When I record a sequence I always aim to play it though, without stopping, from a beginning to an end. There are easier ways to build a sequence. The easiest way is to record a few notes or a few measures and then copy them so that the sequence repeats as a self-contained block of sound in the arrangement page.
But in the realm of craft, is easier ever better? For me, the answer is usually no. In music production, the specific problem with repeating a sequence is that it has no variation built into it. And without variation its sound has little depth and lacks mystery as to where it’s going. You already know where it’s going because your ears subliminally catch onto the inhumanly perfect repetition.
You can “disguise” such sequences so that their sounds change on a surface level (i.e. timbrally), but that doesn’t fix the problem your ears caught. The problem is non-human generated, synthetic repetition.
When I play a sequence through from a beginning to an end I solve the problem of synthetic repetition by, ironically, trying to replicate it myself and subtly failing.
What happens is that I’ll try to repeat a good section—like three chords that implied a kind of cadence—but then either (1) be unable to make my repetition consistent or (2) get sidetracked by a variation that has emerged in lieu of a repetition. What happens is that I keep playing in a way that feels like circling around a musical idea without ever perfectly articulating it. What happens is that I keep trying to find an ideal representation of a musical idea without succeeding. I keep playing: I keep sort of repeating themes and phrases to try to find their best form, and after several minutes I have a very long, non-artificially repeating sequence to show for it.
“The sequencer’s automatic sound sequences and the drum machine’s loops hypnotized me. These black boxes brought the trance quality of African, Indian and Asian musical cultures into pop music, a quality that had been the starting point for the minimalist concept.”
“Working with automatic music machines is fundamentally different from human music-making, simply because machines reproduce set parameters and aren’t capable of listening and reacting.”
“In a wonderful film by Peter Schamoni, the great visual artist Max Ernst talks about having had a problem filling a blank canvas. In his inimitable way, he called it his ‘virginity complex’. It was simply impossible for him to apply the first dab of paint to the surface. Until one day, coincidence helped him overcome his inhibitions. Sitting in a small inn on the French Atlantic coast on a rainy day in 1925, his eyes alighted on the wooden floor. The boards were faded from being scrubbed clean, and he noticed the grain of the wood moving before his mind’s eye, turning into a kind of animation. To hold onto the moment, he dropped pieces of paper on the floor and traced the grain with a soft pencil, like rubbing brass. To his surprise, he found his vision sharpening as he looked at the lines on the paper. Max Ernst refers it as to ‘questioning the material’. These traced basic patterns then went through a series of transmutations in the process of his work, losing their original character and taking on – as Max Ernst describes it – the appearance of incredibly precise figures.”
“A piece of writing ought not to be planned for a given size but developed to the length most suitable to the material, and no farther.”
– John McPhee, Tabula Rasa
If you’re a casual listener to electronic music, you may be forgiven for thinking that form in most styles of the genre is essentially a matter of repeating loops and MIDI sequences arranged like Lego blocks with transitions, risers, drops, and fills inserted every 16 or 32 bars. From this point of view, form in the music is a predictable by-product of basic cut and paste arrangement decisions facilitated by DAW music production software.
But if you make music you understand form to be a much more open-ended, and often ambiguous question in search of a structural answer. When you’re making music you don’t know where you’re going form-wise because you’re discovering it as you go along. This happens most clearly in improvisation (composition’s force mover), but also when sound designing, mixing, and arranging. For example, you might play something you never planned on playing, create a sound you never planned on creating, or find a balance of parts you didn’t anticipate finding. Such accidents of experience–such serendipity generators–often lead you to new musical forms. The more you inhabit a piece in progress the more you realize that answers to questions of form are different for every piece. The composer Arvo Pärtsuggests we think of form as a system that helps us articulate the music’s essential gesture. “The compositional task” Pärt says, “is to find the appropriate system for the gesture” (The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, p. 117).
Let’s consider a few interesting–and musical!–form examples previously discussed on this blog in which producers find forms that both suit the music and shape it. On his track “Goodbye” u-Ziq (Mike Paradinas) relies on on a form made up of 8 and 16 bar sections. While such a structure is not unique, u-Ziq employs it without any transitional markers between sections. This creates a seamless flow that constantly rearranges itself like a kaleidoscope. I wrote in a blog post, “the music proceeds in 8- and 16-bar blocks, with each block a different arrangement of parts. Each block is similar, yet crucially, each block is unique.”
On his track “Nebenraum” Fennesz (Christian Fennesz) uses an asymmetrical structure whose first introductory part is much longer than its second main part. This creates a deceptive form in that it prepares you for one thing then delivers a surprise. I wrote: “Forget verses and choruses, or themes and variations. ‘Nebenraum’ proceeds by a logic that feels custom-made for its form that seems custom made for its logic […] It holds our attention through sustained dissonance, subtle flickers of texture change and stereo placement, and most dramatically, a shift from using a long beginning to set up a briefer ending.”
On his track “rem” Taylor Dupree repeats a three-note melody and a second counterpoint line within a resonant spaced suffused with crackling white noise/ static and wobbling tape artifacts. The piece’s form sounds unchanging yet feels subtly alive. I wrote how “the pitched and textural elements in the track seem to float, yet undergo subtle changes that are just enough to turn repetition into enchantment.”
Finally, on their track “Bladelores” Autechre subject every sound to continuous evolutions to create what feels like a self-generated form. I wrote: “If you listen to any one-minute section of the track and focus on a single sound–the backbeat, the bassline, the chords–you can hear micro changes inflicting themselves continuously on each part, second by second. So that white noise back beat is almost never only a marking of beats 2 and 4, nor is that bassline merely marking a chord progression. Upon closer inspection, the parts keep changing rhythmically and/or timbrally and this change is the basis of the processual aspect of the music as a whole.”