Curating The Week: How To Get New Ideas, Attention, 40 Useful Concepts

An essay about how to get new ideas.

“The way to get new ideas is to notice anomalies: what seems strange, or missing, or broken?”

An article about monks and attention.

“We inherited the monkish obsession with attention, and even inherited their moral judgments about the capacity, or failure, to concentrate. But most of us did not inherit their clarity about what is worthy of our concentration.”

“One uncomfortable explanation for why so many aspects of modern life corrode our attention is that they do not merit it. The problem for those of us who don’t live in monasteries but hope to make good use of our days is figuring out what might.”

An article about 40 useful concepts.

“The mark of useful info is that it makes us act differently.”

Database: SG Lewis on Samplers

“Those old samplers…the audio quality would be degraded through dithering of the audio in the sample, in the sampler, or there’s a natural built-in bit crushing element to a lot of those samplers. Those distortion elements are introduced by feeding audio into a new piece of kit.

So the next couple of [production] steps were decreasing the quality of this audio. So taking a bunch of information out using EQ, over compressing it using OTT (…)

I was reading about the [1980s and 1990s] sampling and it was a case of trying to reverse engineer how sampling back then would sound in 2022—trying to replicate the shortcomings of those old samplers. The irony of it is that we have all this amazing equipment now and we spend a lot of time trying to make it sound shit again. Whether it’s the nostalgia or something about the audio that’s appealing to the human ear (…) It’s the same reason someone uses analog synthesizers or tape machines and stuff—there’s something about degrading the audio.”

SG Lewis

database.

Ways Of Tonal Evolutions

(Image: Casey Horner)

Listening to contemporary ambient music I notice that much of it is constructed from broad washes of sound, or what could be called tonal drones. Drones are sustained pitches that establish a mood, not a direction; they conjure a stasis, not forward movement. For many electronic music producers working in ambient’s orbit, a common way to make a drone is to engulf a tone in a sea of reverb. There’s a reason why the reverb’s Mix amount knob is labeled as a “wet/dry” control: with enough reverb a tone’s beginning and end blur into an oceanic unity, a continuous hum.

I enjoy some music built upon such spacious drones, but only when they make deliberate perceptual demands on my listening, rather than mere endurance demands. For the producer, being deliberate requires constructing the music that enacts evolving attentional shifts rather than stays in a single place. An ever-present problem with drones is that they induce a lazy listening. Of course, some listeners want exactly this: to use music as a backdrop for chilling out. 

Instead of tonal drones, I prefer chords that keep morphing into new constellations of themselves. These tonal evolutions make for active rather than passive musical textures, keeping my interest through the trajectories of their component pitches, as the notes dovetail around one another, leaving traces of their consonance and dissonance filigree, like the luminous dust of shooting stars. In terms of production practice, one way to create tonal evolutions is to generate an initial chord progression and then use it to seed other musical material–from chord progressions and melodies to drones and rhythms. Improvising chords or a melody on a keyboard (or other instrument) is a useful starting point because there’s multiple elements of uncertainty baked into the process: 

How long will you improvise for–four bars or sixty, 30 seconds or 5 minutes? What will the tempo be? Will you repeat motives you discover along the way, or continue onto ever-new phrases? Will you incorporate a lot of space between the notes, or aim for denser constructions? Will you play with a large or small dynamic range? Will your mistakes be left as they are, or corrected after the fact? Once you have an improvised a chord progression or a melodic line you have a tremendous amount of seed material to play with. Put another way: no matter how paltry you feel it might be, treat your captured MIDI or audio as gold. From here, consider six ideas for how to proceed.

Listen to the improvisation to find the good bits. It may be the case that somewhere in your improvisation there’s a gem of a chord sequence or melody that stands out, or stands on its own. Find this gem and copy its MIDI for use elsewhere, or render it to audio so you can play with that further. 

Consider the entire improvisation as the track-to-be’s structure. The unique ebb and flow of your performance could be an interesting way to structure a track. You may have implicitly delineated sections and an arrangement that just need to be fleshed out.

Derive other parts from the improvisation. There’s accompanying chords, bass lines, and bits and bobs latent in your improvisation. To start, copy the MIDI for the entire improvisation to other tracks. For example, a chord sequence can become a bass part if you pitch it down and mute all but one of the notes in each chord. Or a melody line might be traced in the sequence’s highest-pitched notes. 

Generate permutations of your improvisation. Play with your performance’s copied MIDI parts. Individual notes and chords can be pitched up or down, repeated, deleted, inverted, stretched out, or compressed. Practice permutation-making until it’s an inevitable part of your workflow. 

