“The sequencer’s automatic sound sequences and the drum machine’s loops hypnotized me. These black boxes brought the trance quality of African, Indian and Asian musical cultures into pop music, a quality that had been the starting point for the minimalist concept.”
“Working with automatic music machines is fundamentally different from human music-making, simply because machines reproduce set parameters and aren’t capable of listening and reacting.”
“In a wonderful film by Peter Schamoni, the great visual artist Max Ernst talks about having had a problem filling a blank canvas. In his inimitable way, he called it his ‘virginity complex’. It was simply impossible for him to apply the first dab of paint to the surface. Until one day, coincidence helped him overcome his inhibitions. Sitting in a small inn on the French Atlantic coast on a rainy day in 1925, his eyes alighted on the wooden floor. The boards were faded from being scrubbed clean, and he noticed the grain of the wood moving before his mind’s eye, turning into a kind of animation. To hold onto the moment, he dropped pieces of paper on the floor and traced the grain with a soft pencil, like rubbing brass. To his surprise, he found his vision sharpening as he looked at the lines on the paper. Max Ernst refers it as to ‘questioning the material’. These traced basic patterns then went through a series of transmutations in the process of his work, losing their original character and taking on – as Max Ernst describes it – the appearance of incredibly precise figures.”
“A piece of writing ought not to be planned for a given size but developed to the length most suitable to the material, and no farther.”
– John McPhee, Tabula Rasa
If you’re a casual listener to electronic music, you may be forgiven for thinking that form in most styles of the genre is essentially a matter of repeating loops and MIDI sequences arranged like Lego blocks with transitions, risers, drops, and fills inserted every 16 or 32 bars. From this point of view, form in the music is a predictable by-product of basic cut and paste arrangement decisions facilitated by DAW music production software.
But if you make music you understand form to be a much more open-ended, and often ambiguous question in search of a structural answer. When you’re making music you don’t know where you’re going form-wise because you’re discovering it as you go along. This happens most clearly in improvisation (composition’s force mover), but also when sound designing, mixing, and arranging. For example, you might play something you never planned on playing, create a sound you never planned on creating, or find a balance of parts you didn’t anticipate finding. Such accidents of experience–such serendipity generators–often lead you to new musical forms. The more you inhabit a piece in progress the more you realize that answers to questions of form are different for every piece. The composer Arvo Pärtsuggests we think of form as a system that helps us articulate the music’s essential gesture. “The compositional task” Pärt says, “is to find the appropriate system for the gesture” (The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, p. 117).
Let’s consider a few interesting–and musical!–form examples previously discussed on this blog in which producers find forms that both suit the music and shape it. On his track “Goodbye” u-Ziq (Mike Paradinas) relies on on a form made up of 8 and 16 bar sections. While such a structure is not unique, u-Ziq employs it without any transitional markers between sections. This creates a seamless flow that constantly rearranges itself like a kaleidoscope. I wrote in a blog post, “the music proceeds in 8- and 16-bar blocks, with each block a different arrangement of parts. Each block is similar, yet crucially, each block is unique.”
On his track “Nebenraum” Fennesz (Christian Fennesz) uses an asymmetrical structure whose first introductory part is much longer than its second main part. This creates a deceptive form in that it prepares you for one thing then delivers a surprise. I wrote: “Forget verses and choruses, or themes and variations. ‘Nebenraum’ proceeds by a logic that feels custom-made for its form that seems custom made for its logic […] It holds our attention through sustained dissonance, subtle flickers of texture change and stereo placement, and most dramatically, a shift from using a long beginning to set up a briefer ending.”
On his track “rem” Taylor Dupree repeats a three-note melody and a second counterpoint line within a resonant spaced suffused with crackling white noise/ static and wobbling tape artifacts. The piece’s form sounds unchanging yet feels subtly alive. I wrote how “the pitched and textural elements in the track seem to float, yet undergo subtle changes that are just enough to turn repetition into enchantment.”
