ambiguity—like a wall of noise—is often frustrating to listen to because there will never be a clear interpretative way through the thicket. Speaking for myself, I want a challenge, but not an impossible task. The Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, which I’ve talked about elsewhere, comes to mind. Wabi means rustic simplicity, while sabi means beauty that comes with age and is visible through an object’s patina and wear. With software, a producer can add layers of ambiguity to sounds that sound and feel similar to how time and the elements age an object in a pleasing way.