Assessing Creative Strategies For Music Production

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“What is the most important thing we can think about in this most extraordinary moment?”

-Buckminster Fuller

When I’m making progress on a project I take a moment to note what I’ve been doing to move things along. On my most recent music recording, I found that I had worked in distinct stages and that each of these stages has its own protocols. The first stage of a project is recognizing and accepting a vague idea for one—for example, a collection of piano pieces. It doesn’t matter so much what the project is; what matters is committing to seeing it through to completion. Committing means writing material within the constraints of the initial idea—in this case, a collection of piano pieces. This time it takes to complete this stage can vary from a few days to a few months. Once I commit to something, I tend to work on it everyday for about a month, or until I feel like I can’t do much more within my self-imposed constraints.

The second stage is fleshing out the pieces. This involves adding other parts, beginning to edit the original performances/improvisations/compositions, moving notes around, and experimenting. At this stage I’m getting to know the pieces, getting a feel for their energy and what they could yet become. I’m also alert for laggards that may not make the final cut. It’s too early to know for sure, but if the sketch for a piece isn’t grabbing me already, I may not drag it along any further. This stage of fleshing out and getting to know pieces takes months as I add to and subtract from the music and tinker with its form to see what, if anything, helps. (Even the laggards get help.) A lot of my time during this stage is spent editing individual notes because as I get to know the pieces better, the more they sound off in many small ways. It’s like I didn’t know what I was reaching for initially, but now, with the benefit of repeated listening and hindsight, I have a better idea of what the parts need, and of what the overall form could be. So I tinker. What the notes really need though, is love, and love is an asymmetrical relationship. The pitches and rhythms are promising, but right now I need to do heavy lifting to get them oriented the right way lest they dissipate into shards of their own potential. Focus people, focus.  

The third stage is beginning to mix the pieces. None of them are close to being finished yet, but I could tinker with them forever and who wants to do that? So I move things along, doing a bit each day. Mixing involves, in this order: adjusting volumes, applying EQ, applying other effects such as reverb, and adjusting volumes again. The goal of most adjustments is simple: to make what needs to be audible more audible. I’ll repeat this process one day after another, going over the pieces one by one, essentially revising the decisions I made yesterday. For a while, each adjustment creates the need for yet another compensating adjustment (e.g. a part that is EQ’d to sound “brighter” might also start sounding louder). But eventually the sonic textures stabilize. I’m getting to know not only the music but also the prior mix adjustments I’ve made: I can hear my past decisions that make today’s mixing go smoother. But the third stage is also a time to catch issues I didn’t catch earlier on. All of a sudden a part sounds threadbare—how did I not notice this?—and in need of subtle counterpoint so I add some, or I add too much, then remove some of it and split the difference. All of a sudden a part needs a doubling or a harmony. Or all of a sudden the music’s texture is too thick (too much adding) and I remove more and more material until I can hear clearly again. What sounded clear yesterday sounds clearer today and might sound even clearer tomorrow. What’s interesting is how often—how all of a sudden—I hear the same music in new ways, surprising myself.  

The final stage of a project is listening through the mixes, not once, but numerous times. (Fifty times? A hundred?) The key is noticing issues during each listen-through, noting the problems, fixing the problems, mixing down the music again, and listening once more. I keep doing this until either (a) I no longer notice (major) problems in need of fixing or (b) my fatigue with the music has begun to outweigh the perceived severity of the problems. The mixes could be better but if the music is communicating the essence of what I was reaching for in my original improvising and composing, then I’ve arrived somewhere. Now I send the audio files off for mastering because I want different ears to listen to the music and find other ways to even out its sound.

What these four stages of producing music share are considerable demands they make on my attention. The music and I have made a pact: if I agree to listen to it as closely as I can, I’ll notice details and these noticed details will guide me as to what to do next. In stage one, I commit to the general shape of a project. I don’t think I’ll just do something and see what happens. (I do that too, but those are free play sessions.) Rather, it’s let me do this specific thing and see what happens. I decide on piano music, but then I get more specific: let me record for ten minutes, or let me spend an hour on a theme, or just do whatever. Suddenly that ten minutes or hour or whatever is a charged space, a space devoted to focusing, a space whose time has urgency. In stage two, I listen to the pieces with an ear for what they’re missing. Here my attention is attuned to being sympathetic to their shortcomings. In stage three, my attention pans out to a wider frame of view. Even as I tinker with the parts, add EQ and other effects, I’m focused on fixing any irregularities that call too much attention to themselves. Consider, for example, the not-so-simple matter of a note’s attack point. If the note is too early it can sound either rushed or energized. If it’s right on the beat (the time grid on my music software’s Arrangement page shows exactly where “the beat” is) it can sound clinical. But if it’s a little after the beat the note can sound either pleasingly legato or just plain late. The timing of a note’s attack is crucial for how the music sits in its time space. This is the kind of detail I notice as I listen from a wider frame of view. The goal is not to make every note perfect but merely right in the appropriate way, bringing what I already have into a balance. In the final stage of a project, I turn my attention upon itself. I still have doubts: Can my attention can be duped? Did I really fix what was bothering me yesterday? What does it say about my attention if each day I notice something different? As much as I can, I try to be sympathetic to my own listening shortcomings while trusting that I’m hearing what I hearing right now.  

