Creating new music involves many steps, not all of which necessarily involve playing notes, notating them, or recording them. For me, a workflow often involves six steps. Depending on the day, I’ll work on one or two of these steps, but almost never all of them. Each step is a different spoke in the compositional wheel, each requires attention and time, and each helps something musical not yet built build itself. Here are the steps.
Improvising on a keyboard. This is my preferred method because the keyboard is my most familiar terrain, playing in this terrain is the quickest way to feel like musical things are happening, and the melodic and harmonic DNA of any piece comes from playing at least one its parts. Improvising is thinking on the spot, and this thinking is the foundation of performance. Not performance in the sense of we’ve rehearsed this a thousand times and will now recreate it for you, but performance in the sense of we’re going somewhere new and it may or not may not work out. For me, the most interesting pieces of music feel like performances and performances hold your attention because of both where they go and the means by which they get there. I think of playing/improvising/performing as the essential initial gesture that suggests a future musical something.
Finding and designing sounds. I spend some time—although never as much as I think I need—searching for and altering/creating interesting sounds. Sounds can be obvious or unusual, plain or enchanting. Most of the time I’m searching for sounds that may be useful down the road. While it’s hard to say what sounds these are, most of the time they have some movement to them, or some textural quality that is interesting unto itself. One challenge with finding and making sounds is that the process feels as if on the cusp of music, but never quite making music, never quite as bodily compelling as playing an instrument is.
Intentional listening to other musics. I’m curious as to how other musics achieve the effects they do, especially when they use a minimum of elements. I’ll spend a few minutes spot re-listening to a track I’ve been enjoying to understand what is actually happening. Oh: There’s only four sounds? The texture is that dry? It’s a single chord? How do the sounds hold my attention? Such questions came to mind recently when I listened to the music of SND, circa 2010. (One of the duo’s members, Mark Fell, is quoted several times in my book.) Spot-listening is often a reset—reminding me of what I could do with what I have.
Quickly fleshing out additional parts and an arrangement. If I have improvised something useable, I push ahead with it immediately. Sometimes I’ll correct any glaringly “wrong” notes or dynamics and add additional parts. Sometimes these parts are derived from the initial improvisation, sometimes not. I’m aiming for pleasing counterpoint and complementary textures, but there are many ways to arrive at that kind of euphony. I’ll use sounds I’ve created in the past (step 2 above) and especially those sounds I can locate quickly. In other words, as Harold Budd used to say, I use what is at hand. Using what is at hand is also the first arrangement step. Although it can be finessed later, how might I roughly arrange the parts into a flowing form? The most impactful move is simply not to have every part enter and exit the texture at the same time. Also, removing parts is a way to foreground what remains. An arrangement can also emerge as a by-product of effects shaping the sound of the music’s parts over time.
Signal and effects processing. It can be easy to think that effecting sounds—compressing, reverbing, resampling, or distorting/mangling them—is secondary to composing them, but not quite so in electronic music production. While an initial performance may be the catalyst for a piece, processing sounds can be a linchpin of what makes the music come alive. In fact, effects are deeply imbued with affect. A rule of thumb I follow is that if an effect makes the music more interesting–more affective–I use it. One by-product of effects processing is that it empowers you to understand that you can start with something plain/simple and later transform it into something unusual/complex. When you start with something simple you keep track of where you came from.
Letting time do its work. While a piece is often sketched out in a few hours, I’ll put it aside for a few days or weeks to forget about it. When I return to it I try to listen like an editor reads. I don’t question the sounds already committed to, but instead make the smallest necessary adjustments to help the music find its clearest articulation.