When music is
playing the hits
soundtracking something else
change the station.
“Words, spoken or handwritten, echo the pulse of things. They can caress, startle, enchant, repel…”
“We might cease our endless writing about performance, and become performers ourselves.”
“…we should work our words as craftsmen work their materials, in ways that testify, in their inscriptive traces, to the labour of their production, and that offer these inscriptions as things of beauty in themselves.”
Tim Ingold, Correspondences (2021, pp. 197, 201, 203)
(The 2021 Playlist.)
While there is something to those old sayings trust the process and it’s the journey, not the destination, in music production the process/journey often has the distinctive quality of feeling like an in-between state. Recently, while working on a new project, it occurred to me to think more about in-betweenness. I had just begun something new and was considering my options:
Do I build from nothing or create something to build on?
Do I explore the potentials of this single sample or extract twenty and weigh them against one another?
Do I make a new sound or adapt an old one?
Answers to these questions were unclear.
With the sample material’s waveform in front of me, I decide to extract several samples. I move along the waveform, from its starting point to its end, looking and listening. I try super short samples. I try long samples. I try repeating clips. I try one-shot clips. I try pitching the sample up or down, then decide against it because that’s getting ahead of the process I’ve committed to.
Is there anything here that is sonically enchanting?
I extract six samples from the audio and line them up. Three of them fail the interesting test, and the remaining ones sound just okay. I’m in between processes: I’ve created some useable sample material, but what to do next?
In-between is a state of transition—an awareness that where we are now isn’t the final destination, but rather a step towards the next action.
I decide to build the piece around just these two samples. Suddenly the pressure to generate new material is gone: just work with this.
I use the first sample as an anchor, placing it at the beginning. I adjust volume fades on its start and end points. I add reverb to give it a space. I repeat the sample every beat, but it’s too insistent-sounding, so I mute every second one. But it needs still more space. I slow down the tempo and mute every second and third sample so that now it sounds once every four bars. Better.
In-between is recognizing that the humdrum-ness of the task at hand is enough to hold your attention and build towards future structures.
With the first sample as anchor I fit the other two around it. I return to re-pitching: How does this sound up a fifth or down a third? (An octave shift sounds robotic, so that’s out.) As I shift pitches a tonal center begins to take shape. I move to a piano sound and find the E major /c-sharp minor area and try out a few chord shapes. I notice that the piano sounds sharp which means that the samples are flat—about 22 cents flat, so I tune them up. Better to begin with euphony and de-tune only if necessary.
From deciding on my three samples, organizing them into a repeating pattern, trying out some piano chords, and fine-tuning pitches, I’ve begun making in-between an interesting state to be in. In-betweenness keeps the creative process light and playful. Just see what you can do with these parts.
Despite feeling not long ago that I was unsure how to proceed, something that feels like music seems to be proceeding. I add parts—chords and bass tones—quickly to hear the texture thicken. I de-tune the first sample by a fifth and the effect is better than I could have planned. Now I wonder: How would the other two parts sound at different pitches? I try out patterns so that it sounds as if the parts are listening to one another. The right change happening at the right time surprises me each time I hear it. One adjustment here, consistency over there, and vice versa. Or cascades of simultaneous changes. I keep at it for a while, letting the music cycle around while making small changes to its elements. Two minutes have become four, and maybe something can be made from this.
In-betweenness is a psychological state worth getting used to because it’s where we spend the majority of our creating time. In-between is the process not the product, the journey not the destination, the small decisions that may or may not culminate in a larger result, the single samples that anchor, and the trust that following what sounds interesting can become an interesting place to be.
“Cut it way back.
Do not be afraid to pinch the first,
the only blossom. The berry cannot thrive
in freedom. Have no mercy,