(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?
Crash! Think of music like an encounter with two halves crashing together: on one side a set of sounds working as a composite, and on the other side, one good listener taking it all in. Like the case of a tree falling in the forest with no one around to notice it, without one good listener, the music encounter is broken and the music can’t work. But whenever there’s a listener, the music works.
If you make music there’s no guarantee anyone else will hear much, or any, of it. In fact, sometimes the only listener is yourself—at least for long stretches of time. This means you learn to represent, as much as you’re able, a mass of possible good listeners; you become a synechdoche of many pairs of attentive and receptive ears. You listen on behalf of imaginary others, sometimes as if you are these others. You ask the hard-to-answer question, How would someone sort of like me feel if they heard this?
When music has at least one good listener its encounter is set and you can let it run. The music proposes—consider this—and the listener considers. The music makes statements, declares, repeats and develops itself over time, while the listener follows along, silently assessing (or maybe dancing along too, depending on the music). It’s an involuntary assessing, an endless cross-referencing what the music is doing now with all of the other previous musical encounters the listener has ever experienced. Even though the music may not be consciously referencing other works, the listener can’t help but draw on other works to interpret this new piece. Sometimes the music is a sly remix artist par excellence, deftly combining familiar sounds and structures into unfamiliar contexts. The music says, well yes, technically this is a disco beat, but it’s not in a disco setting. The music proposes and declares while the listener thinks, sure, it may not be in a disco setting, but I’ve heard some of these gestures somewhere before, even if I can’t say exactly where. There’s a dialogue between the music’s doings and the listener’s assessing, a back and forth that shapes the meanings the music takes on.
Sometimes the music produces unintended or outsized effects, where its sounds are interpreted by a listener in an unprecedented way. Even though the music can do whatever it wants, it’s the listener who ultimately determines how to use the music, and decides whether or not it’s even worth returning to. This is how a symphony becomes a meditation tool, a drone becomes a film soundtrack, or a disco beat in a new setting becomes coffee shop ambiance. One good listener can pluck a music from obscurity and share with other enthusiasts everything that makes its sound a special way of knowing the world.