Start From Scratch (Again)

If you’re new to this blog or haven’t noticed its themes, I often write to distill ideas relating to music production workflows. I generalize based on my own experiences and share concepts that guide the work of other musicians. I think there are insights here and there, or at least an accumulation of analytical weft that points a way forward. 

But even as I look to others for ideas, there is one idea I practice most often: start from scratch (again). Sure, I keep track of what I’ve done, return to older pieces to polish them, and put tracks in progress into color-coded folders (the promising ones are green, the polished promising ones purple). But this is more busywork than essential work. The essential work has a different feel to it, and always a similar trajectory that builds from the ground up. For example, it might begin with new sounds, a new structure, a new way of relating these sounds and structures, fewer or more chords this time, a significant timbral difference, or a bigger or smaller ambiance. Such things can suggest a new idea. Essential work begins with a sense of freedom from what we’ve already done–a freedom to proceed as if naive and a freedom to ask, How about this? as a starting point.

Most of all, essential work is defined by its forward flow. In contrast to busywork that ticks off tasks once accomplished, essential work navigates a series of decision intersections. Picture being lost in an unfamiliar city (pre GPS), where you can’t see beyond where you currently are and don’t have a mental map of the place. Since you’re lost, you flow through your wayfaring decisions made in the moment: I’ll turn here to see what’s around the corner, or I’ll stay on this road until it ends. So it is with committing to sounds in the production moment as you use what you improvised as a structuring device, or build a piece around the first sound that really grabbed you. In the wayfaring of being lost and the wayfaring of doing essential work to create something new, your flow is always forward and there’s no going back, no do overs. It’s a performance! What makes both experiences essential and generative is your trust that they’ll lead you somewhere interesting. 

Resonant Thoughts: Ian Penman’s “It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track” (2019)

“Our twenty-first-century snake oil promise of ‘more choice’ often devolves into homogenous slip, a moraine of thin and strong repetition. In the current YouTube moment, we’re told that we have a limitless look-see option on everything there ever was, laid out right before us—but at the price, perhaps, if a complete absence of critical chiaroscuro.”

Aiming For Perfection, Open To Correction

The other day I was working on a piece and had the idea to record the chords while muting the vocal parts. Normally I wouldn’t do this because I want to hear what I’m playing along to! But in this case there were too many unusual phrasings in the singing for me to react to in real time. I would have had to run through ideas dozens of times, weed out progressions that didn’t work, and I don’t want to spend my time doing that. Instead, knowing the general key areas (mostly g, c, and f minor) I recorded a sequence of chords that was in the tonal ballpark, and most importantly, left quite a bit of space, with most chords lasting for two or four beats. There were a few odd choices and turnarounds, and the sequence was over a minute long—in other words, I had a non-obvious yet idiomatic performance that could work. 

Next I unmuted the vocals and listened to how the chords sounded with them. There were some surprising juxtapositions—exactly the kinds of juxtapositions I could not have manufactured deliberately if I had tried. I also heard some clear wrong notes in need of fixing: when one of the vocal bits modulated to D major my fs needed to become f-sharps. That kind of thing. As I fixed notes I realized that I could also improve what I had played: for example, by dragging a bass note one octave further down, or making two inner voices move in opposite directions to open up the chords. I let the parts play and tinkered with the chord notes as I listened, letting my ears guide me.

This way of finessing after the fact has, for me, its merits. In an ideal world, I would nail the chords the first time around, and I always aim for that. But more important is getting something in the ballpark down that I can mold. It’s in this way that while I aim for perfection, I’m open to correcting what I’ve done. The payoff of this approach is not one but two layers of surprising juxtapositions: the sound of the chords interacting with the singing part in unusual ways, and the sound of edited chord notes that create harmonic surprises I could never have foreseen.

Gong Lessons

Gongs are one of my favorite percussion instruments. Why? Because they’re drone machines that make unusual long tones, tones that are often of indefinite pitch and hard to decipher. Because they’re the orchestra’s ultimate Outsider instrument. Because they take a while to warm up, and even longer to quiet down. But the best thing about gongs is the relationship they offer my hands. A gong is highly responsive instrument, one that hums and sings my every action of stroke, rolling, pressure, and location. And the closer you get to a gong, the more you hear the complexities of these nuances. Every time you strike a gong (I play them every day) it sounds subtly different, reminding you of touch’s endless variety. 

I think about the gong’s responsiveness when I’m working on the computer and thinking about its mediations. Here’s the thing: listening to music on monitors or headphones immerses you in a sound world, but this immersion is not the same as viscerally connecting with an acoustic sound you play yourself. The sounds I make with the computer are always in some kind of relationship to the acoustic sounds I’ve made myself (or can imagine making), prompting questions like, Is this sound realistic? Does this sound convince me with its presence the way a gong does? You can get close to conjuring an acoustic sound you play yourself by getting your playback volume just right, but it’s still a different animal. It can be vivid, yet still one step removed from reality. Thinking about playing gongs reminds me that it’s the difference between listening to a sound and vibrating with a sound, resounding with it.

Speaking of resounding, here is Alan Watts talking about resonance as a form of consciousness:

“when I tap on this crystal, which is glass, it makes a noise. Now that resonance is an extremely primitive form of consciousness…when you hit a bell it rings, or you touch a crystal and it responds, inside itself it has a very simple reaction. It goes ‘jangle’ inside, whereas we go ‘jangle’ with all sorts of colors and lights and intelligence, ideas, and thoughts…” (The Tao of Philosophy, pp. 8-9).

Three Non-Obvious Production Principles

• Your initial sound matters, but only to a point, because your sound designing upon a sound will transform it far beyond what it was. The lesson: don’t obsess over your initial sounds.

• The focus you apply to a track—or your time under tension/attention—is audible in the finished result. The lesson: finesse sounds all the way through a track so that the sounds’ presences are felt and heard–as if they’re alive.

• Build tracks by adding parts freely, knowing that you may not use everything. The lesson: accumulate parts and then delete/mute some of them to reveal what is left. Practice what Nassim Taleb calls subtractive knowledge: “You know what is wrong with more certainty than you know anything else.”

Process, Not Outcome

Roy Lichtenstein, Landscape in Fog (1996)

The saying, process, not outcome is the most actionable advice for building creative work. We can’t control the outcome of our work—such as whether it succeeds in doing what we hoped it would do, or whether others find it interesting, useful, beautiful, etc. But we can choose and commit to a process to help us do the work.

A process often seems arbitrary, until the moment you commit to it. Then it blooms, revealing its potentials. Process is the artist Roy Lichtenstein committing to using Benday dots to animate his paintings (using stencils with perforated dot patterns), or composer Steve Reich committing to replicate the echoing sound of out sync tape recorders with live percussionists, or a Haiku writer committing to writing three lines using just 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern.

Recently I was finishing a collection of pieces when it occurred to me that I didn’t know why I had committed to these sounds specifically and not others. Was I really almost done? I could keep building up the pieces, I thought, and I could swap out all the sounds for different ones. Instead, I continued working with what I had. I also noticed that I had been following subtle rules: I would take away from a part, but not add to it; I would re-use an effect already in play, but not add new ones. Once I had committed to a process without being assured of a desired outcome, I was free to shape the music until there was nothing left to do.