The Main Thing And Its Peripherals

The main thing is the thing that needs to get done before everything else in a track—the part that every other part depends on, the part from which everything else flows. Here’s an example: for practice, I’ve been working on a series of pieces built around mid-tempo Afrobeats-style beats. Afrobeats–not to be confused with Afrobeat–is an umbrella term for Afro-pop or Afro-fusion popular music originally from West Africa, but now popular in Europe and North America. I’m no expert on Afrobeats rhythms, but they’re like a slowed down soca beat, and at minimum require an interplay between a kick drum on beat one against a high-pitched snare/clap/cross/stick/clave hitting on the last 16th note of beat 1 and the And of beat 2. This interplay gives the beat a half-time feel. There’s space in Afrobeats rhythms because, unlike in soca, the kick drum doesn’t play on every downbeat. This sense of space forged from a rhythm as much felt as heard–as listeners we infer the music’s pulse from the “missing” kick hits–is one reason why Afrobeats tracks feel laid back, yet energized. In a word, the rhythms sound chill.

I’ve been building upon Afrobeats-style beats because the beats are the main thing: in fact, without the beats there is no piece. But once a beat’s structure is in place, I can play with its peripherals. Peripherals are details on the edges of the musical main thing. With the Afrobeats rhythms, the main thing to get right is their tempo and core patterns, but beyond that everything is fungible–which makes the music-making process exciting. I mentioned earlier the idea of the beats requiring “at mininum” a relationship between the rhythms of two main percussion sounds. Playing with a beat’s peripherals whilst preserving its rhythm opens up variations. I’ve truncated the drum sounds into tiny shards, processed them into amorphous blobs, added delays to make their rhythms float a bit and distortion to make them buzz. I’ve elongated the pattern from 4 to 32 or even 64 measures and muted bits of it here and there in non-repeating ways to create space. In sum, my workflow is to start with an obvious (and sometimes uninteresting) beat and alter it until it sounds un-obvious and enchanting. Once you have the main thing in place, you’ve anchored your process and you’re free to play with its peripherals. 

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