The aims of my four-stage music production process bring to mind what Buckminster Fuller once called tensegrity, or tensional integrity. Fuller used the term to refer to structures whose strength (rigidity) comes from various and complementary forms of compression and tension. Since music, like architecture, a form built upon complementary forces, tensegrity makes a vivid analogy for music production where the goal is to create a tensioned balance point for the sum melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral elements. Despite my doubts about my ability to notice what needs to be noticed, each day I resume pushing and pulling the music, bending and stretching and compressing it in the hopes that it will eventually radiate an energy from within. 

       

Creative Strategies: Multiples

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multiple—having or involving several parts, parts, or members

One of the most useful concepts in creative work is the concept of multiples. There’s no hidden meaning here—multiple simply means having several parts—but there is hidden power.

The way to apply the multiple concept to your work is simple: conceive of and build multiple versions of whatever you’re working on. For example, if you’re writing piece of music for say, marimba and violin (a nice combination of timbres and short-long note durations), start with one piece and finish it. But while doing so plan to do at least three or four, or even better, ten or twelve more pieces for the same instrumentation. This achieves a few things on different levels of conception and execution. First, it forces you to figure out if your materials or your concepts or your process is repeatable. Can you stretch the initial concept? Clone the basic idea? Reproduced the aesthetic? Thinking in terms of multiples forces you to critically consider the rigor of what you already have. Second, multiples encourages you to think in broad strokes. Maybe this means moving beyond short melodies or chord progressions you’re invested in, towards more general notions of call and response, mutual filigree, or harmonic dissonance. While your fantastic melody might be a one-time thing, these more general concepts of musical form and action are easily multiplied—who knows what you’ll find! This connects to a third effect of multiples, which is that it directs you towards the endless interesting realm of variations. Variation is the ur-key to creativity in that “new” works often take shape in the form of variations on an older theme. Finally, multiples directs your attention to the future, giving you something to look forward to. Tomorrow will arrive and with it you can resume your marimba-violin pieces, or whatever project you’re working on.

I’ve been applying the multiples concept for several years. With music, I work up as many pieces as I can around an idea until I’m tired of it or else can’t seem to find anything new. For my recent recording, Quietudes (2018), I composed twenty pieces around the idea of quiet music for a string keyboard sound: a solo chordal lead and two accompanying melody parts. Following the multiples concept I generated as much as I could. Then at a later date, I returned to the pieces and narrowed them down to the seven that made the final recording. An even more recent example: as I was writing this post I began brainstorming other creative strategies that relate to Multiples. Here are a few: Framing, Distance, Doubt, Belief, Stillness, and Derivative. How to do they relate? I haven’t figured that out yet, but the important thing is the process of trying to multiply the multiple concept.

So: think in multiples.

Arrows Of Attention: 100 Words As Creative Actions

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1. Accept

2. Accumulate

3. Age

4. Animate

5. Articulate

6. Assign

7. Borrow

8. Brighten

9. Build

10. Channel

11. Chart

12. Compress

13. Complexify

14. Configure

15. Contour

16. Copy

17. Counterpoint

18. Darken

19. Decorate

20. Define

21. Delay

22. Delete

23. Detune

24. Diminish

25. Doubt

26. Drum

27. Duplicate

28. Echo

29. Elaborate

30. Emphasize

31. Energize

32. Equalize

33. Evaluate

34. Excel

35. Expand

36. Experiment

37. Explore

38. Extrapolate

39. Fade

40. Feel

41. Filigree

42. Float

43. Follow

44. Fractalize

45. Fragment

46. Harmonize

47. Highlight

48. Improvise

49. Intuit

50. Invert

51. Invigorate

52. Layer

53. Lengthen

54. Link

55. Mangle

56. Meander

57. Measure

58. Melodicize

59. Mirror

60. Mix

61. Modulate

62. Mute

63. Paste

64. Perform

65. Plan

66. Polish

67. Presage

68. Preset

69. Pulsate

70. Randomize

71. Reconsider

72. Refine

73. Repeat

74. Recall

75. Reset

76. Resonate

77. Revert

78. Rhythmicize

79. Ring

80. Quantize

81. Question

82. Serialize

83. Sharpen

84. Sidechain

85. Simplify

86. Simulate

87. Shroud

88. Solo

89. Suggest

90. Stutter

91. Switch

92. Sync

93. Tighten

94. Tinker

95. Transfer

96. Transpose

97. Tune

98. Vary

99. Waver

100. Wonder

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.