like the writer or speaker,
regularly confronts his conduct
as performance or not.”
David Sudnow, Talk’s Body (1979)
On one of my favorite VST synthesizers there’s a volume mix fader that allows one to move between the sounds of two oscillators (Osc). The control is delightfully simple: when the fader is all the way up, the sound is 100 percent Osc 1, when it’s all the way down it’s 100 percent Osc 2, and when positioned in the middle it’s 50 percent of each. It’s this kind of straightforwardly useable parameter that I turn to in the flow of making music, when I’m looking for a way to slightly shift a sound without wrecking it. Often the best kind of sound design is the subtle kind–where a sound undergoes an almost subliminal transformation that’s felt before noticed.
Now we zoom out: the Osc volume mix fader can be a metaphor for how electronic music producers shift back and forth between different modalities of knowing and action. We can think of these as analytical and intuitive modalities. Both are ways of problem-solving, the difference being that the analytical way is a conscious cognitive activity while the intuitive way is unconscious. In artistic work, both modalities are always in play. I think of them as frames of mind that are in dialog to create a liminal space in which one works. It’s in this space that artists make decisions about what and how to create.
Part of what makes making music interesting to me is noticing the habits, routines, and patterns I turn to over and over again that have me oscillating between different frames of mind. For example, in my workflow I notice a pattern whereby I begin quite consciously, deliberately deciding on a sound and trying play a part with it. The playing’s raison d’être is simply that it be some kind of complete performance. Performances, which I’ve written about, can be one minute or one hour, but they have to achieve something emotional, and this entails beginning somewhere, going somewhere, and ending somewhere. (Such a vague definition of performance inspires me to put it into action!) The music’s wheres don’t matter as much as the performance sounding compelling in being where it is. Performance, whether played live or constructed in the DAW, is music’s most potent ingredient.
While the decision to play something is deliberate, ￼my playing itself is intuitive, by which I mean a trying-things-out-on-the-fly, a reaching for notes as shapes and patterns, a trusting that what David Sudnow aptly called ways of the hand will lead me somewhere interesting. But once this performance is recorded, I’m back in analytical mode for a moment, trying to figure out what additional sounds–if any–could come next. Will they be variants of the existing sound, something I’ll fashion by re-sampling it, say? Or will they be unrelated sounds? (How about a glockenspiel?) There are many, many ways I could go.
The next stage unfolds quickly, as I intuitively try out sounds and parts—copying, pasting, moving, stretching, and resampling to scale up, fill out, and orchestrate my initial performance. This trying out of sounds and parts is itself another performance that I try to do in a single gesture–which means rather quickly. Whatever occurs to me I try, and if it works I go with it and then move onto the next bit. The process feels like zig-zagging from one sound layer to another, trying to add to the musical whole in a way that deepens it. And zig-zagging also describes the inner game of remembering previous experiences to guide me again. I might, for example, reach for a sound that I made last week, mainly because it’s still fresh in mind.
At some point, when I’ve run out of ideas as to add, I return to an analytical frame of mind to assess what I have so far and quickly arrange the parts, change notes, and add in broad volume fades. Even though it’s just a sketch, I might have enough elements now to give me an idea of what the sketch could become if I keep adding to it (or start removing from it). In sum, in the space of an hour or two I’ve moved many times between two different ways of knowing and action. Like dragging the synthesizer’s mix fader between Osc 1 and Osc 2 to re-shape a sound, a producer’s shifting between analytical and intuitive mindsets is a way to change focus and stay sensitive to music’s changing needs of the moment.