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.  

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