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.

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