As A Single Flowing Gesture

(Ensō  calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata)

“Too much thinking.”
– Kanjuro Shibata, master bowmaker and archery teacher 

There is no best way of doing music production, but I find that when I approach a piece in terms of what might be called a single gesture I have the best chance of turning it into something that works. A single gesture is a compositional approach whereby a piece’s essential components are generated during a single session in a continuous forward flow. As I write this I’m reminded of the Japanese ink painting practice, ensō  (“circular form”), where a circle is drawn in a single expressive brushstroke. So nothing new here. The following seven techniques characterize a single, gesture-based flowing session:

Using whatever sound that seems interesting, you improvise and build on that, or you improvise and it doesn’t go well and you still build on that. You may or may not be pleased with what you were able to improvise (it happens to me all the time that what I came up with feels inadequate), but in the interests of flowing forward you commit to what you did. The upside of this approach is it removes some of your decision-making from the production equation. You say, I’m working with this today and get on with it.

You refine the first part you have a bit before moving to a second part. Ideally, the first part can be all that you ever need–a performance complete unto itself, like a circular brushstroke–that doesn’t need the assistance of other sounds. The chances of this being the case are rather low, so you refine the part to sharpen it. You even out volumes, fix any obviously errant notes, or select the best three minutes from a six minute wayfaring around an instrument. 

You add a second part by deriving it from the first. No matter what you may think of what you improvised, it contains tons of information that can be built upon, so you can use the first part’s MIDI or audio as the basis for a second part. If the first part is MIDI, you can re-use its notes to tigger other sounds; if it’s audio, its waveforms can be converted back into MIDI (which is always an interesting Telephone Game of imperfect translation). 

Ideally, the second part contrasts in some way with the first. This contrast can be in terms of its timbre (e.g. a dry sound against a resonant first part), its register (e.g. in a lower bass octave against the first part’s treble range), or its rate of movement (e.g. moving at half the speed as the first part). Additional parts can be layered and in a similar, attuned-to-contrasts way.

Once you have a part or multiple parts, each can be resampled (i.e. re-recorded) into new audio parts. The reason you might want to resample a part is that the process opens up new sonic possibilities that transcend the sound you began with. For example, I often begin with a piano sound but then turn it into something else (e.g. a pad). A resampled part can also be re-sampled again, and again. Where does this end? Maybe never. You’re limited only by your curiosity about what re-sampling will bring forth.

Whatever effects or processing you use on the first part can be re-used in an altered form on subsequent parts. For example, if you used a giant reverb chain, use the same chain again somewhere else, but alter its settings. Maybe it’s used heavily on part one, but subtly on parts two and three. Re-using effects is another way to remove some of your decision-making, while at the same time forcing you to be inventive.

If something doesn’t sound either right or interesting enough, keep tinkering with it. You can mute it, half-time it, stretch it, process it, re-sample it (yet again!), re-pitch it, reverse it, cut it into small pieces and re-arrange it, and so on. This sounds like a lot, but it can happen in the space of a few minutes as you try out this and that, keeping your single gesture flowing. Do right now whatever it takes to make the sounds compelling.

In sum, soon you will have arrived at a place very different from where you began with your improvisation that may or may not have gone well. The fact that you can travel so far having started with such a small musical impetus reminds you that maybe it doesn’t matter how a musical idea originated or what it sounded like initially. (This is why you didn’t need to sweat sound design details at the outset of the process: you just used whatever seemed interesting.) What matters is what you were able to do with what you had. Assembling a piece of music in a flowing single gesture keeps you focused on moving from here to there, like a circular brushstroke, from just this little idea to I wonder what this could be?

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