Making Music Is Phenomenology

“I was thinking, yes, but in shifting shapes and rhythms and dimly colored vectors, thinking with my senses, feeling my way toward insights and understandings that had more the form of feelings blooming in my belly than of statements being spoken within my skull.”

David Abram, Becoming Animal (2011), p. 112

Making music is phenomenology—accessing a terrain of texture, cognitive dimensionality, and kinesthetic play through the experience of sound. Whether striking a marimba or mouse-clicking on a computer, each time I generate sounds the sounds make things happen in me too: my mind moves far and wide, feeling and associating, conjuring and remembering, as if trying to connect the chords, melodies, timbres, and rhythms to people, places, affects, and times. In this way, making music is being in two places at once: an activity of both concentration and freewheel mind-body wandering.

Because music connects the sonic with one’s lived experience, composing/producing it requires a balance between design and affect, structure and mystery, number and energy, proportion and enchantment. At any moment, one can fall back on cold calculation or indulgent noodling. No one likes music that is technical for technique’s sake (nerd music), or is overly me-focused (mawkish music). The task of the composer is, simply and ideally, to design a space in which sounds can be organized for beauty.

Recently I’ve been using a software sequencer to compose a series of pieces. The software’s interface is, thankfully, simple to understand after a few minutes of clicking around: there’s three percussion sound generators, a sampling track, and a step sequencer by which all of the sounds are triggered. The sequencer is the engine: select a sound source, shape a waveform, and click on one of the 16 steps to create a musical event that comes to life once every time cycle. (The 16-beat cycle can be reduced all the way to a single step too.) Click to activate a few more steps and suddenly a rhythmic pattern emerges. Select another sound and click a few different steps to create a second, contrasting rhythm. As you play with the parameters of the sounds—re-pitching them, filtering them, changing their waveforms—soon the three rhythms are interlocking in a hypnotic space of beats.

Figure 1. Image of audio waveform in sampler

But the deep fun begins when you load an audio file into the sampler (Figure 1). I use one of my own tracks (why not?), wondering whether there’s something in there that could sound interesting. The sequencer’s small sample window is just large enough to display the jagged peaks of the file’s waveform, compressing three minutes of sound into two inches of an abstracted skyline. I click on the first step of the sequencer and listen to a bit of the sample it triggers—it’s just a sliver of sound, barely long enough to hear. I extend its decay and sustain so that more of the sample plays each time around. But the most important control in the sampler is “Sample Location” which allows one to scroll through the audio file, from beginning to end. Each tiny movement of the Location control is like casting a fish hook into sonic depths. I let the percussion parts cycle around as I listen to different sample locations. Where is the “best” one and will I recognize it when I hear it? (Have I already heard it?)

There are dozens of options that could sound good, that could work, but I decide that I needn’t explore them all. As soon as I find a sound that is enchanting enough—the “best” sound is often the most enchanting or captivating sound—I’ll stop casting the hook. This connects back to the idea that making music is a phenomenology of one’s own experience through sound: the point of composing is to try making music that generates a feeling we can’t encounter otherwise. Our interaction with the sounds has to generate what the art anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong called “an affective presence” with an infinitely renewable power to generate affect. I scroll around the sample, listening for a presence.

At every moment of working, the composer/producer as phenomenologist is assessing how the sounds in a track are making themselves felt. Whether there’s three sounds or twenty, whether the sounds are acoustic, synthetic, or somewhere in between, each has its unique presence. A sound can be mellow or strident, clinical or plaintive, distant or near, razor clear or obfuscated, and the repeated production task (that is perhaps so obvious as to be often unremarked upon) is to find the right sound for the context and the right context for the sound. I scroll through different sample locations but the sounds seem too energized, too bright. I pitch down the audio file by six semitones (after trying it twelve semitones lower, which sounded muddy). Now the samples relax and sound more mysterious. In fact, I no longer recognize the piece I had sampled from. Maybe in this lower register I’ll hear something that sounds right?

In these pieces composed using the step sequencer, sequencing itself is a constraint to work against, to spur workflows that I would not have otherwise tried. (I tend to work linearly.) Since the sequencer cycles around and repetition in both the percussion and sample parts is inevitable, I listen for that location at which the sample will benefit, rather than suffer from, repetition. How can I configure the sample so that it sounds interesting each time around? I play with settings: changing the attack so the sample fades in before sustaining and releasing, filtering it, and adding reverb so its tail hovers over the time cycle. The sample moment I’ve committed to is sounding better. Sometimes making small tweaks is enough to get a sample sounding inevitable and natural, like an enchanting presence.

I wrote a book about electronic music production. If this looks of interest to you or someone you know, I would appreciate you checking it out.

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