Notes On Production Clichés

“Beware of clichés…
There are clichés of response as well as expression.
There are clichés of observation and of thought–even of conception.”
Geoff Dyer

I struck out a bit yesterday when I tried making something. I liked the sound, but the melody was hackneyed. It was so bad, so uninteresting, that I recorded it as a reminder that this is the best I could do at 10:30pm on a Monday. 

I began thinking about clichés of producing that I rely on: 

The cliché of a chord progression that is either so short that it’s predictable,
or so long that it lacks focus.

The cliché of a 4/4 beat that obviously loops around, showing its seams.

The cliché of added parts that “respond” to an initial part,
decorating and counterpointing well enough, but annoying.

The cliché of the slow build and a slow unraveling of that build.

The cliché of the abrupt ending.

The cliché of individual sounds dutifully playing their traditionally ascribed roles:
bass line, chord progression, lead melody, distortion grit, reverb resonance, etc.

Clichés can be productively useful, insofar as they get you going in a general direction. I often play parts that aren’t yet free of clichés, just so I have something to work with. Often what happens is that what I thought was totally cliché last night turns out to be totally usable today—as long as I spend time making it less cliché. A lot of what I play on the keyboard I find to be clichés of the hand, but there’s always stuff to work with. Sometimes, hidden within a cliché is an interesting accident that could be a starting point.   

I deleted the uninteresting melody and tried out some more chords, playing for a while and recording. But nothing was sounding good. What I had so far wasn’t passing the Is this enchanting? litmus test.

Now I wonder: Was I looking for clichés to rely on rather than doing the more difficult work of sidestepping or dismantling clichés to hear what was behind them? Maybe the reason nothing is sounding interesting is that I have not yet done anything interesting. I want enchanting results without having put the work in—without, in fact, acknowledging how long it will take to get where I want to go.

The problem with clichés is that they prevent us from accessing more direct and meaningful encounters with expression. In other words, clichés are barriers to artistically rich experience.

Thinking about clichés reminds me of TV ads’ use of music. I sort of loathe ads, but their use of music is fascinating for thinking through clichés. Ads hijack the signifying power of music, using its sounds to telegraph in as concise a way possible the essential attributes, feelings, associations, moods, and qualities of a product or service. Here are a few examples.

Ads for various telephone service providers humanize and domesticize their invisible networks by using music for plucked pizzicato strings. I call this quirky strings music. Ads for various pharmaceutical and bio-tech companies frequently use music for marimba that is repetitive, angular, and minimalist, its patterns evoking the complexities of what actually goes into a pill that seems to have more bad side effects than benefits. I call this we are figuring out how the world works! music. Ads for beer and spirits always turn to mid-tempo, soulful and funky R&B music. This music has the good grit of an old LP and conveys the possibilities of a night out with friends. I call this who knows what will happen tonight! music. Ads for financial investment companies use well-known hits from decades past to strike just the right chord (sorry, another cliché) with their targeted age group demographic. With this use of music, the features that once made a song exciting and cutting-edge when it first appeared, are the same features that make it boring and safe when it reappears in an ad. I call this Oh I know that song! music. (Simon Reynolds calls our obsession with the past retromania.)

How does the use of music in TV ads relate to clichés in music production? They are both shortcuts to genuine creative experience. TV ads hijack music—piggybacking on its affective world—to try to sell us the feeling that we are supposed to think is inherent in a product or service. And when I resort to clichés in my own work, I’m hijacking my own capacity to discover a sound world that escapes my full understanding. By using clichés, I sell short my prerogative to be experimental and chase after surprising sounds. TV ads show us that music as sound can be bought and sold. But whenever I manage to escape clichés, for a moment music regains its mystery. For a moment, music feels like a gift. 

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