Finally, on their track “Bladelores” Autechre subject every sound to continuous evolutions to create what feels like a self-generated form. I wrote: “If you listen to any one-minute section of the track and focus on a single sound–the backbeat, the bassline, the chords–you can hear micro changes inflicting themselves continuously on each part, second by second. So that white noise back beat is almost never only a marking of beats 2 and 4, nor is that bassline merely marking a chord progression. Upon closer inspection, the parts keep changing rhythmically and/or timbrally and this change is the basis of the processual aspect of the music as a whole.”
“…errors cause planes to crash, buildings to collapse, and knowledge to regress. The beneficial properties need to reside in the type of exposure, that is, the payoff function and not in the ‘luck’ part: there needs to be a significant asymmetry between the gains (as they need to be large) and the errors (small or harmless), and it is from such asymmetry that luck and trial and error can produce results.”
Recently I was clicking around an audio file I had loaded into a granular sampler software. I was changing the Grain Location within the audio, positioning the cursor at different points of a graphic that reminded of the up-down mountain topography of a Tour de France stage, listening for something good. Nothing was sounding good, so I kept moving the cursor along the mountainous waveform, now adjusting the Grain Size knob as well, trying to get something going. But there was no magic–no sound that inspired me to hear beyond itself, to hear through the sound towards a feeling evoked.
The reason I was clicking around an audio file in a granular sampler in the first place was that I had made the decision to use the software to make a series of pieces. (A series is always better than a single piece because you can leverage what worked in one piece to work in multiple pieces, and failing that, it takes the guesswork out of What to do next? for a while.) My plan was vague: load your audio files, see what you get, and build on that. But so far I wasn’t getting much to build on. Was this idea simply a dead end, an error?
In his writings about his concept of antifragility, Nassim Taleb notes that our errors are valuable because they reveal information. There’s also an asymmetrical relationship between small errors (i.e. those with little downside) and their potentially big payoffs. Making errors is a good practice to practice because errors have “beneficial properties” built into them in that they tell us what isn’t working, or what we don’t know. In short, it’s through making errors that we learn. In the context of an uncertainty-strewed craft such as music production, when we make errors we strengthen the systems that guide our work.
Despite there being no magic at the moment, I pushed on with tinkering with my audio. I opened the Modulation page in the software, which shows a representation of the sample’s ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release) Envelope. I played with the sustain length, making it shorter which caused the sample to skip and stutter, then made it super long which created a drone.
Wait, what’s that sound?
The drone kept going…and going. I stopped, took my fingers off the keyboard, and listened. It sounded gossamer yet full of little pulsations. It was also super quiet, so I boosted it 10 dB. I clicked on the Effects page, noticed that there was reverb on the sound, turned it off, then turned it on again to see what exactly the difference was. (Not much.) Through tinkering, what seemed to be an error a few minutes ago was becoming an opportunity.
The sustain on the drone was so long that I could play a chord in the lower register with it and, while the chord resonated, play higher notes. I went back and forth from one end of the keyboard to the other for a while until I remembered to record a take. Then I tried separating the low and high register parts into different takes. This way the first (lower) part wouldn’t be listening to the second (higher) one, and the length of each part could be different. Recording the lower and higher parts as separate takes of differing lengths added unpredictability into the process. I liked the resulting sound because it wasn’t something I could have played all at once I couldn’t predict how it would go.
One of the most common experiences I have when working on music is encountering my own errors. (“Cataloguing of negative results” Taleb advises in the essay’s “Heuristics to Maximize Antifragility” section.) Among the many types of errors are those of process, judgement, performance, and patience. Process errors include doing things that I know from experience rarely lead me to interesting results, such as using four-bar loops. Errors of judgment include not listening closely enough to what it is in a sound that isn’t quite right. Errors of performance happen when I don’t take enough risks while recording. All of these errors are connected to my errors of patience. I find that when an error tells me what isn’t working, I can use this information to slow myself down and alter the course of my practice. The example of my clicking around an audio clip in search of something good illustrates this. My workflow felt like an error until trying this and that began generating something with promise.