“Over the past 5 years I have been sketching compositions on paper. Sometimes they are detailed, specific outlines of what I imagine for the music, sometimes they are how I would like a synth to sound, sometimes they are me thinking out loud about the structure of the music I am working on.
The main reason why I do this is because it is a way for me to problem solve away from the computer. I find the computer is so powerful at trying things quickly that it can get in the way and overpower some of my decisions.”
It might come as a surprise for you to know that when I’m making new music, I’m usually lost—lost in the sounds, obviously, but also in the sense that I don’t quite have my bearings: it’s not clear where the music is going, where I am in the midst of that going, and which steps I might take to move things along in a productive direction.
So why do I keep coming back to this experience? One reason is that it’s a Houdini Opportunity, where the game is to figure a way out of a locked box of my own making. In other words, I’m trying to escape my own ignorance by devising ways to unlock new insights about how to make music, and in the process get un-lost. As I experiment and try out sounds, there are so many questions implicit in my workflow: How big is the box? Where are the locks? And what can I use as keys?
Here are some examples of being lost in music production:
trying to understand how a software instrument works in the middle of trying to get an interesting sound out of it, making a mental note that I really ought to know my tools better;
playing a meandering chord progression and not knowing what comes next (though I had better decide fast!);
mixing two effects together in an Effects Chain and not being able to predict the outcome;
turning a chord into an arpeggio set to “random” mode and not knowing which note (in which octave) will hit and when;
being uncertain whether the piece needs three parts or twelve;
being uncertain if I even like what I have so far.
Despite these uncertainties, being lost is my preferred way of producing music because it’s an accurate reflection of the production experience itself, and it also reminds me that music comes from figuring out a relationship with what my tools are offering me at the moment and what I notice of that offering. The results may be uncertain, but just because I can’t predict an outcome is no reason not to explore.
“I wondered: Is creativity more easily expressed in rigorous structures?”
“You learn the old stuff before you try the new stuff.
You learn the old stuff in order to do the new stuff.
The old stuff is not easy.
You are not yet good enough to be creative.
A recipe is only an introduction. It is the beginning of your relationship with the dish.”
– Bill Buford, Dirt (2020)
“A micro mastery has a structure that connects in a crucial way to important elements in the greater field it is a part of. It reveals relationships and balances in the elements of the task that mere words and explanation, textbook-style, cannot. Its repeatability and game ability…turn it into a self-teaching mechanism, where experimentation within certain defined limits greatly increases your learning.”