“If writing down your ideas always makes them more precise and more complete, then no one who hasn’t written about a topic has fully formed ideas about it. And someone who never writes has no fully formed ideas about anything nontrivial.”
Paul Graham, Putting Ideas Into Words
Every so often while making music it occurs to me how I’m working in, working against, and working with, abundance. The abundance is the number of sounds known and unknown in my old 2014 computer. Many of these sounds I haven’t yet encountered, some of these sounds I’ve encountered but forgotten where they reside, and some sounds I’ve yet to make. Working with an abundance of sounds is both the best and worst part of making music using the computer as one’s primary instrument because, on the one hand, the sonic options are limitless, while on the hand, one needs to find ways of temporarily constraining this limitlessness to commit to getting something done. Where to start today? With something new, or by revisiting something already begun?
Abundance brings to mind the exploration/exploitation model model of creativity. According to this model, exploration is an experimental trying out or tinkering around with new ideas to see what happens and what works, while exploitation is mobilizing the fruits of this exploration towards a specific goal. Exploration is considered risky because it may never lead the practitioner anywhere significant, while exploitation is conservative because of its tendency to repeat what already works.
Exploration is, for me, getting to know and making use of the abundance of sounds I have access to, a process that still feels laborious and slow. This never-ending yet cumulative investigation involves understanding whatever sounds I can locate or create, making note of them (mentally and actually), and trying them out in various combinations. For example, I recently revisited an older piece I had done in 2020 and realized that its primary sounds were pads I had created around that time. I liked the pad sounds and had forgotten that I had made about thirty such sounds. I noted that those sounds are still around (in the software synthesizer, Serum), named and numbered, should I imagine another use for them down the road. Exploitation would mean using one of these sounds in a new piece, or building on it in some way.
I thought that this piece from 2020 had something unique, because its structure remained audible: a series of twelve triads played by one pad, overlaid with responding and varying chords in a second part. Besides the two pads, the only other sounds were two ball-rolling percussion parts. Most of the piece’s energy came from slowly building effects and resampled tracks derived from the pad parts. As I listened to the two year-old piece, I thought about where I might explore and exploit its components to resuscitate the music. I noticed the effects processing on the pad sounds: there was reverb on them but what was its source? In Serum or on the track channels, or both? Once I found the reverb, I wanted to know what was making it sound a bit wonky. I dove back into exploration mode. Was it the Wow or Flutter knob? Or the Color knob? I twisted the knobs to re-aquaint myself with the reverb I had mobilized for these pad sounds. In the end, I made small adjustments, yet they felt impactful because how I listen had changed a fair bit over the past two years. Now I was hearing more details in the details and making changes based on that perception.
Exploitation in the context of this piece from 2020 meant not messing with what made it special in the first place. So I didn’t change the chords or alter the sound design in any major way. I altered the EQ settings on all the parts to clean them up. I altered the stereo width to achieve a gentle effect without altering the volume of the parts. And I added a bass part near the end. This piece didn’t have any low tones, yet needed them. The trick would be: How to add a bass that doesn’t sound added, but rather present in the original piece? Back to exploration mode I went, deriving a bass part from the chords, trying out a few bass sounds, and adjusting filter settings until it sounded “close enough.” But exploiting this bass part meant that its sound would have to be finessed further so that it sounded closer than “close enough.” Its higher notes were still jumping out, so I reduced their volume. The lowest notes where a tad lost in the texture, so I boosted them, then realized I preferred them being a bit lost, so I un-boosted them. I opened the filter wider, noticed how that made the notes-jumping-out problem worse, so I closed it again, but not quite as much as before. Around and around I went, finessing five bass notes so they appeared to co-exist with the music’s other original parts just so.
Once the bass was sounding as if carved into the fabric of the music, I tried out a few more sounds—bells and tuned metal—but quickly realized my error. Stop, stop, stop: no more exploration. I deleted these new sounds and declared the music done. The lesson? An abundance is always out there, yet tread in it carefully, ignoring most of it if necessary, as you usher your work along, powered by the minimum of what it needs to thrive.
“Because their devices dinged them a few times a minute, their minds were reshaped to the jittery, needy psyche that ruled the digital realm.
In a few short decades they’d transformed proud and free animals—humans—and made them into endlessly acquiescent dots on screens.
How many people live in a state of aggressive truth-seeking?”
Dave Eggers, The Every