Micro-Information As Subliminal Feeling: Learning About Musical Phrasing

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When I studied music in university, my percussion lessons frequently touched on the topic of phrasing. My teacher would listen to me play through a piece and then suggest ways to improve its rendition. Most of the time, this involved considering alternate ways to play a passage, which I needed because I was so concerned with getting through a piece that I hadn’t spent much time thinking through it. Sometimes we worked on patterns of hand alternation called sticking patternsAn example from rudimentary drumming is a sticking pattern called the paradiddle. To illustrate the feel of playing a paradiddle, tap four equally spaced taps with one hand, and then the other: RRRR, LLLL. Next, tap four alternating taps: RLRL RLRL. Now tap with the paradiddle sticking: RLRR LRLL. The paradiddle sticking feels different from the RRRR and RLRL stickings and this difference is slightly audible—sometimes only subliminally felt—in the sound of the tapping. For the percussionist, there are other ways to alter phrasing besides sticking. You can tactically use dynamics, shaping a passage from soft to loud or loud to soft. You can micro-accelerate or micro-decelerate the tempo to alter the excitement level. Or you can coax contrasting timbres from your instrument by striking it in different ways. Techniques of sticking, dynamics, tempo, and timbre help make what are often sharp-attack, briefly sustained, and indefinitely pitched percussion instruments sound more dynamic.

I thought about my percussion lessons in phrasing recently while I was editing music. (Musical editing comes up regularly on this blog. See for instance my posts Editing for Articulation and The Editing Mindset and Editing Music While Listening And Looking At It.) I listened while looking at the MIDI notes, trying to make sense of what the melody line wanted to do. A representation of a performance in MIDI is a goldmine of information in that it displays the shapes and contours of the melody’s rise and fall, and below that graphic, the velocity (volume) for each note. As I listened to the music while looking at it, I noticed something: notes almost always get louder as I phrase a melody from a lower register to a higher one, and softer when the melody descends. 

I phrase higher pitches as though they are inherently more energized than lower ones, hence deserving of a louder dynamic—more oomph. It’s as though moving to a higher register is taking a scalar journey to arrive at an important destination: let’s-go-up-the-scale-un-til-HERE! But there were a few places where my playing became softer as I moved higher, and usually something about this loud to soft dynamic shift didn’t sound right. Had that been my intention—to go for a gentle upwards gesture? As an experiment, I changed the velocities on a rising three-note, low to high phrase so that it became louder, not softer. It made a big difference: now it sounded better because it sounded more sensible. I was surprised by how this dynamic reversal could impact what the music was trying to say. It was as if sound and gesture had been brought into alignment.

From this I learned three lessons:

Phrasing conveys micro-information inherent in the rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and timbres of the music. 

Phrasing is a perceptual tool that slings our attention around the music’s various depth layers. 

Phrasing is music’s subliminal messenger. 

     

An Attentional Arc Of Working: Compressing Beats and Focusing Energy

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9:30
Breakfast.

9:40
Watch some tennis and consider working.

10:02
I’m still watching tennis.

10:10
I open up the music file, listen for five seconds, and realize it isn’t happening—
the beat is plodding
(my enthusiasm is low).

I consider going back to watching tennis.
(Are mornings even optimal for making music?) 

Almost anything could improve the piece, but what?
I should just try something, anything.
Anything but doing nothing.

10:15
Just for kicks, I compress the beat to make it double time—
it sounds better
(enthusiasm is rising).

I recorded the original beat live but now it’s superhuman (mistakes and all).
The beat sound like compressed energy.
Its variations come at faster rate and it’s more interesting now. 

I forget about tennis.

10:20-12:20
I work on the piece and its new double time beat
(enthusiasm is high).
A double time part creates space in the others
because musical relationships are always contextual—
something fast makes something else seem slow by comparison. 

I play a new bass to go with the beat—
the skittering drum hits pushing my fingers to play fast.

(Incorporate the bass variations now—you can’t add them later.
The bass could be one continual variation.)

I fiddle with the drum sounds (getting to know this sampler):
there’s too much mid- rather than high-range frequencies (easily tweaked).
A “full sound” is a mix that at minimum includes
crisp highs and rich lows.

What happens in the middle is tricky though. 

I pan various percussion elements.
(Is over-panning a thing?)

I remove annoying drum hits—annoying because they’re predictable.
My ideal drummer or beat is reliable without being predictable.  

I consider quantizing parts, but why destroy the music’s imperfections?
My mistakes lead me to new places.
Am I confident enough to share them?

