Notes On Form In Electronic Music Production

“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.”

My book.

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