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. 

“What you hear in music is just a hunch”: Musical Lessons From Harold Budd

Harold Budd, one of my favorite musicians, passed away last week. Budd began his career as a jazz drummer, and then began composing avant garde classical music. Finding influence in the work of painter Mark Rothko, composer John Cage, as well as medieval and renaissance musics, Budd turned away from the complexities of the avant grade and evolved a unique way of playing piano and keyboards to make a simple, clear, and floating style of music. The New York Times recently described this ambient sound as “soft-pedaled, sustained and suspended in a corona of reverberation and drone.” From the late 1970s onwards, Budd made recordings that sounded like no one else. This post is about four lessons I have learned from him. 

1. Besides the piano, Budd wasn’t overly interested in musical instruments per se, but rather what he could do with what he was using at the moment. When asked in 2014 if he had a piano at home, he said no, and added: “I think they’re ugly things. Architecturally speaking, and in other ways. So to actually live with a piano? Well, that would really insult my aesthetic sense.” Budd loved the piano, but for him a musical instrument was merely a vehicle for expression. 

2. Budd’s compositional strategy in the studio was to use whatever was at hand and find everything in it that makes musical sense. In one interview, he explained how he would settle on a single synthesizer patch and then limit himself to using just that sound and exploring all of its potentials. This constraint has helped me in my own work: as soon as I find/make a sound I like, I start working with it.

3. Budd played off of processing effects. For instance, in his collaborations with Brian Eno, Eno would effect Budd’s piano playing with reverb and other “treatments” and Budd would respond to the treatments in real time–such as allowing the long reverb tails to shape the sense of space in his playing. 

4. Finally, Budd, who was self-taught on the piano, evolved a distinctive musical style. His music managed to proceed without reliance on stylistic cliches—that is, without trying to sound jazzy, New Agey, or pop–yet remain supremely listenable and most of all, consonant. In a 1987 interview he said: 

“There’s a whole world fraught with possibilities in consonant music…In Beethoven, a consonant chord had a function, but in my music the focus has shifted to consonance as a thing in itself. It’s completely free, complete anarchy. What you hear in the music is just a hunch. It’s intuition telling me that this works and this doesn’t. I hear an absolute whole life in consonant chords.”