Accretion By Small Decisions

When I’m making music I try to prioritize the performative parts of my workflow over other, more technical tasks, because performing—which can be defined as committing to a concentrated state over time—intuitively feels like the most musical thing I can do (and it’s something I’ve practiced). I’ve written here about the urgency of performance and the challenge of coming up with a musical idea not by thinking it through or notating it, but by playing it. Playing is powerful because it’s like an interface for your body skills and your listening experience to come together, producing results that almost always surprise. But while there’s no denying the efficiency of performing, producing music equally draws on a broad toolset of technical-conceptual tasks, from choosing and editing sounds, to sound designing, arranging, and mixing. These tasks require the musician to draw on previous experience to make many, many small decisions over the course of building a piece of music. How many decisions? Hundreds? Thousands? It’s hard to count such things.

To illustrate this decision-making, consider the simple task of creating an ambience for a sound. Sure, you can slap a reverb on that sound and call it a day… but not really, because adding ambience raises questions. What kind of space do you want for the sound? An acoustic space like a cathedral or recital hall? An artificial space with a 45-second decay time? Or an impossible space of infinite dimensions? Does the space have a wide or narrow stereo field? Are you adding the reverb before you generate the sound (so you can play the sound in the space), or after the fact? Is the reverb directly on a sound’s track, or sent to it via an effects Return? Or do you want to add reverb to all the music’s parts via grouped tracks to use its resonance like a tint? Speaking of tint, is the reverb bright or dark? Vintage or modern? Analog-style or digital? When I work I consider such questions by trying out different options and making quick yes-no decisions to keep things moving along. I’ll turn to my go-to devices and settings, but just as often explore novel sound design paths without knowing where they’ll lead me. What if I use a huge reverb that is gingerly applied (i.e. with its wet/dry knob set low)? What if I foreground a synthetic reverb’s artificiality (i.e. its audible artifacts) rather than a convolution reverb’s acoustic realism? What if I chain two different reverbs together to make a hybrid super reverb? Or maybe there’s other ways to achieve reverb’s resonance and sense of space? Would a delay work better? 

As a piece grows, I’ll revisit a decision I had made about reverb a few days or weeks ago. I move levels up and down, adjust intensities, and finesse timbres so that the reverb works to accentuate the music rather than distract from it. (A question that is always helpful to answer is: Do I want to hear this reverb, or merely feel it?) As other parts are added, each with their own sonic spaces, I alter the original reverb to make room. Is it too boomy or too long? Is it conjuring or annoying? In sum, as with the music’s harmonies, timbres, arrangement, or mix, creating an ambiance for a sound through reverb has me playing with its parameters to get incrementally closer to a sound than sounds alive. Over time, the tedium of making many small decisions becomes its power: crafting beauty by accretion.

Shifting Frames Of Reference

If you work in tandem with digital music technologies, you may find yourself adrift in possibilities and a prisoner of recency bias, as your focus slips and slides and your attention wanders towards whatever seems most exciting right now. One way to mobilize this scatter and focus your work is to commit to whatever sound compels you enough to want to play with it. What often happens to me is that I’ll be going through sounds and then get dazzled by a particularly enchanting one. I don’t mean for this to happen: my plan was to go through an entire bank of sounds, make adjustments, and re-name/save those with potential. But when enchantment arrives it always does so by reminding me that making takes precedence over exploring. So when I hear an interesting sound, a sound with potential, I drop everything and make music with it.

The first moments with a new sound are key, because it’s then that we get to know what the sound can do by improvising with it. Time is of the essence, so I’ll make a little composition through a little performance on the spot, with the goal of generating a few minutes that I wouldn’t mind listening to. I often recall a quote from Harold Budd (in my book) about how he worked with synthesizers. Budd talked about the importance of working with whatever sound was closest at hand. Meaning: if you have a sound you like, use it now and to its full potential.

Once I have a mini-composition that feels like a something, I try to augment or scale it up in some way. There are endless ways to do this and just thinking about them can stall my progress. You can layer numerous other sounds to create timbral contrast, you can process what you have to change its texture, you can add a bass and some kind of beat, you can use your improvised MIDI to trigger another sound (e.g. a piano becomes strings), and so on. One way I approach the question of how to augment a sound and a part I already like is to think in terms of doing the minimum to produce the maximum result. I often take what I just played and declare, these notes, and only these notes, are the elements of the piece. What does this mean? It means that if I want another harmony or melody, it will come from here. If I want bass tones, they will come from here. If I want an entirely new sound, it will come from here. If I want a large-scale structure or arrangement, it will come from here. (Those “mistakes” in my performance can suggest interesting arrangements.) Yes, this is a self-imposed compositional constraint, though it’s not an arbitrary one. In fact, it’s a kind of elegant temporary solution to an open-ended problem. It’s elegant because there’s a beauty to deriving all of one’s materials from a single improvisation and all of one’s sounds from what is closest at hand. When I work this way I not only have something to aim for; I also know that all the parts with which I’ve augmented an initial part are related to it. This gives the music a kind of fractal, or self-similar quality.

But the producer also has to make quick, in-the-moment decisions about what sound to add next, and how to come by it. There are no rules as to how to do this, beyond pursuing what is closest at hand in your musical situation, and striving to do the minimum to produce the maximum result. Here’s an example. Recently I was exploring patches in a Native Instruments sampler instrument, listening to two-layer sounds comprised of instrument samples and granular textures. As I listened to the sampler instrument patches, I muted the texture layer to listen to the instrument samples layer, then muted the samples layer to listen to the texture layer. Then, with the samples layer still muted, I explored more texture options. A clanging metals sound caught my attention. Specifically, it got me thinking about how it could work as a percussion part for a piece I was working on. 

