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.
• 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.”
Have you seen chilledcow’s YouTube channel, “Low-fi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to”? The channel is a looped anime-style animation of a young woman sitting at a desk in her apartment, taking notes and studying, occasionally looking out the window onto a nondescript (mediterranean?) cityscape. On the wall behind her is a bookcase, and a cat that sleeps on the windowsill. Everyone is chilling. The woman wears big headphones and is, presumably, listening to the same music we’re hearing. People watch this and other similar youtube channels to relax and as an audio and visual counterpoint to their own studying. Sort of like playing one of those warm and cozy fireplace videos on your TV for its virtual ambiance. Here’s the link.
I recently spent a few minutes listening more closely to some of this low-fi hip hop. I was curious about its components and why it all sounds pretty much the same. The music is downtempo instrumental hip hop without any vocals, constructed out of a skeletal beat and a repeating piano or keyboard or guitar chord progression. What makes many of the tracks “low-fi” is their slightly wobbly, degraded or aged sound which creates the impression that the music is an echo of an earlier (and more chill) time. This sound reminds me of the wab-sabi aesthetic, or those smartphone filters that oversaturate your photos so they look worn (and therefore more chill). The beats can be interesting, insofar as they stutter and swing a little, and are processed to sound brittle, or else sampled at a low bit rate. The piano or Wurlitzer keyboards sound as if taken from an old record, and the guitar sounds like a shard off of a vintage ECM jazz LP—maybe a John Abercrombie record, or the opening bars of Pat Metheny’s 1976 ECM debut, Bright Size Life. I don’t know if the producers who make this music cobbled their parts together from other recordings or played them from scratch, but unlike an Abercrombie or Metheny performance, the tracks are distinguished by their refusal to go anywhere interesting. Like the looped video of the young woman sitting at her desk studying, this music is all about creating a sustained calm mood. It’s the digital equivalent of lighting a scented candle. I’ve noticed too that this music is used a lot as a benign soundtrack to vloggers’ YouTube travel videos.
As I watched the channel for a few minutes, I looked up some of the artists on Spotify, and was surprised to learn that some of them have vast audiences and upwards of a million monthly listeners. Some of them also promote their work on Instagram by bringing their laptops and MIDI controllers out into nature and taking photos of them. I also read articles about the popularity of all things “chill” on Spotify. I suppose I already knew this, but on Spotify, “Chill” is its own genre! There are dozens of “chill” music playlists in the Spotiverse, from “low-fi beats” to “classic acoustic” to “beach vibes” to “peaceful indie ambient” and “peaceful meditation”—all playlists which I stay far away from. No doubt there is a lot of overlap among these vague categories, so that a low-fi hip hop track can appear on a “study music” playlist, and vice versa, or a “chill piano” playlist might include both a melancholy Coldplay song and a manic-hypnotic Philip Glass etude. Maybe the porousness of musical styles and the different ways people interpret the same music differently explains how some idioms—such as low-fi hip hop—accrue a vast listenership.
I was surprised to find that a lot of the tracks I heard on the low-fi hip hop radio YouTube channel are only 1-2 minutes long. This had me wondering whether they were deliberately designed for a kind of distracted listening, or their composers rightly intuited that, due to their repetitiveness, the tracks shouldn’t go on for very long lest they become annoying? Last but not least, it’s difficult to distinguish one low-fi track from another. Could this be the hegemony of musical style in action, pressuring producers into a shared way of making similar-sounding material? But then I had more radical idea: Might a single musician be putting out hundreds of similar sounding tracks under different artist aliases? If so, this would be a way to play Spotify’s genre game while giving chilled out listeners more of what they want.
A few years after I moved to New York I was shopping for electronic music at Kim’s Music and Video in the East Village. Kim’s had these little listening stations set up where you could put on headphones and preview CDs of new music. I put on some phones and listened to an album by someone called Lackluster—a name I thought was great because it didn’t set the bar too high for the listener. I liked the music and its CD cover and asked the sales clerk about what else he had that was similar-sounding. I remember the clerk—he wore dreadlocks and a black tee—and I remember him steering me towards more serious stuff, specifically Autechre, so thank you for that. But I was curious about this Lackluster. In some ways hearing this music was formative to my interest in music production because I heard sounds I liked but didn’t quite get. I was quite naive about how I approached this CD: I didn’t know anything about the artist (nor do I recall ever being curious to investigate the matter further, but for the record, his name is Esa Juhani Ruoho), I didn’t know what style of music this was (sort of a downtempo), or even how its sounds fit into what was going on in electronic music at the time. I simply thought the producer’s choice of timbres, chords, rhythms, and overall vibe were evocative of…something. So I bought the CD, and while I don’t recall when I listened to it, I listened quite a bit, pleased that I had found this thing I didn’t understand.
