Curating The Week: Blur, Imperfections, The Time Course Of Creativity

An article about optical blur (which has me thinking about blurring in music).

“There are still artists for whom the purity of optical blur—a tiny depth of field with a single detail picked out, or total lack of focus across the composition—says something important about the limits of perception, or usefully frustrates a viewer’s expectations. The delicate domestic studies of Rinko Kawauchi, the out-of-reach architecture and interiors of Hiroshi Sugimoto, jewel-colored mirages by Uta Barth, Catherine Leutenegger, and Bill Armstrong—all of these owe something to the long history of deliberate blur, but also, perhaps, to the kind of maddening error we all used to make when we forgot to focus, or snapped away too close to our subject.”

An article about the value of imperfections on music recordings.

“When music gets cleaned up too much, listeners lose opportunities to connect their imperfections with those in the music, the human traces that might otherwise reach the ear and burrow into the heart. Fewer are the opportunities to hear oneself in the music, to follow the threads that tie the listener to it. The effect is the same when the pumped-up realities we encounter on social media leave people who are feeling their own unfiltered humanness at a distance, isolated.”

An article about the time course of creativity.

“Creativity is the generation of ideas that are novel and useful. Research finds that, when generating solutions to a creative problem, people typically do not generate their most creative ideas first. Instead, creative ideas tend to emerge over time, such as over the course of an ideation session or even over the course of a career. One reason for this time course is because of the cognitive processes that underlie idea generation itself. New ideas are generated by integrating and recombining knowledge in working memory. When solving a new problem, the information that comes to mind first (i.e., is the most cognitively accessible) tends to draw on common and obvious cognitive associations, which tend to result in more common—and less creative—ideas. After working on the problem for a period of time, people begin to draw on less common associations and less obvious approaches and, ultimately, arrive at more creative ideas. This feature of idea generation is one reason why persistence is a consistent predictor of creative performance.”

Database: Grischa Lichtenberger On Steps Of Enhancement

“I very rarely go back or delete. I add one eq after the other and each one of them is like a step of correction or enhancement of the previous one. Of course it is maybe the worst thing you could do, but it makes the sound more yours, or better: it crystallizes what your relationship actually is. That’s what I like about electronic music production – it isn’t said that in the end the trumpet-sound must resemble the original trumpet. After everything it could sound more like drums or like a piano.”

Grischa Lichtenberger


The Analytical-Intuitive Fader

“The musician,
like the writer or speaker,
regularly confronts his conduct
as performance or not.”

David Sudnow, Talk’s Body (1979)

On one of my favorite VST synthesizers there’s a volume mix fader that allows one to move between the sounds of two oscillators (Osc). The control is delightfully simple: when the fader is all the way up, the sound is 100 percent Osc 1, when it’s all the way down it’s 100 percent Osc 2, and when positioned in the middle it’s 50 percent of each. It’s this kind of straightforwardly useable parameter that I turn to in the flow of making music, when I’m looking for a way to slightly shift a sound without wrecking it. Often the best kind of sound design is the subtle kind–where a sound undergoes an almost subliminal transformation that’s felt before noticed. 

Now we zoom out: the Osc volume mix fader can be a metaphor for how electronic music producers shift back and forth between different modalities of knowing and action. We can think of these as analytical and intuitive modalities. Both are ways of problem-solving, the difference being that the analytical way is a conscious cognitive activity while the intuitive way is unconscious. In artistic work, both modalities are always in play. I think of them as frames of mind that are in dialog to create a liminal space in which one works. It’s in this space that artists make decisions about what and how to create.


Part of what makes making music interesting to me is noticing the habits, routines, and patterns I turn to over and over again that have me oscillating between different frames of mind. For example, in my workflow I notice a pattern whereby I begin quite consciously, deliberately deciding on a sound and trying play a part with it. The playing’s raison d’être is simply that it be some kind of complete performance. Performances, which I’ve written about, can be one minute or one hour, but they have to achieve something emotional, and this entails beginning somewhere, going somewhere, and ending somewhere. (Such a vague definition of performance inspires me to put it into action!) The music’s wheres don’t matter as much as the performance sounding compelling in being where it is. Performance, whether played live or constructed in the DAW, is music’s most potent ingredient.

While the decision to play something is deliberate, my playing itself is intuitive, by which I mean a trying-things-out-on-the-fly, a reaching for notes as shapes and patterns, a trusting that what David Sudnow aptly called ways of the hand will lead me somewhere interesting. But once this performance is recorded, I’m back in analytical mode for a moment, trying to figure out what additional sounds–if any–could come next. Will they be variants of the existing sound, something I’ll fashion by re-sampling it, say? Or will they be unrelated sounds? (How about a glockenspiel?) There are many, many ways I could go.

