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. 

2 thoughts on “Creative Edges

  1. As a naïve keyboard player I love my Little Plastic Keyboard. The small size doesn’t hurt the playing skills I don’t have! When supplying what is meant to sound like a “real piano player,” in compositions I usually do the left hand and right hand parts separately.

    1. Right….And anyway, once the notes are recorded we often can’t tell if they were played together in real time, as separate parts, or even “drawn in.” I still prefer playing over drawing notes!

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