Record/resample your entire improvisation to audio. While MIDI is useful because it’s easily edited and can generate a thousand different sounds, audio is useful because it’s infinitely morphable. In a DAW, audio files can be processed in extreme ways, bringing the sound you began with far from its starting point. Plus, working with audio commits you to the MIDI you rendered: now there’s no going back to edit those MIDI notes.

Use your audio to generate new MIDI. One you have audio files of your original MIDI performance, you can use this audio to generate new MIDI. This audio-to-MIDI translation process is not perfect, which makes it fascinating: for example, the DAW often “hears” phantom pitches and out of key tones that aren’t in the audio, yet adds them in. You can use this new, not-quite-perfect MIDI file (derived from an audio file that was derived from your original MIDI) to seed other sounds.

In sum, these six techniques are useful for generating tonal evolutions as the basis of an active rather than passive ambient music.

Resonant Thoughts: Merve Emre’s “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?” (2023)

“Establishing a formal method of critical inquiry was in part an attempt to put literary studies on a par with the sciences, which were the chief models for the development of the professions in the university. Close reading branched out into many methods of reading—rhetorical reading for the deconstructionists, symptomatic reading for the Marxists, reparative reading for the queer theorists—culminating in what has been called the ‘method wars.’ […] Discussions of how a novel or a poem worked were less valuable than whatever historical or political occurrences it manifested. The aims of criticism and of scholarship diverged.” 

“The final phase of criticism’s arc began with the rise of a figure that Roger Kimball memorably described as the ‘tenured radical,’ and which we might think of as the Scholar-Activist. For her, the proper task of criticism was to participate in social transformations occurring outside the university. The battle against exploitation, she claimed, could be waged by writing about racism, sexism, homophobia, and colonialism, using an increasingly refined language of historical context, identity, and power. Literary artifacts (poems, novels, and other playthings of the élite) could be replaced as objects of study by pop-culture ones (Taylor Swift, selfies, and other playthings of the masses). By 2004, it was possible for Edward Said to lament that there were only two paths available to the critic in an era of intense specialization. He could ‘either become a technocratic deconstructionist, discourse analyst, new historicist, and so on, or retreat into a nostalgic celebration of some past state of glory associated with what is sentimentally evoked as humanism.’”

– Merve Emre, “Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism?”

Resonant Thoughts: Arvo Pärt On Bell Sound

“If a single bell is struck, and we contemplate the nature of its sound– the Klang at impact, the spread of sound after this initial gesture, and then the lingering cloud of resonance–what we hear takes us to the heart of tintinnabuli. A finely wrought bell makes one of the most mysterious and creative sounds; a sound that certainly ‘rings out’ and reaches towards us, yet at the same time pulls us in towards it, so that soon we realize that we are on the inside of it, that its inside and outside are in fact one and the same.”

Arvo Pärt 

Many Lines From A Single Gesture

It’s easy to fret over the direction a new track might take. We wonder, Have I begun in a potent place or painted myself into a corner before I’ve gotten going? But a direction can be figured out as you move along the production process. What’s most important, initially, is your gesture.

I’ve thought about gesture in production ever since I read what the composer Arvo Pärt once said about it: “I have always to find this nucleus first from which the work will eventually emerge…The compositional task is to find the appropriate system for the gesture.” For Pärt, a gesture is the nucleus or central core from which a piece grows.

Building on this, I think about gesture in spatial terms—as the movements of my hands around a keyboard. A musical gesture is a way of playing across time—in other words, it’s a performance. Which notes happen when is important, of course, but what matters most is how the gesture as a whole feels. How does it move or stay still using change or repetition? Does it keep my attention? When we become immersed in a gesture’s performance, it often happens that a musical something that is simple and relatively un-technical can nevertheless feel compelling—as if the component parts have become a more expansive whole. The most important thing about a gesture then, is that it enacts some kind of performance with a capacity to compel.

As for finding the appropriate system for the gesture, we need to ask: How can this gesture become a finished piece? As I have discussed elsewhere, recursive techniques of folding the gesture upon itself is one way to develop new parts. For instance, a gesture can be duplicated, played at different speeds, sampled and resampled from, amplified or processed, inverted or reversed, used to trigger other sounds, played along with, and so on. These techniques are simple yet endlessly generative, especially when combined. For example, resampling your gesture, playing it at half speed, and then processing it could create additional lines whose strangeness might inspire you to reevaluate where to take the music next. 

Such techniques for generating lines are powerful, yet they aren’t a substitute for your original gesture–that nucleus you composed or improvised or otherwise discovered. Techniques can help you build, but on their own don’t enact a performance over time. You need to start with something that makes you feel.