The next stage unfolds quickly, as I intuitively try out sounds and parts—copying, pasting, moving, stretching, and resampling to scale up, fill out, and orchestrate my initial performance. This trying out of sounds and parts is itself another performance that I try to do in a single gesture–which means rather quickly. Whatever occurs to me I try, and if it works I go with it and then move onto the next bit. The process feels like zig-zagging from one sound layer to another, trying to add to the musical whole in a way that deepens it. And zig-zagging also describes the inner game of remembering previous experiences to guide me again. I might, for example, reach for a sound that I made last week, mainly because it’s still fresh in mind. 

At some point, when I’ve run out of ideas as to add, I return to an analytical frame of mind to assess what I have so far and quickly arrange the parts, change notes, and add in broad volume fades. Even though it’s just a sketch, I might have enough elements now to give me an idea of what the sketch could become if I keep adding to it (or start removing from it). In sum, in the space of an hour or two I’ve moved many times between two different ways of knowing and action. Like dragging the synthesizer’s mix fader between Osc 1 and Osc 2 to re-shape a sound, a producer’s shifting between analytical and intuitive mindsets is a way to change focus and stay sensitive to music’s changing needs of the moment.

Commit To Beauty

Each day I work I’m unsure as to how to alter music-in-progress I don’t yet like into something I do like. I’ve played something, made a sound or a sample, but when I listen back to the idea there’s no magic–it sounds lackluster, predictable, cliché. Often the problem is that too many little things are not functioning right for enchantment to arise, and so, for the moment at least, the music feels pointless. My task is to figure out what the problems are, fix them, and hopefully turn pointless into meaningful.

Recently I was listening to some marimba samples I had made (actually, played!), letting the three parts repeat and overlap with one another. The music-in-progress had potential, but its logic could be better: it wasn’t clear how the marimbas should interact. One problem is that I don’t know which of the three parts is the “main” one, so I play with their arrangement. Another problem is that some of the samples are cutting off before their ends, so I adjust the sample lengths. (Interesting bits often appear at the ends of musical events.) Another problem is how to EQ each marimba for maximum sound but minimum frequency masking. Which parts should sound full (with more mids and lows) and which ones thin (with fewer mids and lows)? I try various EQ cuts and curves to carve each part so it plays well with the others. And how should the marimbas be panned–in front of the listener or around them? And reverb: Does each part get its own custom setting, or do all of the parts share the same space? (And what kind of space?) I try narrow and wide reverbs with different wet/dry amounts, listening for where the resonance is audibly too little or too much. And of course I adjust and re-adjust the volume relationships among the marimbas, listening for the balance point where the parts sound distinct yet as one.

As I move from EQ to reverb to volume and back again, around a circuit of micro trial and error adjustments (after Nassim Taleb) the music begins to have an aura that I notice–and notice myself noticing. Now that the sounds are in rough balance, my attention moves on: I like the effect the parts’ repetition is having on me, but could the music move more slowly? I turn to tempo, adjusting it from 167 bpm down to 154, which seems like a better speed. (I’ll set a fast default tempo in my project templates to give me rhythm options: you can always subdivide if you want slower beats.) I keep working on the marimba parts, but every few minutes I find myself slowing the tempo down further by a few bpm. What’s happening?

This production story reminds me of the tale about a frog put in tepid water which is gradually brought to a boil without the frog noticing. In my case, after an hour or so of work my piece’s tempo went from 167 to 107, and to my astonishment I could hardly tell the difference! How did I get there? At each step of editing I asked, Would this sound better if it were a bit slower still? and adjusted accordingly. Did something about the looping music lull me—like the frog in a pleasantly warm bath—into accepting the ever-slowing tempo as the optimal one? Or did adjusting and listening make me more attuned to the best tempo for the music? Whatever the case, each incrementally slower tempo somehow feels like the right one.

In sum, I began to hear something attractive in the marimba samples only after considerable futzing around with them. The futzing, which involved a lot of trial and error adjustments to arrangement, EQ, panning, volume, reverbs, and tempo was guided by a decision to turn something lackluster, predictable, and cliché into something interesting. Here lies a lesson. What’s the best way to understand the potentials of your tools and workflows? Commit to making something beautiful and then explore ways of getting it done.