“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
One compelling aspect of electronic music production is the intersection of what we might call preparedness and randomness. Preparedness is being intentional and involves getting to know the tools I use when making music. This includes creating, altering, and saving sounds, effects (or chains of effects), sifting through and evaluating pieces in progress, and learning, bit by bit, the capabilities of software. Together, these ways of getting to know my tools gets me thinking, What might I do with them?
Randomness is the X factor that brings me beyond my intentions and characterizes my encounters with what I’ve prepared. Improvising on the keyboard is one example of randomness in action, because I don’t have a set plan of what I’ll do. I play for a while, then hit the Retrospective Record button to hear what I did. I interfere as little as possible with what was recorded: if the part is 102.5 measures, then so be it. I find that leaving a part an unusual length can lead to interesting things down the compositional road.
A second example of randomness is action is how I interact with the sounds and effects I’ve made, altered, and saved. Here there are no hard and fast rules except to try out this and that until a sound jumps out. When this happens, I’ll fine-tune the sound and make a point of re-naming and re-saving it. This stepping out of the compositional frame for a moment allows me to add to an ever-growing repertoire of tools which may or may not be useful in another piece of music.
The intersection of preparedness and randomness is compelling because there are so many outcomes that might result. Here are a few examples:
• Despite my having made many sounds, nothing fits what I need at the moment. This dead end at least tells me about a mismatch between the sounds I have and the sound I wish I had;
• I try out an effect I had made for one kind of sound (say, percussion) on another sound (say, piano) and it sounds good. I hadn’t anticipated this sound, but now that I’ve heard it, I like it;
• I randomly open a software instrument I haven’t used in a while, discover a sound I had made but forgotten, and it fits what I need at the moment. What are the chances of that happening?
And so on.
Pasteur is right that chance favors the prepared. But I have a small addendum in the context of creating music. Preparing sounds outside of the flow of writing a new piece doesn’t feel like an entirely satisfying musical experience. It’s slow and clinical—not because there’s a computer involved, but because the work can seem far from the playful intensities of playing music to encounter something new. It’s a conundrum: I prepare for those moments when I’ll need to quickly draw on sounds and effects I’ve made, yet this prep work feels the opposite of why one makes music in the first place. So I generally work in the afternoon, long after I’ve played music in the morning. In other words, the schedule insists play first, and work second, because play is the fundamental work. We want to expand our creative palettes for the future, but not at the expense of playing our way into something new right now.