On Conjuring And Capturing: The Jar Of Fireflies Concept

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The cover for my most recent recording, Piano And Metals Music, is a composite of two images: a metallic surface, and fireflies. The metallic idea was mine–I was trying to represent the metal instruments in the music (gongs, kalimba, and finger cymbals, if you were wondering). The firefly idea was inspired by a comment made by my friend Alain, who mastered the music: when he heard those metallic sounds around the piano he pictured forest sprites.

The image of fireflies in a jar has been coming to mind as I’ve been reflecting on (optimal) ways of working. The oft-heard cliché is that projects begin with a seed or kernel that grows into something more refined. But the fireflies in a jar idea conveys something a bit different. First, it conveys this idea of the fireflies as being out there somewhere (imagine a meadow), acting somewhat chaotically, glowing with fluorescent energy, and being indifferent to you. Second, it conveys the idea of your having to actively capture a few of these flying, glowing beauties, acting swiftly to get them inside your jar in hand.

This image analogy can mislead us though, into forgetting that the fireflies are ideas of our own creation. That’s the catch: there are no flying beauties besides what we might conjure ourselves. The creating spirit depends on our learning how to be both the conjurer and the capturer of those conjurations.

Notes on Dennis DeSantis’s “Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies For Electronic Music Producers”

 

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Making Music is not a collection of vague aphorisms. Instead, it combines motivational ideas about the philosophy and psychology of music-making with hands-on tools and techniques that musicians of all kinds can use to really get work done.”
– Dennis DeSantis, Making Music

Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies For Electronic Music Producers (2015) by Dennis DeSantis is a conceptual guide for musicians who make music using a computer. DeSantis brings to his writing the full range of his experience as a percussionist, composer, electronic musician, and head of documentation at Ableton, the company behind Ableton Live software. Making Music is beautiful in both the rigorous clarity of its content as well as its minimalist design. (The book is published by Ableton.) It’s a book of encouragement, a book of confirmation, a book of suggestion and direction, a book of thoughtful inquiry about the creative process, and a book of pragmatic pathways for action.

Divided into three sections, Problems of Beginning, Problems of Progressing, and Problems of Finishing, Making Music presents brief (and unnumbered) chapters, each of which tackles a different issue a musician might face when creating music. Every few pages a new problem is posed and then a solution is offered. For example, in the first section the chapter “Arbitrary Constraints” considers the problem of computer software offering far too many options. DeSantis suggests that we deliberately limit our options through various kinds of constraints. Another chapter, “Goal-Less Exploration” considers the problem of boredom by suggesting ways of micro-exploring without a set goal. The second section considers problems relating to creating variations (e.g. “Mutation Over Generations”), programming rhythms (e.g. “Linear Drumming”), melody formation, sampling, and more abstract topics such as “Tuning Everything”, “Maximal Density”, and “Dramatic Arc.” The concluding section presents problems of arrangement and form with a view to completing a musical project. Overall, the format and chapter themes of Making Music generate a wealth of good questions and equally stimulating and elegant answers. At times the playful way these questions and answers unearth creative strategies for making music with a computer evokes the oblique strategies that Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt devised in the 1970s. Like Eno’s prompts (e.g. “Honour thy error as a hidden intention”,” What to increase? What to reduce?”, “Work at a different speed”) as well as the philosophy of John Cage (who drew on Zen teachings), DeSantis’ book has a pleasing sense of calm about it, as if its meta-message is: No matter how your music is going at this moment, something (interesting) will work out if you think about it differently. Get beyond yourself, let the work flow.

