On The Limits Of Musical Timbre

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When you’re working on a collection of music, it helps to have them unified in some way. The surest way to do this is for each piece to have the same instrumentation. I’ve done this with my music in that each of my recordings is scored for a single set of sounds. For example, Piano and Metals Music is scored for piano, kalimba, and gong sounds, and Four Piano Music is scored for four pianos. When each piece shares the same instrumentation you compose using a single timbral palette. At the very least, this palette simplifies my decision-making and gives listeners some sense of what to expect.

Generally speaking, electronic music producers working in popular idioms don’t work this way. Sure, many tracks might use say, a TR-808-type kick drum or snare sound, but most producers neither need this timbral consistency nor advertise it in their track titles. On the contrary, they—and critics—value new sounds. In an ideal electronic music production world, every piece would have its own distinctive set of sounds. One argument in support of this view of production is: If any sound can be created, why keep using the same old sounds? With the never-ending stream of new software and hardware releases, why not keep pushing forward music’s timbral boundaries? Isn’t this one the main points of making electronic music and the key criterion by which to judge its inventiveness?   

 

But while sounds matter, musical design and process matter even more. I have yet to encounter an interesting sound that made more of an impression on me than an interesting chord, and I have yet fall for a great drum sound instead of a great drum pattern. Prizing new sounds for their novelty often comes at the expense of thinking through interesting things to do with these sounds. As an example of the limitations of timbre, listen to how often TV and film composers rely on single-note, synthesized drones to signal fear, danger, or intrigue. (Oh oh! Something bad’s about to happen!) In many contexts, drones are compositional cop-outs, because no matter how colorful and richly layered their timbres, they do relatively little and there’s little subtlety or enchantment about them. Another example: the gargantuan drum timbres in Hollywood blockbusters. The drums sound a hundred feet tall, but their rhythms are elementary and often plodding. Drumming can be so much more than this. Electronic music producers—include composers for TV and film—sometimes overestimate the power of timbre at the expense of musical design and process.     

As I write, I’m remembering Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score for Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated film, Isle of Dogs. The score uses very little in terms of timbres, sticking mostly to woodwinds, voices, whistling, woodblock, and few drums. Desplat’s choice of timbres fit with the setting of the film and act as almost transparent vehicles for the composer’s designs. One of the film’s main themes is a simple three note motif that drops a perfect fourth and rises up a minor third: g-sharp, d-sharp, f-sharp. It’s pentatonic but also somewhat melancholy—perfect to express the Japanese setting and the conditions faced by a pack of dogs from Kobayashi city exiled to Trash Island. We hear the theme repeated throughout the action played on a flute (along with a complementary g-sharp-b-a-sharp bass counter melody), and we hear it sung and whistled too. It all works exquisitely well.  

In electronic music production, one of the creative challenges is to reign in timbre’s allure in order to figure out interesting things to do with one’s sounds. While music software manufacturers would have you believe that their sounds are inherently enchanting, that’s not how all musical enchantment works. Music is enchanting as a by-product of what it does. In a way, the task of the electronic musician is to transcend his/her timbres by devising novel ways to structure the music. There are a thousand techniques for doing this, but one foolproof starting point is to keep the music in one’s music making body for as long as possible. This entails: 

Playing your parts instead of sequencing them.
Always relating the part to the entire texture.
Taking the time to refine a part before you record.
Taking advantage of your first run-through or improvisation by recording all the time.
Varying your parts on as many resolutions of detail as possible.

By keeping your parts living in the realm of your playing, you also begin to play through the timbres you’re using. Instead of relying on a sound for an effect, try to create an analogous effect by changing a chord, a melody line, or a rhythm. Timbre contributes a lot to how a music feels, but ultimately we hear beyond timbre—listening musically involves listening beyond timbre. Consider an analogy: you’re having a conversation with someone who happens to have a whiny voice. At first, you’re distracted by her vocal timbre, and you may even erroneously attribute to her various personality characteristics based on this whiny sound. But if the conversation is good and the ideas are interesting, the quirks of her voice eventually disappear as an object of interest, let alone significance. Now you’re hearing beyond timbre. 

Music is just like this. If the music is interesting enough, the sounds of its timbres disappear. 

I leave you with a recording that came to mind while editing this blog post, TM404’s TM404, a recording made exclusively with the timbres of the Roland sequencers and drum machines.

    

Curating The Week: Breathing, AI & Creativity, Saturation

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• An essay on breathing.

