Creative Edges

We speak metaphorically of edges when we wish to describe the most forward-located point in technological, scientific, or artistic development. We say, that’s cutting edge computer software, or her work is on the leading edge of contemporary music. To be at the cutting or leading edge is to be at that point where the trajectories of practice and potential join, as if making a virtual arrow pointing the way forward from where you are to where you could be.

I’ve been thinking about kinds of edges in the context of making music. A conventional meaning of edges is found in musical timbres. There are sounds whose timbres have too much edge that I have to soften into something more useable. Usually this involves slowing the attack (or onset) of a sound, to turn a Clang! into a fffwhang. Then there are sounds without enough edge that I need to sharpen. This is what I do to drum and percussion sounds–turning a resonant bass drum boom into a muted thud, or truncating a ringing cymbal into a tiny shard. I like the contrast between percussion sounds that are all edge and harmonic sounds that are edgeless.

A more interesting meaning of edge concerns the shape of one’s creative process. Where is the cutting edge of your craft? We might imagine edge as the intersection of two trajectories: between what you can currently make and what might be possible to make. How do we know when we’re doing something genuinely new? How do we each push forward the location of our cutting edges, so that the next time we are a little further along the path of our knowing? In my experience, doing something genuinely new seems to only happen in minuscule steps. One week I might make an effects device or a sound and the next week return to it, this time adding one more new element, and suddenly a new sound world emerges—not by magic, but by the accumulated steps I’ve taken while trying things out and dynamically adjusting to the results. Is this a further forward position for my cutting edge, or just variations on a tried and true workflow theme? 

Sometimes a new cutting edge appears after long periods of making seemingly non-substantial progress. For example, I often begin sessions by improvising on a keyboard. The keyboard is tiny— two octaves of undersized keys— so it’s a struggle to play and I’m always running out of octaves. But I like the constraint of the controller so I keep at the practice of improvising each day. The keyboard’s small size has already led me down interesting roads, such as using three-note rather than four-note chords (because I can better spread out fewer notes with larger intervallic distances between them). After a year of using the keyboard, my improvisations have not improved exactly, but surprisingly, something else has. I’ve learned to trust in limits, how to get into a concentrated space over and over, and how to repeatedly come up with something intriguing to work with. In time, this trust may turn out to be its own trajectory that leads to a new cutting edge on my ways of working. 

Resonant Thoughts: John T. Lysaker’s “Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports (The OxFord Keynotes Series)(2018)

“Taking his bearings from cybernetics, Eno works through interventions rather than utterly spontaneous creations. The variety he finds through systems music came from the system, after all. And therein lies the key–one takes steps to outwit oneself, whether with an oblique strategy or a pattern (or system) with which to generate sounds. That is, one initiates activities that run counter to one’s habits, and one awaits the results, judgement at the ready.”

John T. Lysaker, Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports (2018)

Resonant Thoughts: Ian Kirkpatrick On Dynamics

“There are only certain ways to have dynamics in your song: there is volume, there is brightness, and then there is stereo field. Sometimes I want a chorus to explode outward, and I want the drums to be mono in a certain place, and then get wider. You also can get such a crazy contrast sometimes by cutting off a reverb tail. You establish a space, and then you violate it. That catches people’s ears. I try to be very mindful of where my delays are ending and where my reverbs are.”

Ian Kirkpatrick, Sound On Sound 

On Beginnings and Endings: Fennesz’s “Nebenraum”

In Austrian producer and guitarist Christian Fennesz’s “Nebenraum” (2022), the first three minutes are filled by a three-note dissonant drone that sets up you for something you couldn’t have anticipated. As I listened to the piece over and over, I thought about the connection between the music’s three minutes and its final 75 seconds, which is in fact the heart of the experience, and maybe its true beginning. In this way, “Nebenraum” illustrates the topic of musical beginnings and endings. We’re familiar with their conventions in musical practice insofar as we can usually intuit when they’re happening: consider a song’s Introduction where the music yet to come is anticipated, where the band sets the tempo and key before the vocals come in, or a composition’s Ending where all the perviously heard themes return together for a rousing finale, or on recordings where the sounds gradually fade out so that the music appears to recede into an infinite tunnel. Across musical genres, rigorous composing/songwriting/production crafts ways of connecting a music’s beginning to its end, either through thematic development or recapitulation, seamless juxtaposition of otherwise distinct sections, or by more oblique means. 