Making Music is certainly a practical book that could be useful to any musician, regardless of the kind of music they make. A beginner would love this book, as would an expert, and the material is equally appropriate to a hip hop producer as it is to a composer of left-field soundscape recordings. (Or a producer of left-field hip hop that incorporates soundscape recordings.) But Making Music also resonates on levels deeper than its how-to format might suggest. One of these levels rattles around the questions: What is composing in the 21st century? What does composing technique look like in the digital age? DeSantis has articulated 74 ways in which music software is a unique environment and possibility space in which to think through composing. Another deep level on which the book resonates is how it provides insight into the texture and tempo of accomplished musical thinking. DeSantis doesn’t talk about his own compositions per se, yet the way he systematically offers and then analyzes examples demonstrates how we too might rigorously think through the many permutations latent in our musical materials. In short, Making Music is an inspiring and very musical book because it faithfully models sound musical thinking.

On Editing Music While Listening And Looking At It

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While working on a musical project recently I realized the value of editing while looking at the MIDI notes. Listening to the music while following along each part one at a time lets me see what’s sounding and then make the appropriate changes in dynamics and arrangement. For instance, I can hear that there’s a three-note ascending phrase and also see the volume levels for each of these notes (represented as vertical velocity lines of different lengths underneath them). Sometimes one note or another will jump out at me or get lost in the mix a little so I’ll look at the volume levels to see if that’s the problem. Alternately, I’ll look at the volume levels first and only then take notice of the corresponding sound—an unusually low or high velocity line for a note might be a reason to listen more closely. So I’ll play back the three-note rising phrase a few times and ask: Can I hear all the notes clearly? Is there is enough shape to them? I’ll make the phrase have a gradual crescendo or decrescendo shape by slightly tweaking the volume of each of the three notes, up or down depending. I’ll do something similar with notes that fall on what feel like downbeats or what should be accented parts of the melody. Of course, some of these dynamic shapes are already within my original recorded performance. But I’m struck by how often these performance details are not necessarily articulated clearly enough in the parts. Maybe this lack of articulation has something to do with my using a MIDI controller whose keys are not so sensitive velocity-wise. A more likely problem is me—maybe I wasn’t thinking all that analytically about the music when I first performed/recorded it. I was just going for it. Now though, as I listen after the fact while looking at the notes, I can identify places that could be clearer and then make them so. It all feels like teaching myself in retrospect.

The other kind of change I make while looking at the MIDI notes has to do with arrangement. Here and there I find note doublings or points of overlap that are simply too busy and cluttered. Looking at the notes of all the parts as they sound allows me to see which part harbors the problem I’m hearing. My process is entirely intuitive and the question I’m always trying to answer is What is that  weird sound? Ninety-nine percent of the time less is always more: deleting a note can have impressive results as I take away sounds until the texture becomes clearer, standing more revealed. In those few cases where I’m not sure what to do, I’ll listen to a spot with and then without a potentially extraneous note and then decide whether or not to delete it. In a few of these few cases I’ll leave things as they are: sometimes a little chaos is a good thing.

The takeaway from this process of editing while listening and looking at the notes is that the most effective music is that which I don’t have to touch much at all. Looking at the MIDI notes on the screen I think about how any performance—whether I’m moved by it or not—has a shape and flow to it. That’s what makes it a performance. We can tweak a recording to bits after the fact, but any power it might have lies in the ways in went about trying to achieve what it achieved, the way it created the energy it created, the clarity of its guiding logic, and most importantly, how it made us feel.

On Endless Beginnings

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Some twenty years ago the professor for my Psych 101 class once said “Never be afraid to be a beginner. Because you’re going to be a beginner over and over, all your life.” It was good advice, and it came to mind recently as I was browsing through old music files on my computer. In a series of vaguely titled folders (“chords and beats”, “ambient” etc.) I found a series of what one might call endless beginnings–ideas for pieces of music that someday might become something or (probably, most likely) not. “Ideas” might be giving too much credit. Some of the pieces are just a series of rhythms, a few chords, or an interesting sound. All of the files sit quietly, with their workaday titles (day, month, and year), waiting for my further direction and refinement. The music varies in quality, yet all the files share a sense of being unafraid of, well, being beginners. Sitting on the computer hard drive, they wait for someone–me–to revisit them and re-listen to hear if they might have anything worth saying. I keep putting off this re-listening, but here’s one that caught my attention enough to write this post:

For more on beginnings, go here.