It was at that moment that I heard percussion differently. Exploring a sampler instrument had led me to audition textural layers, led me to interesting clanging metals sounds, and then led me to think about percussion as generator of textures as well as pulses—a topic I hadn’t thought about much until it was, literally, close at hand. In some electronic music contexts, beats can be hegemonic—the music needs have this kind of beat or else it isn’t that kind of music!—and so alternatives to kick-snare-hi hat sounds and patterns are refreshing. In sum, though I began by auditioning sounds, improvising little performances with them, and trying to augment them, I didn’t foresee clanging metals textures getting me to think anew about percussion. So it is that an everyday workflow can become its own shifting frame of reference.     

Curating The Week: Bass Philosophy, Textural Details In Animated Film, The Musician and Music Technologies

• A video about the philosophy of bass in music production.

“It’s your choice how you think about the psychoacoustic element: either your brain hears those upper harmonics, and calculates that there must be a low fundamental causing that harmonic series to emerge. Or the inherent nonlinearities of your hearing mean those sum and difference partials actually appear inside your head. But either way, it’s a tried and tested phenomenon, and most modern pop and rock mixes rely on it. If you ever wondered why you can listen to a mix on small tinny speakers, yet still hear the bass guitar clearly; and moreover still hear that it’s playing low, deep bass notes, even though you can’t feel the weight of them; this is what’s going on.

An article about visual-textual details in an animated film.

“’When I boosted up the saturation too much, she looked small — she became like a toy creature,’ said Jung, the art director. ‘When I brought down the saturation, she became too realistic, like a live-action creature.’ The team wanted something that felt natural and organic but still lively onscreen — something that would be ’embracing two different worlds,’ Jung said. They settled on a slightly desaturated red that leans toward magenta. When the character is far away, that tone is cooled to give the impression of atmosphere between the camera and the character — in the same way that, in real life, mountains in the distance often skew blue or purple.”

• A ventrilo-dialogue video from in 2011 about about the relationship between the musician and technologies of electronic music production.

Notes On Dylan Henner’s Marimba Music

“I still believe that the primary virtue and usefulness of criticism resides precisely in its limitations—in the fact that the critic’s fragile linguistic tryst with the visible object is always momentary, ephemeral, and local to its context. The experience blooms up in the valley of its saying, to borrow W.H. Auden’s phrase, but it does not survive that moment.”
– Dave Hickey, Air Guitar (1997)

Being a percussionist, I’m attuned to music that features percussion used in an interesting and idiomatic way, meaning: percussion played in a way that pushes its potentials without getting stuck in its cliches. Percussion-less, programmed beats, ubiquitous in, and an essential engine of, many electronic popular musics, don’t usually catch my attention, maybe because I know how little such beats rely on drumming know-how for their making. That’s one thing about programming rather than playing music: you risk missing out on the very action that makes playing music an active, alive endeavor.

So I was delighted when Spotify recommended to me the music of Dylan Henner, a (somewhat mysterious) producer and percussionist. Henner’s “We Lay Down in a Field of Orange Flowers and We Listened to the Birds” is a remarkable track that I’ve listened to numerous times. It features marimba playing—which is almost the sole sound source for the music—and inventive ways of manipulating/processing it. Henner combines simple chord arpeggios in the mid and low registers with fast rolls in the upper registers. Production-wise, he uses the width of the stereo field so that we hear those arpeggios and rolls panned hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the occasional long bell tone or field recordings. 

What most impresses me about “We Lay Down” is how it generates a sense of emotion from the marimba playing by reconfiguring the minimalists’ key compositional device: repetition over time. This isn’t a four-minute song, but a twenty-minute journey that takes its time declaring and joyfully reiterating its themes, strategically surrounding marimba hits with silence, rolling intense chord washes, and processing here and there so that patterns fold back upon themselves like a kaleidoscope to reveal the music’s fractal-like design. The music sneaks up on you, as if saying look at how far we can feel with the time we took. I’m still puzzling out how this piece is so sneakily effective. Is it its limited timbral palette? Its patient way with repetition? Its percussive urgency? The muffled voice recording that enter at 7:15? The ratio of the sound of played marimba to the sound of edited marimba? Such is the seamless construction of “We Lay” that these questions can remain unanswered, as our experience blooms up in the valley of its saying. In sum, our not being able to explain away all of the elements that make a piece of music work so well proves that it does.

Resonant Thoughts: Richard Sennett’s “The Craftsman” (2008)

“Going over an action again and again, by contrast, enables self-criticism. Modern education fears repetitive learning as mind-numbing. Afraid of boring children, avid to present ever-different stimulation, the enlightened teacher may avoid routine-but thus deprives children of the experience of studying their own ingrained practice and modulating it from within.”

“The difficult and the incomplete should be positive events in our understanding; they should stimulate us as simulation and facile manipulation of complete objects cannot.”

“But the craftsman’s slow working through forges the logic and maintains the form. Many propositions that seem counterintuitive are not so; we just don’t know their connections yet. Plodding craft labor is a means to discover it.”

“The skill of physical concentration follows rules of its own, based on how people learn to practice, to repeat what they do, and to learn from repetition. Concentration, that is, has an inner logic; this logic can, I believe, be applied to working steadily for an hour as well as for several years.”

“We might think, as did Adam Smith describing industrial labor, of routine as mindless, that a person doing something over and over goes missing mentally; we might equate routine and boredom. For people who develop sophisticated hand skills, it’s nothing like this. Doing something over and over is stimulating when organized as looking ahead.”

“The substance of the routine may change, metamorphose, improve, but the emotional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it; it is rhythm. Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled craftsman has extended rhythm to the hand and the eye.”

“Craftwork embodies a great paradox in that a highly refined, complicated activity emerges from simple mental acts like specifying facts and then questioning them.”

“We develop skill at the live edge.”

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman