Process, Not Outcome

“Musical processes can give one a direct contact with the impersonal and also a kind of complete control, and one doesn’t always think of the impersonal and complete control as going together. By ‘a kind’ of complete control I mean that by running this material through the process I completely control all that results, but also that I accept all that results without changes.” 

– Steve Reich, “Music as a Gradual Process” (1968)

Over the past few months I’ve been trying ways of focusing on musical processes instead of musical outcomes. Working with drum sounds I already have on the computer, I’ve been changing each of those sounds, one by one, to make them bespoke, but mostly just to hear what happens. Cymbals become noise slivers, resonant kick drums become muted thuds, snares become resonant kicks, and so on. Changing the sounds one already has is a self-contained process whose outcome is simply to make something different from what it once was. 

Next, I play rhythms with these changed sounds. Since the sounds are new to me, they spur me to find unusual things to do with them. Improvising a rhythm becomes a game: What can I do with these sounds? Making a rhythm that catches my attention is also a self-contained process.

I also process the rhythms of these changed drum sounds with effects. I add a delay or a compressor to hear how it affects the groove. Then I repeat that step with another effect (sometimes the same one) to hear what happens. There’s no precise goal, no guaranteed outcome, yet I insist that the work addresses three questions: Is this interesting? Is this enchanting? Do you like listening to this? As with changing the drum sounds and improvising a rhythm using these sounds, processing is yet another self-contained process.  

Pause: Why am I harping on “self-contained” processes? A self-contained process has small goal in mind, which keeps the stakes feeling low, keeps everything feeling doable. Self-contained also implies borders or limits. For example, I processed the drum sounds with one delay, and then two, but I never tried using three. I thought about using three delays quite a bit, but never went there, because if three, why not four or five? Where would the process end? Limits can be useful.

This example of working with drum sounds is resolutely process-oriented, not outcome-oriented. I can build on my constructions with other sounds later, but for the moment this isn’t the point. The point is to follow and trust three simple steps, over and over again, to hear where they take me. Today was good, but what about tomorrow and next week? Where might the steps take us then? 

An interesting side effect of following and trusting a few simple steps over and over again is that it frees a part of one’s attention to attend to a realm of parallel insights that arise during the process. For example, once I have altered drum sounds and heard how they sound different after I have finished processing them frees me up when I next encounter a sound that has potential yet needs finessing. The lesson: any sound can work for you in a way that you can’t yet anticipate.

Another example is latent in improvising rhythms. Trying out patterns teaches us about what makes a pattern interesting. For example, a kick drum (or a lowest pitched sound) doesn’t have to happen on the downbeat, and certainly doesn’t have to happen every measure. In the world of rhythm, ambiguity can be magical and there is no downside, only upside, to leaving space in music.

A final example: as I process the drum sounds I get to know what processing is enough, and what is too much. Is it making the groove more syncopated or just too busy? More abstract and unusual or just noisy? As I try out different processing I save the preset routings that work and take mental notes of what sounds good—without going back to what worked yesterday, without, that is, checking and duplicating what I already did.  

Gradually, such processes lead us to unanticipated sounds. Such sounds are exciting, obviously, but what is even better is having learned ways to devise a process (knowing that any process is arbitrary), follow the process with some degree of discipline, and accept whatever results it produces. In sum, one doesn’t begin with a musical outcome. Instead, a process leads us along a path to discover something new.

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