Reflections On Several Musical Projects: Thinking About What Worked (For Now)

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Reflecting on some recent musical projects of mine, I noticed a number of techniques and strategies I used to build them:

I used my own (sampled) sounds. I’ve written here before about my frustrations with making electronic music. But using my own sounds makes the process personal and somehow more sensible.

I improvised a performance rather than composed a piece. For me, performance still means something. And by performance I mean making musical decisions in real-time–without stopping, without going back, only going forward–and living with them. In his classic psychology of music textbook, The Musical Mind, John A. Sloboda talks of composing and improvising being the same process, only taking place at different rates of speed. True enough, but with composing you can always go back and change something. Improvised performance doesn’t allow for that. And this is a good thing.

I stayed in one key (per section or for the entire piece). Depending on the effect you’re going for, sometimes key changes are overrated. Sometimes we don’t want change and surprise, just an extended moment in one tonal place.

I used percussion sounds. This relates to my point about sampling above. Percussion sounds are the ones I know best because I’m around them a lot–my hands touch percussion instruments every day so they feel familiar.

I avoided steady beats. At least when I’m mediated through controllers and computer software, I’m not crazy about my own beats, so why use them?

I kept the pieces brief. The brevity of the pieces is a function of my performances, which raises the question: Why are my performances brief? Maybe it’s a matter of paying attention for just a few moments before things return to their everyday scatter.

I used software to copy, transpose, and time-shift. As far as I can imagine, this is the best use for software: having it carry out tasks that would otherwise drain the moment of its intensity.

I followed a process. (See point above.) In general outline, the process was: perform, play with the materials of that performance, and edit. It’s like writing, actually.

I made a series of pieces in the same style. There’s a few reasons for this. First, making multiple variations of a thing helps reveal what that thing is. Second, making multiple variations frees me from thinking about the process so I can just get into the moment. Third, an accumulation of pieces takes pressure off any individual piece to represent the bunch. Some may be–and were–cast aside after a few listens, since not all performances are equal. Equally valid, sure, but not equally compelling to listen to.

I stopped once I felt I had explored the process enough and before I knew exactly what it was I was doing. As the saying goes, the key is knowing exactly when to stop. In this case, I wanted to stay somewhat surprised and one step behind myself.

On The Music Making Of Jon Hopkins

“My general view is just to have absolutely no planning in place at all and just to let my instinct kind of run wild a bit.” – Jon Hopkins

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of English composer Jon Hopkins. His recording Immunity (2013), shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize, is a tour de force in affect, groove, and sound design. Hopkins has his own organic techno-ish sound as well as a kinetic way of performing his intricately crafted music live.

One of the pieces that captured my attention was “Abandon Window,” a decidedly beatless five-minute ambient piano piece. The music is built on a sequence of nine chords that move glacially and repeat. After a few repetitions the piano begins developing a tail of ghostly reverbed resonance behind it. This tail gradually grows in thickness, becoming a chordal wash. By 3:30 the piano is all but gone and only the reverbed resonance remains, repeating and fading, the nine chords of “Abandon Window” having left their trace. There is a clarity to this music–its process is simple to discern, yet its sound still engaging to behold.

