Notes On Working In Layers

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“Artworks are devices for engineering attention.” – Susan Tallman

Insofar as I take inspiration from artists who don’t work with sound, in 2019 I took a lot of inspiration from Vija Celmins, who I first heard about via a (yet another excellent) Calvin Tomkins New Yorker profile. Celmins is celebrated for her meticulous paintings and drawings of night skies and oceans. What struck me was her process: how she takes photos of the ocean, then meticulously draws or paints a facsimile of it. Crucial to her workflow is that she draws the photo not all at once, but in many, many layers. Each “pass” involves a different pencil or a different technique (smudging yesterday’s lines, for example), and she repeats this working in passes process many times until the work radiates its own energy and looks halfway between a photo and a drawing. 

Tomkins suggests that what makes Celmins’ “images so alive is the consummate craftsmanship that goes into them—the hand, which knows things that the mind does not…If you spend enough time on a work, something else might come into play.” Similarly, critic Susan Tallman explains the basis of this craftsmanship: “Up close, you see that every swell, curl, and cranny has been given its individual due. There are no schematic waves, nothing is generalized, and no part is prioritized over any other…These drawings are astonishing feats of attentiveness.”

What I learned from Celmins’ work was the idea of working on music production in layers. I suppose I had been doing this anyway, but thinking about her pencil drawings helped me reframe how I was using effects in my own work. I found myself shaping a sound using one effect (e.g. a reverb), and then returning to the sound the next day to re-shape it using another effect (e.g. a different reverb). For some sounds, such as drum and percussion sounds I did this for weeks and sometimes months at a time. It began because I didn’t know what I was looking for, knowing only that what I was hearing was not it, so I tinkered with the sound. A drum sound would get a big compression or EQ sheen and for the moment it was improved from what it was. But then I would repeat the process later in the week, fiddling with what I thought I was “done” with. For a long time, nothing I did sounded good for me and so the only way forward was to keep altering the sounds. After a while I noticed I was doing this to almost every sound I was working with. 

It wasn’t until I read the article on Celmins that it occurred to me that working in layers makes sense for many reasons. First, it’s a way to try out one thing at a time without going too astray if it doesn’t work out. Trying say, one process per day is a do-able thing that keeps me focused. Second, it’s a way to pace yourself, knowing that there’s no way a piece could be finished in a day or a week anyway, so why not space out your tinkering? Third, it’s a way to let a process carry you through to a resultant sound. For example, as I applied a reverb to a drum sound, it might only sound good on a few hits here and there, so I would leave it at that. During the next pass the next day I might apply something else to the sound. Fourth, working in layers to some degree takes the notion of talent out of the equation and replaces it with the discipline of holding one’s attention over time. Instead of thinking about production skills, I now think about productive attention. Finally, working in layers gradually transformed my sounds in ways I could never have predicted had I not worked in this slow and additive way. After ten or twenty layers of processing, a sound can morph into something altogether new. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of working in layers though, is that it reminds you that making things takes a lot of time. When you give yourself time, you have space to attend to details within details—as or Tallman says, giving each element of the work “its individual due.” Based on my own experience, the energy of your work is directly proportional to the energy you put into it over time, compressing and distilling all the adding and subtracting in layers that went into its making. My favorite musics are not off the cuff improvisations, but records of a level of detail that I’m now convinced took the producer many, many long hours of attentive attending to incorporate into their being.    

Musical Logics

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Musical logic is reasoning by other means—
not knowing the key
but feeling the mode
not counting beats
but feeling the pulse
not planning the form
but keeping it open
not according to plan
but making it up on your way.

Music is the pleasure the human mind
experiences from counting
without being aware that it is counting. (Gottfried Leibniz)

On Minimalism and Maximalism

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When I’m working on music I alternate a lot between what I call minimalism and maximalism. In addition to its meaning from avant grade music (as the repetition of short phrases that gradually change to create a hypnotic effect), minimalism for me means working with a single sound and finding much of interest in that. This was the approach I took for several recordings which I began making in 2014. First I made music for singing bowls, the sound set of which was derived from a bowl tone I played (not especially well) and recorded. I did something similar with a pair of finger cymbals for Finger Cymbal Music, with a gong for Gong Music, and with a piano/dulcimer instrument for Quietudes. This kind of minimalism suits me when I want to limit myself to discover a sound’s timbral and compositional possibilities. And also this: working with a single sound made my music production process quite simple. 

Maximalism is working with a multitude of sounds and finding what feels like endless interesting timbral-textural combinations within those sounds. This is the approach I took for my most recent recording of marimba music. In contrast to the singing bowl and gong musics, this recording is deeply multi-timbral, with each track containing over twenty  sounds. Some of those timbres come from spinning the marimba in various ways (though re-sampling and effects processing, etc.), and some of them are different electronic sounds which complement the marimba. While minimalism is an excuse to see what you can do with the minimum of materials, taking a maximalist approach is a chance to see how far you can multiply or otherwise augment your materials into plentitudes. I find the maximalist mindset exciting in that each thing you try inspires you to try more ways of working—from thickening the texture, complexifying the rhythm, making the timbres more subtle, to playing with the music’s perceptual aural illusions. These ways of working are most enjoyable when your experimentation coalesces into moments that create effects you weren’t anticipating, but gladly accept.

But throughout my maximalist experimentation, my sense of minimalism never really goes away. As I add parts, I’m also thinking What would this sound like if I took the part away? As I thicken textures and edit in micro-complexities, I consider alternatives for thinning and simplifying the music. Basically, I keep adding and then subtracting a bit. Deep into the marimba project, at a point where I thought I was almost done, minimalism took center stage again and energetically suggested that I consider trimming accumulated fluff from the music:

you don’t need that beginning (I didn’t)
all those parts don’t need to happen at once (they don’t)
you don’t need to use gradual volume fades everywhere (guilty)
you can delay the entrance of that sound (you’re right)
mute that (okay I will, promise)
you can incorporate a simpler beat (ok fine!)

So I started cleaning up the tracks by getting rid of what seemed extraneous as well as adding simple things here and there. But, surprise surprise, then maximalism slid back into the mix, whispering into my ear as if now I were the sound engineer for some wacky duo’s concert:

the beat is good, but I’m getting bored by that repeating high sound—
Can you tweak it a bit and make it more interesting, for me? (ok fine)

And so it went, as I simultaneously made the music simpler and more complex. Now minimalism and maximalism were in dialogue—talking to one another through me and making their respective cases. By listening to each of them I made adjustments to the music and grappled with one of music’s essential balancing acts: less versus more.

Curating The Week: DeepComposer, Vija Celmins, Peripheral Vision

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• Amazon’s AWS DeepComposer demonstration. The video is worth watching, if only to hear how abysmal the music is.

An article on the art of Vija Celmins (someone who has inspired me to work in layers).

“Up close, you see that every swell, curl, and cranny has been given its individual due. There are no schematic waves, nothing is generalized, and no part is prioritized over any other…These drawings are astonishing feats of attentiveness.”

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An article about the undervaluing of peripheral vision in software.