On Musical Transitions

“Transition is the very heart of inspiration and creativity” writes the inventor Ernő Rubik, in his autobiography, Cubed (2020). Rubik is, of course, the inventor of Rubik’s Cube, my favorite toy back in the day. I could solve the Cube fairly quickly when I was a kid, although I had to read a book about it. With obsessive practice, I learned color pattern recognition, along with the tacit knowledge of how to handle the Cube, keep track of which color-shapes were on which of the six sides, and how break down solving the puzzle into smaller goals achieved by various twisting patterns. I can still feel in my hands the flip down-twist left-flip up move required to rotate a corner piece, for example. Solving the Cube is about recognizing patterns of color-shapes and then stringing together a series of twists to gradually transform those patterns into a single color per Cube side. The solving process is a continuous flow of the hands working to transition one pattern into another and then another, creating slowly morphing six-color combinations. Solving the Cube is to unscramble it back to its pristine state.

Composing music is similarly a matter of devising transitions to take sounds on a journey, to take the music from a here to a there. There are many forms of transition. A widespread harmonic transition is one chord “moving” to another (we say moving, but a chord progression is only metaphorical motion), or a chord cadence used to end a phrase, such as V to I progression, which is essentially a transition from a sense of tension or anticipation to a sense of stability or resolution (we say that a I chord “resolves” the V chord). Moving from one section of a piece of music to another usually requires a transition point, obvious or not, whether that be a modulation or common tone (as in classical music), a drum fill (in rock and pop), a bass drop or effects filter sweep (in electronic musics), or the gradual addition/subtraction of parts (a feature of many musics).

A more amorphous kind of transition concerns how to develop a simple musical idea—such as a rhythm or a beguiling timbre—into something more substantial. Back to Rubik’s Cube: the puzzle isn’t solved by simply repeating patterns; transition requires transforming one pattern into another pattern. In his book, Kubik looks to nature’s fluidity and connectivity as the ideal ecological model for thinking about design and creativity generally. “At its core, design is the link to nature for artificial objects” he says. “Nature does not know strict borders or barriers; it only knows transition.”  

Musical structures are frequently built upon mutually distinct, yet interconnected, patterns layered upon one another: chords, melodies, rhythms, and timbres each doing different things whilst superimposed to make a composite, interpenetrating meta-pattern. The composing of electronic music production–or what I’ve begun thinking of as a kind of omnimusicality–is fundamentally about figuring out novel ways of arriving at such meta-patterns using technological tools for manipulating sounds. As the producer Huerco S. notes in an interview, these tools make it possible to investigate the “artifacts  deep deep below” a sound’s surface to excavate ideas that can be used compositionally. As well, in the never-ending process of understanding the potential uses of tools, the producer undergoes his/her own transition into awareness of workflow and the creative process. In a YouTube tutorial, the producer AU5 explains this metacognitive transformation: “It’s not just learning the tool; it’s learning how you interact with the tool—the relationship you have with synths and effects.”

In music production, there are as many kinds of transition as there are ways of manipulating sounds.  Sometimes a musical process is its own transition, such as a piece that gradually erodes into noise, slows down, moves from mono to stereo, or melts into a drone; while other times transitions are finessed into the music as finishing touches. Sometimes producers disguise the seams of their music, so transition points are felt but not obvious in their workings; while other times a transition such as a bass drop, filter sweep, or fade out is the focal point. In sum, transitions in music are like twists of the Cube: processes of momentum that keep the music changing from one state to another, in a continuous flow. 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s