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There’s also a clarity to Hopkins’ thoughts about how he makes his music. In one documentary video we learn about his views on improvisation, making his own sounds, synesthesia, and music-induced altered states of mind:

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In another video we see Hopkins performing his music. What is noticeable here is how kinetic Hopkins is while interacting with his tools. His musical system incorporates several touchscreen Korg Kaoss Pads that allow him to improvise changes to the music in real time. Seeing this lively physical interaction–Hopkins throwing his fingers down like darts onto the pads–gives us the sense that the music is truly in the moment. Above all, Hopkins is deeply into his material and this is what holds our attention:

On Four Tet Remixing “Thriller” In Ten Minutes

I recently watched and re-watched a wonderful video in which Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) remixes Michael Jackson’s Thriller as part of the “Beat This” series. The challenge is to make a remix in ten minutes. The catch is that Hebden can only use sounds from Thriller. What makes the video wonderful–even a little thrilling–is seeing and hearing a producer work in real time. The time constraint is actually useful, because it serves to compress a series of steps and decisions Hebden must take and make in order to whip something up. What we’re left with is the essence of transforming one work of music into another.

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With the clock ticking, Hebden begins. For the first thirty seconds, he skips the stylus around side one of Jackson’s 1982 record, sampling a few bars from a few songs. He wastes no time, taking bits from the openings of “Beat It”, “Billy Jean”, “Human Nature”, and “P.YT.” Satisfied he has enough material to work with (clock is ticking!), he turns off the record player and turns to his laptop. Next, he loads the Thriller samples into a Drum Rack in Ableton. The Drum Rack simulates the series of rubber drum pads that one might find on hardware drum machine, each pad assigned to a sound sample. With the sounds loaded in, Hebden can move around their waveforms, listening for interesting bits.

At 8:19, Hebden isolates the kick drum from the “Billy Jean” beat, and draws in a four-on-the-floor MIDI pattern that triggers the kick. He also quickly EQs it to bring up its bass frequencies. With the repeating kick as an anchor, he isolates the snare drum sound from the same song, putting it on every fourth beat, and the hi hat sound from “P.Y.T”, putting it on every 8th note offbeat. By 6:35 he has a dance music rhythm going. At 6:00, Hebden has found a small bit from “P.Y.T.” and re-pitched it. He keeps wandering about the “P.Y.T.” sample, only to return to the bit he likes around 5:25. Next, around 5:00, he draws in a three-note MIDI rhythm, and uses this rhythm to trigger the opening sound of “Beat It.” (How did Jackson make that sound, by the way?) By 3:30, Hebden is working on the Arrangement page, organizing his repeating parts into a larger structure. At 1:19 you can hear how ominous one of his re-pitched voice samples has become. In fact, for me, this background ambiance is now the hook of the remix.

Finally, the ten minutes are up and Hebden has something. When asked by one of the cameramen if he likes the piece, Hebden says he does, joking that he’ll play the remix exactly as is at a club in London that coming weekend.

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In sum, the video offers us a few lessons. First, even a very short window of time is enough time in which to make something–or start something. Hebden, ever skilled with his software and experienced ear, managed to create a tight arrangement in a few minutes. Second, we see a musician working with a limited set of materials–brief samples from four songs–to make something new. But the materials aren’t really that limited. Notice, for instance, the thirty seconds during which Hebden scrolls back and forth along a sample, listening to it at various points (6:00-5:25). He chose just one loop that sounded good, but there were probably dozens of others that were just as interesting. Third, the video offers a case study in decision-making. With the 10-minute clock ticking down, Hebden has to decide which sounds he likes. There’s no time to waste: if something catches his attention, he goes with it. Those dozens of other loop candidates will have to wait for another day (or forever). Fourth, the video shows Hebden working with a very simple studio: a turntable, a computer, an audio interface (to get the turntable sound into the computer), software (Ableton Live), and two speakers. Given all the gear available these days, this set up is beautiful bare bones, and more than enough to work with. Finally, and this surprised me, watch Hebden’s eyes and hands. His eyes dart back and forth, tracking things on his screen, registering tiny details his ears have noticed. Meanwhile, his hands move the mouse and tap keyboard shortcuts–moving, dragging, cutting, and pasting musical material about the virtual environment of the software. This is the electronic musician’s body, engaged in concentration for ten minutes.

You can read more about Kieran Hebden here and here.