Fennesz’s “Nebenraum” takes the oblique route. As my listening to the piece became obsessive (I often listen while writing while riding the subway), I noticed a few things. First, the three-minute drone Introduction is bracing from the get-go, holding you in the dissonance web spun by its three notes. Second, the drone undergoes slight changes of texture and stereo placement beginning at the one minute mark. You hear it in both ears, then titled over to the left, then drifting over to the right, and here and there subtle pulsations come to the foreground. Third, at 2:25 you become aware of a second set of musical tones fading into the mix, first moving at a slower rate of pulsation, then shifting gears to a faster one. As the tones emerge, you revise how you have been hearing the drone: Was it in fact an introduction, and now a supporting harmony, for this new part? Yes and no, because by 3:15 the drone has abruptly stopped and the new part is now the only part in the mix. It’s located in a narrow middle slice of the stereo field, inhabits a lower register, flickers through filtering, and is surrounded by soft delay effects. The second part’s sound is compelling on its own; I could have listened to it for five or ten minutes. But there’s no time for that because we’re already near the end of the piece. As you follow the new part’s morphing along, you remember the three drone notes, which, while no longer audible, are still present as a phantom harmony backdrop for where the music is now.

There’s a lot to like about “Nebenraum.” First, Fennesz’s sounds do what the best electronic music does, which is to wake up our perceptual faculties by making us wonder about how its sounds were arrived at and how to make sense of its interpretively slippery textures. Second, these beguiling sounds and textures go on a journey, but the journey’s route is not an obvious one. Forget verses and choruses, or themes and variations. “Nebenraum” proceeds by a logic that feels custom-made for its form that seems custom made for its logic. Which brings us back to form and to beginning and endings. I’m writing about this piece of music because I love how much the music does with (seemingly) so little. It holds our attention through sustained dissonance, subtle flickers of texture change and stereo placement, and most dramatically, a shift from using a long beginning to set up a briefer ending. For me, the track’s four minutes and twenty-two seconds somehow compress time, not to mention Fennesz’s decades of experience working with sound. When a musician distills options for texture and structure into a form without fluff and a form that feels inevitable, the resulting music passes in a flash and it’s difficult to imagine it having unfolded any other way.

Resonant Thoughts: Geoff Dyer’s “The Last Days Of Roger Federer And Other Writings” (2022)

“Knowledge has to be laid down in the brain in overlapping and criss-crossed layers. You need the underlay before you can have the carpet and then—then you can abandon the analogy because it’s completely unsustainable. Everything has gradually to become a kind of sediment in the brain, its ocean floor—a place so dark and mysterious that the fish aren’t even really fish, just creatures without eyes or brains, flattened by the dead weight of water-knowledge pressing down on them.”

Notes On What Worked

“Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal.
My strength lies solely in my tenacity.“
– Louis Pasteur 

At the risk of overthinking things, I take notes about my work as I’m making it, with the belief that reflecting on process sharpens one’s focus and elevates the next session’s prospects enough to make such reflecting worthwhile. If, as Louis Pasteur says, chance favors the prepared mind, then assessing one’s workflow is a good way to prep for future composing. 

I document my reflections in an Evernote file titled “What Worked.” Here I list everything I’ve tried within my music software that produced an interesting–that is, musical–result. Many of the entries are pedestrian, such as:

“grouped all tracks together (except bass) and added reverb to them”

“softened attack on sub”

“working at tempo of 155-177.”

The What Worked list is an example of function preceding form and theory following practice: every technique is something that I used while making music. Occasionally there’s a technique captured on this list which, over time, proves to be especially useful. For example, the “echo” track idea I used to expand upon existing material:

“‘echo’ tracks that are copies of initial improv
but move at different rates of speed and transposition.”

But for the most part, maintaining a What Worked list is a reminder of how little I’ve done—that is, how unadventurous and uncurious I’ve been considering the many, many unexplored possibilities offered by my ever partially understood tools. For example, I may have

“chained two distortions together” 

…but why didn’t I try five distortions, or combine the two with a few other sound manglers? The missing entries in What Worked suggest a creative cautiousness, and their lacunae also spur me to try more things the next time.

By now, the habit of adding to the What Worked list is strong and longstanding enough that I’m primed to notice, and build upon, genuinely new (to me) techniques as I’m exploring them. For example, recently as I was building a long effects chain (“built long effects chain” had made it into What Worked a while back) I thought to reverse the order of the effects in the chain, then save the result as “long effects chain 2a” etc. And the variations needn’t stop here. What would it sound like if long effects chain 2a were combined with those two distortions I mentioned earlier? Or what if the echo tracks were inverted, or played backwards? In sum, the power of documenting your work as you make it lies in the feedback loops you’ll configure between what you’ve done and what you’re thinking of trying next.