“In my lessons, Mr. Abel played everything with me, providing the perfect template for learning. As I played, I would imitate the movement of his hands and try to duplicate the sound he produced.”
• An essay about the import and export of ideas from Samuel Arbesman’s newsletter.
“This is an example of the import and export of ideas. It’s the ability to take scientific concepts, technologies, or theoretical frameworks from one domain and apply them to entirely different ones. And as the world has become more specialized, this ability has become that much more important. It helps reduce reinvention of ideas, and shows that there are certain fundamentally similar insights that stretch across fields.”
“Henry Cowell introduced me to ‘world music’ and to the idea that every major world culture had a music and that they were all interesting and all perfectly valid.”
In a recent post I wrote about being continually lost whilst producing music. But I neglected to mention that in addition to being lost, I’m finding ways to navigate the uncharted paths of my music software. To put it another way: now that I’m okay with being lost, I’ve turning my attention to how exactly I build ways of navigation. What is navigation? It’s wayfinding and roaming, sense-making and map-building, proprioception and feedback loops, and evolving methods for moving through a (virtual) terrain. To use another metaphor, it’s like running through an unfamiliar landscape: you have to pay attention to everything around you in a new way, while at the same time keeping track of how you feel as you move along. You’re simultaneously learning and maintaining a steady state.
The first point about navigation is that the process has no exactly about it. My navigation is intuitive and I don’t fully understand its workings. I’m trying to get somewhere, but I don’t know where that somewhere is until I arrive someplace that seems either close enough or else so surprisingly interesting that I forget about where I had wanted to go.
A second point about navigation is that I try to remember (without writing down) where I have been in the software and the steps I took to get where I presently am. For example, I’ve been making sounds through wavetable synthesis (examples of which can be heard in this music). I’ll combine two waves and experiment with adding different effects to them, or automating shifts through the wavetables to create odd stuttering sounds. I keep at it until the patch sounds interesting and enchanting enough that I want to make music with it. I’ve learned that I like sounds with unpredictable noises and distortions that replicate the overtones and complexities of say, a cymbal, but with a definite pitch. When I repeat the sound design process the next day, I try recalling what worked and repeat that. But I never remember all of the details and so have to navigate through new wavetables and add new effects in new ways until I once again I have something that sounds good.
A third point about navigation is that when I build a sound, I make multiples of whatever I have done. Sometimes this involves quickly making several variations of a sound I have created—making one bright-sounding, the next dark-sounding, and a third sort of evolving between the two. Making variations of a sound is a way to “clone” the route I took and way finding I used to arrive at the sound, without having to start over from scratch. Using this method, it doesn’t take long to grow a bank of sounds that I can return to use at a later time.
A final point about navigation is that, since every day is different (even during quarantine), each journey through the software is an opportunity to explore new routes. Without question, the most useful principle of making music is to forget that we have ever done anything prior to what we are currently doing. Finding my way today and paying attention, as opposed to relying on my memories of what worked in the past, leads to the most exciting places.
“Over the past 5 years I have been sketching compositions on paper. Sometimes they are detailed, specific outlines of what I imagine for the music, sometimes they are how I would like a synth to sound, sometimes they are me thinking out loud about the structure of the music I am working on.
The main reason why I do this is because it is a way for me to problem solve away from the computer. I find the computer is so powerful at trying things quickly that it can get in the way and overpower some of my decisions.”