Notes On Making Music And Levels Of Experience

Usually I stay preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of putting music together–getting a performance down, arranging parts, designing sounds, and editing. But recently it occurred to me (while away from the screen) that making music is always about at least two levels of experience. The first level is what I just referred to as the nuts and bolts of the craft. For a composer or producer, this means figuring out the intricacies of how multiple parts fit together as a whole. For example, on a recent project, I was editing one bell part so that it fit better with another one. I wanted moments of independence between the two parts, but I was also looking for ways to manufacture spaces and sudden unisons. The work was necessary before I could add any more parts, because I wanted the bells to have a dynamic relationship and the only way to get there was to edit one in. Once I got going, the work was mostly measuring and balancing based on what I was hearing. Do I mute this note? (Try it and listen.) Did I drag that note far enough forward to hit at the right time? (Try it and listen.) Why does it sound like it should be a semitone higher? (Move it up a semitone and listen.) I try to intervene as little as possible, but when I do, I make it felt.

While I’m doing this somewhat humdrum tinkering, I have ample time to hear the music over and over. It is during this repeated listening whilst I measure and balance that the far-from-completed music begins working on me. This is the second of music’s levels of experience. While I’m busy making the sounds gel better, the music has snuck up on me–like a wiley, enchanting presence that slipped into the room unnoticed, changing the vibe of the place. I find this quality of music fascinating in how it is beyond my control. Suddenly you’re thinking about things or people or situations you haven’t thought about in a long time. You feel yourself slowing down–is that an effect of bell sounds?–focusing more closely on tails of resonance. Are you using the music to get somewhere? (Or is the music using you?) Do your sensations hinge upon a specific sound or chord? What makes the rhythms seem to float like spinning tops? How does a cracked and distorted timbre evoke so much? Are you in control of music’s associations, or just following their cues? How can such a practical craft be so trippy? In these ways, making music feels like being in two places at once. 

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