So much has changed since then. There’s no more record stores. No more CDs or listening stations. Spotify’s algorithms now recommend music for me. And in a way, now I engage in far less naive listening that allows the music I hear to just be.
Lackluster’s track “Cull Streak”, with its additive form, sub bass, pads, staccato lead line, and dry brittle syncussion, was one of my favorite pieces:
Electronic music production, said the producer Mr. Bill in one of his YouTube tutorials, is a game of amounts. It’s true. Bill was referring to the thousands of micro-adjustments one makes in the course of designing sounds, recording parts, arranging, and mixing a track of music. The process is simple but involved and very drawn out: electronic music production is a game of making micro-adjustments over time with the goal of getting the music sounding just so.
How do you know when the music is sounding just so?
How do you know if that last adjustment you just made is the final one, or the first step in another round of adjustments?
You trust your ear. You trust your sense of how what you’re doing compares to what you’ve heard others do. You trust your intuition that what you’re making is either boring or exciting, a rehashing of old gestures, or a sound that’s genuinely new (for now).
Since micro-adjustments is the name of the game you need to get comfortable making them constantly over time, in the same way that you season and taste your food as you’re cooking it, always adjusting and manipulating the ratios of its various components. Adjusting is a gentle form of manipulation, a way to alter elements of the music slightly so these elements fit better with what is around them. For example, adjusting is leveling off a reverb tail so it doesn’t drown a sound, or EQing a drum sound so it’s less boxy. But each adjustment you make sets into motion a new set of relations among the parts. So when you bring down the level of the drums, everything else appears louder. Or when you brighten the noise layer of one sound, the other sounds sound dull by comparison.
With adjustment-making, the computer’s screen is your friend. On the screen you see everything in front of you—the parts, the arrangement, the levels, the waveforms, and the effects routing. With the screen as your lens you can zoom in on whatever resolution of the music-in-progress you want to see, all the way down to the sounds’ waveforms. You can zoom in so tight that a waveform now fills the screen as you hone in on a split-second of a sound’s attack point onset. It’s as if you’ve changed the size differential between you and the music, making the music into a skyscraper as you fiddle around on its ground floor. Or you can zoom out the other way, making a ten-minute piece into a five-inch ribbon sequence, the better to see its structure from afar.
Seeing the music’s components on the screen also helps you hear them better. I often spend time listening repeatedly to a section, looking at its parts layered horizontally on top of one another, trying to hear what I see. When I can’t hear something I zoom in on it, using my eyes to test the acuity of my ears. I look at the volume curve and start adjusting it upwards while I listen. If the change isn’t clear enough I exaggerate it, dragging the line way up and listening to how that sounds instead. The optimal volume is probably somewhere in the middle, but sometimes dramatic changes, at least at the onset of a sound, lead listeners in a way they need. The software designer Steve Duda explains this approach to mixing:
“With events and with parts, I’m emphasizing them at their start then bringing them back to the same [dynamic] place…The listener wants to be guided through the song and be shown the highlights. It’s amazing what can be solved with just good levels.”
Sometimes the music’s representation on the screen can articulate its structure and provide you with ideas on how to elaborate on that. With hundreds of layers of adjustments already automated in the track’s arrangement, the producer begins to notice visual patterns that might cue new ideas. For example, one of the parts fades out right here, illustrated by the volume line that descends from left to right. But you notice that the waveform has information hidden by the fade, so you adjust it by making it ascend instead and this makes audible some new pulsations. Now, with the volume curve turned upwards instead of down and the new pulsations audible, you have the idea to mirror that visual design elsewhere in the other parts. This inspires you to create a series of crescendos that dramatically lead into upcoming chords. This is the kind of production idea that you might not have had at the outset, but by making micro-adjustments cued by what you noticed displayed on the screen you found new ways of phrasing the music. As Jenny Odell describes the nature of idea formation in her book How To Do Nothing: “Any idea is actually an unstable, shifting intersection between myself and whatever I was encountering.”