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.     

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