12:20
Energy beginning to diminish, but the piece is still sounding better.

I grab a tangerine and then get sidetracked trying to peel it with grace. 

At least make the music’s opening clear:
just one sound (marimba) and the double-time beat.

The other sounds have yet to convince me that they belong:
they’re nice individually, but in the mix, greedy.
We’ll see.

Ironically, after all this beat-tweaking my favorite part is the end
where the beat runs out.
The beat ran out because in making it double time I cut its length by half.
I could cut and paste it to make it longer, but that’s a no.

The end is where the music takes a turn.

I’m trying to remember how this happened.
I think the turn was triggered by a second marimba part
that I had transposed into new chords.
I played along to that new part
not knowing what those new chords were,
but trusting that they had a relationship to the original.
Now, in the space left by the double time beat that has run out,
that relationship between the chords is getting clearer.

I want to remember
that the music’s taking a turn at the end
happened through a series of steps
which created a divergence
from the piece’s initial gesture.

Remember the concept of divergence—
it’s what brings a curve to music. 

12:35
I save the file and thoughts of tennis re-appear.
I think I’m done.

Musical Failure

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failure – a lack or deficiency of a desirable quality

I’m listening through an almost finished piece, trying to get a sense of how the music moves. There’s a lot I like: the mix is clear (the music has only four parts), the effects and EQing are minimal, the tempo is unrushed, and some kind of building and falling structure is apparent. I won’t edit this piece to death, as it’s doing more than I thought it could ever do. I might even want to listen to this music—as I’ve been doing in test runs in various states of repose around the room (couch, floor, standing while looking out the window). But woven into the music’s working are a string of small failures which I don’t know how to fix, because they come from how I do things.   

When I’m working, I sometimes think about failure in the sense of all the things I could be doing but am not. Somehow, I came up short—again. There are many kinds of failure, but most relevant to music is failure of imagination and failure of execution. Failure of imagination includes failure of conception or not adequately thinking through and committing to a vision for the music, as well as not taking enough risks (however you want to define them). Failure of execution includes sloppy technique, unclear relationships among parts, and creating a form lacking a discernible logic. This breakdown of failure into its component parts sounds clinical, but it’s useful for thinking through any music. Consider: How many times has a piece been ruined for you because some aspect of it that was not adequately thought through? That’s a failure of both imagination and execution. Conversely, think of the delight you find when a musician goes to extreme lengths to carefully craft a performance and how enchanting it is to experience that. (I had that experience last year while listening to Jon Hopkins.) As I work on a piece, I try to make it fail less by making whatever I have incrementally more sensible and therefore more satisfying to hear.

A third type of failure relates to musical equipment. The techno-musical system of the computer and its software sets a high bar in terms of what I can do but am not doing with my materials. Here’s the thing: I’m never making full use of my system. I continually come up short in that at any moment of making a sound, there are thousands of potentially more interesting yet unsounded sounds I missed. I dig over in this corner while treasure lies just a few feet away. I listen to this but not that. Recently I spent an hour late one night going through sounds deep in the software. I found some gems (and saved them), but with each discovery I wondered what else I was missing from somewhere else. Music is endless in its offering routes for making it that will never be taken.    

The lesson from thinking about musical failure is to be clear about what we can and can’t control. One can improve (somewhat) one’s execution of technique, part relationships, and form. But other kinds of failure are simply facts of workflow to be aware of.

Composing By Playing

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I want to begin the piece carefully, by considering my options and plotting a sensible route. But I can’t design from the top down, only from the ground up, so I begin playing to hear where that takes me. Whenever you’re in doubt about what to do or how to proceed, just start playing. 

By playing I mute my sense of knowing ahead of time where I’ll go with the piece. 

By playing I listen to what I’m able to do now, instead of what I think I could do someday. 

By playing I can change course at any moment
if that sounds like a good direction to go in. 

By playing I can enact and refine my capacity for responsiveness,
for tuning in to what’s happening. 

Playing feels risky because my playing won’t be perfect, and my thinking won’t be airtight the way a printed score presents it. I’ll make mistakes, fudge notes, and head down dead ends. I’ll wish I had lingered longer on a tone, or passed by it more swiftly to get somewhere else to say what I really meant to say. Had I written a part that tells me where to go, I could have avoided these mistakes. But there is a flip side to playing without knowing where you’re going, which is conveying yourself to the listener. 

I’m not hiding behind theory, I’m audible in my practice. We’re in this together because you can hear my process bringing me imperfectly from one moment to the next. It’s not everyone’s music, but for me improvising always feels musical.