Small Musical Failures As Non-Obvious Usage Paths

“Create non-obvious usage paths. In my experience, it’s the best algorithm.”
– Dombaeb, KVR Audio

In my work I notice a recurring pattern to small failures and the breakthroughs that sometimes follow them. Here is how the pattern plays out:

1. I’m doing my usual musical things, but nothing seems to be working. Nothing sounds interesting, compelling, or enchanting. The process feels pointless. (Why have I invested so much time in this again?) 

2. Out of desperation, I try something unusual and non-obvious—because, since nothing seems to be working, I have nothing to lose. One day this is trying the melody as the bass to hear what happens and finding that it’s better than I could play it. Another day it’s messing with a beat until it’s flipped around, unfamiliar, and I can’t hear how it works. Yesterday it was removing notes, one by one, from a busy and uninteresting 16-bar sequence until it had space. The sequence was so uninteresting, in fact, that I used the note-removal process as a momentary game of How can I improve this? 

3. When I try out something unusual and non-obvious because there seems to be nothing left to do, inevitably something interesting happens. In sum, the pattern to small failures and breakthroughs is that the prospect of failing both frees me up to “swing freely” whilst ratcheting up my concentration through a momentary goal: use your small failures as a way forward.

Resonant Thoughts: John Berger’s “Portraits” (2015)

“The gestures come from his hand, his wrist, arm, shoulder, perhaps even the muscles in his neck, yet the strokes he makes on the paper are following currents of energy which are physically his and which become visible only when he draws them. Currents of energy? The energy of a tree’s growth, of a plant’s search for light, of a branch’s need for accommodation with its neighboring branches, of the roots of thistles and shrubs, of the weight of rocks lodged on a slope, of the sunlight, of the attraction of the shade for whatever is alive and suffers from the heat, of the Mistral from the north which has fashioned the rock strata. My list is arbitrary; what is not arbitrary is the pattern his strokes make on the paper. The pattern is like a fingerprint. Whose?

It is a drawing which values precision—every stroke is explicit and unambiguous—yet it has totally forgotten itself in its openness to what it has met. And the meeting is so close you can’t tell whose trace is whose. A map of love indeed.”

John Berger, Portraits (2015), p. 272.

Notes On Acoustic Memory

Fred and I were talking about music—what else?—and our conversation turned to how we know things about it. I mentioned to him how a plug-in in my music software realistically emulates the wobbly and degraded sound of old cassette tapes—like the ones we listened to in portable cassette players back in the day. Tape wobble was an annoying reminder of technological fragility. It was caused by a combination of the instability of battery powered machines (even Sony Walkmans were bad) and the instability of the cassettes you put into them (especially the mix tapes you made yourself on Radio Shack tapes). When either the tape machine or your cassette acted up, the sound would start to wobble. Are the batteries low? Should I re-wind the tape to tighten it? No—the whole set up was just crappy.

So, I was telling Fred about how this plug-in emulates the sound of tape wobble and tape degradation. Then Fred interrupts me. Acoustic memory he says.

My experience with cassette tape wobble is one example of acoustic memory. Writing about it now also brings to mind the fact that a generation of musicians today are without experience with cassette tapes—not to mention CDs, DATs, LPs, four tracks, or reel to reels. They have heard of them, but never handled them like they have marshaled vaporous MP3 and .wav files or streamed music. I missed out on the LP era, but prior to the CD, cassettes were at the center of my early musical education. I spent thousands of hours working with them—recording, overdubbing, and erasing them, maintaining them, labeling them, and organizing them. I knew cassettes the way some teenagers knew their skateboards—as dynamic tools for carving evanescent paths of flow and joy. Cassettes were my primary vessel for bringing music from the ether into me (via headphones) in some kind of organized fashion.

From talking about cassette tapes, my conversation with Fred turned to talking about musical instruments. Fred rightly pointed out that both of us have many memories forged in the acoustic musical world. In Fred’s case, he has built instruments—from kotos and frame drums to violins and neys. In my case, the time I have spent learning to play percussion has shaped how I make music with the computer. Learning to play taught me that performance is a foundation of music composition. (And perhaps Fred might say that instruments are a foundation of music performance.) It was, and remains, obvious to me that the more compelling ideas come from playing, as if at any given moment the tacit knowledge of your trained hands–hands handling your instrument–know slightly more than you are aware of. But like my experience with cassette tapes, until recently I took for granted how many of my musical memories are acoustic ones. 

Of course, acoustic memories of old storage media like cassettes or experience playing musical instruments are certainly not prerequisites for producing electronic music. In fact, many producers without this know-how are adept at playing with elastic audio and MIDI files in their computers to create music with vitality yet few ties to music’s parallel life in the acoustic world. They make beats, yet have never drummed. They assemble chords, but don’t play piano. They arrange multi-timbral parts, but have never inhabited an orchestra. In other words, some musicians have never established acoustic memories, while for other musicians, their acoustic memories fade over time. Even so, sounds old and new continually take on new sets of changing associations and meanings as we look for new ways to make our music expressive.