(One of my favorite recordings of 2021. Information on the kannel is here.)
“In some ways, the DAW replaced the piano as the primary site of solitary musical expression, retreating from living rooms to glowing screens in share house bedrooms. Music creation ever since has never been so lonely.”
“When I imagine a cultural renaissance that inspires me, I think about working together to address unsolved questions, tugging on threads in conversations that need unraveling, creating enduring artifacts for generations to pore over and iterate upon. The ‘publish or perish’ model that nudges people to rack up more followers is not the pinnacle of creative freedom; it’s indentured spiritual servitude.”
“You can’t have a fixed method for every mix…Every change you make is provisional: you make the best guess at the correct settings, based on the context you have at that time. Here’s my suggested methodology:
1 Start with the volume faders and set a rough balance for all elements of the mix, before you do anything else.
2 Whatever is bothering you most about the current mix, attack that next. Keep fixing the most egregious problems you can hear, and those problems will naturally get smaller and more subtle, until all of a sudden you realize your mix is cooking and you’re nearly done.
3 Get to that stage as quickly as possible.
It’s not enough to learn the technique: your ears need to be able to recognize situations where that technique might help.”
[The writer is referring to the recording, The Sounds and Music of the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer, 1955]
“The fancy music that is here synthesized is absolutely astonishing. Few of us would have imagined that so much progress had been made. But most listeners won’t be able to suppress a snicker or two, in the midst of their amazement—for this music, in all its variety, still has a grotesquely inhuman quality that comically defies the very meaning of music […]
The machine, having no composer-of-the-future and no new musical language to operate upon, is forced to use present stock and, absurdly, to go about imitating the very instruments and performers that it is supposed eventually to supersede. A fine contradiction!”
– Edward Tatnall Canby, “Synthesized Music”, Harper’s (September 1955)
“Chance favors only the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
One compelling aspect of electronic music production is the intersection of what we might call preparedness and randomness. Preparedness is being intentional and involves getting to know the tools I use when making music. This includes creating, altering, and saving sounds, effects (or chains of effects), sifting through and evaluating pieces in progress, and learning, bit by bit, the capabilities of software. Together, these ways of getting to know my tools gets me thinking, What might I do with them?
Randomness is the X factor that brings me beyond my intentions and characterizes my encounters with what I’ve prepared. Improvising on the keyboard is one example of randomness in action, because I don’t have a set plan of what I’ll do. I play for a while, then hit the Retrospective Record button to hear what I did. I interfere as little as possible with what was recorded: if the part is 102.5 measures, then so be it. I find that leaving a part an unusual length can lead to interesting things down the compositional road.
A second example of randomness is action is how I interact with the sounds and effects I’ve made, altered, and saved. Here there are no hard and fast rules except to try out this and that until a sound jumps out. When this happens, I’ll fine-tune the sound and make a point of re-naming and re-saving it. This stepping out of the compositional frame for a moment allows me to add to an ever-growing repertoire of tools which may or may not be useful in another piece of music.
The intersection of preparedness and randomness is compelling because there are so many outcomes that might result. Here are a few examples:
• Despite my having made many sounds, nothing fits what I need at the moment. This dead end at least tells me about a mismatch between the sounds I have and the sound I wish I had;
• I try out an effect I had made for one kind of sound (say, percussion) on another sound (say, piano) and it sounds good. I hadn’t anticipated this sound, but now that I’ve heard it, I like it;
• I randomly open a software instrument I haven’t used in a while, discover a sound I had made but forgotten, and it fits what I need at the moment. What are the chances of that happening?
And so on.
Pasteur is right that chance favors the prepared. But I have a small addendum in the context of creating music. Preparing sounds outside of the flow of writing a new piece doesn’t feel like an entirely satisfying musical experience. It’s slow and clinical—not because there’s a computer involved, but because the work can seem far from the playful intensities of playing music to encounter something new. It’s a conundrum: I prepare for those moments when I’ll need to quickly draw on sounds and effects I’ve made, yet this prep work feels the opposite of why one makes music in the first place. So I generally work in the afternoon, long after I’ve played music in the morning. In other words, the schedule insists play first, and work second, because play is the fundamental work. We want to expand our creative palettes for the future, but not at the expense of playing our way into something new right now.
“The reason why Watson and Crick or [the chemist August] Kekulé had these insights and not a random person on the street is that they already had spent a very long time thinking hard about the problems, tinkered with other possible solutions and tried countless other ways of looking at the problem. Our fascination with these stories clouds the fact that all good ideas need time. Even sudden breakthroughs are usually preceded by a long, intense process of preparation.
Most often, innovation is not the result of a sudden moment of realization, anyway, but incremental steps toward improvement. Even groundbreaking paradigm shifts are most often the consequence of many small moves in the right direction instead of one big idea. This is why the search for small differences is key. It is such an important skill to see differences between seemingly similar concepts, or connections between seemingly different ideas.
If we accompany every step of our work with the question, ‘What is interesting about this?’ and everything we read with the question, ‘What is so relevant about this that it is worth noting down?’
Learning, thinking and writing should not be about accumulating knowledge, but about becoming a different person with a different way of thinking.”
(This book is about note-taking, but more so about how we think and connect ideas.)