“Careful breathing is always associated with an experience of cooling, of decelerating. It works in almost any scenario where the mind is being catapulted by the body, and we want control”.

• An interview with Marcus du Sautoy (who has an upcoming book).

“I think human laziness is a really important part of finding good, new ways to do things. I often look at things and think: ‘This is just getting too complicated – let me try to step back and figure out a shortcut.’ A computer will say: ‘Well, I’ve got these tools and I can just bash on, deep into the problem.’ But because it doesn’t get tired and it’s not going to be lazy, maybe it will miss things that our laziness takes us to.”

• A video about Saturation, narrated by the one of a kind narrator, Dan Worrall:

“You need to add nonlinearities deliberately.”

Frames Of Attention: Deciding On Musical Materials

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One of the primary tasks involved in building a piece of music, a piece of writing, and I imagine a piece of visual art, is figuring out as early as possible in the process what materials you’ll be working with. For most of us, our process won’t reveal itself until we’re further along it, so there’s so sense worrying about that until we get there. But our materials we can decide on now, even if that deciding feels arbitrary because, at least in the case of electronic music production, what constitutes one’s materials is perpetually in flux and potentially has no end. I can decide, for instance, that my piece will use at maximum one or two tracks of percussion. I can also decide on the sounds for those tracks. My thinking is that two tracks of particular sounds afford me exponentially more options than one track does (especially in terms of polyrhythm and timbral call and response), but that any more than two tracks will be overkill. Am I missing out by not adding more tracks and more sounds? Maybe. But I like the simplicity of having chosen to make do with just one or two tracks.

As I get further along the process of recording parts with my decided upon two tracks, the limitations I’ve set for myself come in handy. Now I have a super narrow frame for attention: each track of percussion has only three or four sounds, thus I only have 6-8 different sounds total for accomplishing whatever I’m trying to do. Though it’s difficult to capture in words, the moment of confronting a super narrow frame of options feels like a crux of composing insofar as in that instant you have to decide how to make do with what you have. Your conditions aren’t ideal, thus you invent a way forward despite them. In sum, improvising with, and adapting to, the moment is only possible because you decided beforehand on the materials that set the conditions for your creativity.

On Musical Synergy

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When I’m working on a piece I begin with a clear statement of its main part. This serves to introduce both the key and overall mood of the piece, as well the timbre of the part. The main part is always the part that sparked the piece. On my current project, which I’ve been talking about on this blog for a while now, the main part is a series of marimba chords. It’s reassuring to proceed knowing that at least I have these chords and I can begin there. Also, beginning this way is simpler than attempting anything else.

(Advice on how not to get stuck: Proceed based on what you already know.) 

With the main marimba part up front, the second step is figure out what to do with it and what other sounds might go with it. I try out sounds and try out parts to play with those sounds and listen to the results. If something sounds okay, I leave it for now and keep working. Each added part changes the sound of the other parts, and so I keep going back to make compensations so that the whole begins gelling better. Over time, a form emerges.

For some reason, I often find sections later on in the piece that suggest new starting points. Even though I began with what I thought was the main part, my layers of added parts and compensations have generated new forms that could be new beginnings. I often find that sections later on the piece become my favorites. (Maybe I always take a while to warm up?) 

I loop one of these sections and then right-click the loop. The software offers me the option of “consolidating” all of the parts within this section into a new loop. 

I decline the offer since I never work with loops (unless I play the loop myself—looping myself). But—I do like the idea of consolidating a moment in musical time. Maybe I should try it sometime. 

 

With enough additions and subtractions, adjustments and compensations, the piece begins to coalesce by finding its form, its identity, its sound, and the ways it wants to move. I would describe this coalescing with the term synergy. Synergy is an energy sum or composite or by-product that I could not have predicted while tinkering with the individual parts, yet it’s a direct by-product of this work and these parts. 

Synergy is the most exciting quality in music because it’s an unpredictable composite sensation that arises as if by magic—as if the music’s effects have transcended their materials.  

Now that I’ve encountered synergy in music production, I work in anticipation of finding it again. I don’t know when it might appear, but it’s almost a certainly if I can align my materials just so. By align I don’t mean lining everything up in a straight line but rather in its social sense—coming together in agreement or alliance.

How do you know when you’re hearing synergistic music? For me, the music has a feeling to it that’s a by-product of the sounds cohering to a substantial degree and conjuring and playing with my perception. When synergy is happening the music feels inevitable.