Without Methods, But With Principles

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Even though I’m always on the lookout for them, I don’t have any reliable methods for producing music beyond trying out a lot different things and going with those things that sound interesting. But even though I’m without methods, I have relied on a few fundamental principles to move my work along. 

Principle No. 1

Begin by playing something and capturing it. This sounds simple and it is! Just improvise on an instrument—play a chord progression on the keyboard, or drum a beat for a bit. Trust that even a moment of your performance is more than enough to build on. The important thing is the act of Capture—capturing yourself playing something. In that playing are traces of ideas that aren’t yet fully formed or apparent to you. Think of your performance as the DNA for the music, containing in embryonic form the essence of what might happen later down the production line.

Principle No. 2

Develop something simple by making it more complex. I learned about this idea from electronic music producer Jlin. Now that you have a moment of your performance, build on that. You can build on it in time, by extending it horizontally, or you can build on it in sound, by adding other sounds and expanding it vertically. To extend your performance, you can copy it in whole or in part, so that a measure or two becomes ten or twenty. To build on your sound, you can effect it, blend other sounds in with it, or resample it to make a different-sounding copy. By using one or all of these techniques, all of a sudden what began as something simple becomes more complex. Things are getting exciting!

Principle No. 3

Notice, keep going, and keep noticing. Having played something and begun the process of making it more complex by building on it in time or in sound, the next step is to notice what you now have and keep going with that. As you develop complexities you will notice new sounds. For example, maybe you repeated a chord shard has now taken on a life of its own, or a series of layered effects have created an enchanting timbre or ambiance. Pay attention to whatever you’re now noticing, and turn your attention there. 

Principle No. 4

Refine. Now that you have played something, developed complexities around and through it, and noticed some new sounds emerging, you can refine what you have. For example, I’m constantly adjusting volumes and EQs, the same way one adjusts seasonings while cooking. Generally speaking, the aim of refining your sounds is to make their essence more articulate. So for example, a clear bell sound can be made even clearer, while a fuzzy, low-fi drum sound can be even fuzzier. Refining your sounds means to make them more of what they already are, distilling them ever closer to their essence. 

Principle No. 5

Reduce and arrange. At some point in the playing-complexifying-noticing-refining process that may have taken a few hours, a few weeks, or a few months, you can reduce what you have. For example, maybe one of your added complexities—say a resampled part—may sound best on its own, without the original performance that initiated it. You can reduce and arrange the music by foregrounding, backgrounding, or even muting parts, to better hear what you now want to hear.

Principle No. 6

Do I like this? Since you’ve been busy trying out different things that sound interesting, it’s worth taking a moment to re-assess your work so far. Asking the question Do I like this? once in a while recalibrates your ears from focusing on fine details back to the big picture. Maybe the music is done, maybe it still needs more work, maybe the opening is terrible, or maybe you’re done with it and will put it aside and move onto something else. Whatever you chose to do, you’ve moved the music along and learned something in the process.

The One Fell Swoop Principle

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I spend a fair amount of time trying stuff out in the depths of my music software. Okay, I’m not actually going that deep—imagine a swimmer ducking under water and going down oh, six feet down. But it’s deep enough to feel the blue calm below the water’s busy surface, deep enough to enjoy the weightless feeling of music’s different dimensions. As I try different sounds and settings in the software I get ideas for “pieces”—a word in quotes because nothing’s a piece yet. It’s just an idea that sounds like the kind of music I might make if I were making a piece, which I’m not doing because right now I’m just trying stuff out. Such are the micro-delusions one weaves into the production process to keep things light.

Anyway, recently I made a keyboard sound and was experimenting with an arpeggiator. I set my hands down into an F-sharp Lydian-ish configuration, holding the keys to hear the arp sound kick into action. 

Oh, cool.

I kept a few fingers in place then moved a few others, listening to the changes. I played for a while, and soon I felt I couldn’t lift my fingers from the keys for fear that the sound would stop and worse, I would forget what I was doing. Feeling sort of trapped, I kept playing, moving a towards a progression that I didn’t understand. 

What happened next is a juncture I frequently arrive at: I want to stop what I’m doing so I can figure out what it is that I like about it so I can do it again, but this time “officially” by playing a cleaner take while knowing exactly where I’m going with the notes.

Not gonna happen. 

I ignored my urge to stop, assess, and edit because analysis doesn’t always help. (And for the record, I wasn’t thinking F-sharp Lydian as I played, just staying around the black keys.) At the juncture where you’re musically lost, stopping to think about it doesn’t help as much as keeping going, building from practice, not theory, from the bottom up, not the top down. Being lost is a good state to be in because in that state we interfere less with the direction of the music.

When I returned to the music the next day to add a second part I found myself back at the same juncture: 

What am I doing? 

I still had no idea: I played a second part through and was lost the whole time.

If only I could figure out the structure of the first part…

Despite being lost, I was listening and trying to respond to what I heard. That’s key: look for a way to fit in. I liked the sound of this second part and I knew that ten more go-arounds at it would probably not make it more interesting. It might get even worse! 

This brings me to the lesson of such improvising-composing experiments: the One Fell Swoop Principle. The idea is do as much as you can, all at once, to turn a production experiment into a bona fide piece not next week, but right now. This mindset has you feeling like a beginner grasping without success for the “ideal” sounds and “appropriate” tools and forms, but having to make do with what’s at hand. (Which reminds me of that David Sudnow quote: “Good notes were everywhere at hand, right beneath the fingers.”)  The power of feeling like a beginner is that you have to rely on your intuition to get on with your partial understanding of what works and is easiest to do at the moment. Anyway, there will always be time later to refine the music, there will always be time to perfect the ideas you stumbled upon while trying stuff out, right?

Maybe not.