A Tenuous Grip: Notes On Finding Sounds, Listening, The Arbitrary, And The Infinite

I’ve become faster navigating around the DAW—finding sounds, recording and adding parts, creating effects chains, and working with automation. But slower to develop is my sense of what a track needs. This sense depends on two skills. The first is discerning how the music—its structure, parts, and textures—might be made more affecting and enchanting. My judgment is only as good as my listening, and when I listen I often miss stuff. This leads me to add say, a sound when the music doesn’t need it, or declare the music done when in fact it can use micro-finessing. A second skill that the music depends on is my understanding of the sounds I have at hand. I have a lot of sounds available, and there are always new ones around the corner, or ones I could build right now. For example, I work with the piano a lot, because it’s a go-to writing tool. I do like the piano’s sound, but there are infinite ways to alter it so that it (1) becomes a non-piano and (2) suits the  music better. To tame the infinite, I might randomly try out the first effect (or effects chain) that comes to mind and listen to how it affects the piano. While a decision may feel arbitrary—What about trying this delay mixed with this EQ?—in general it never hurts to explore the arbitrary to see what happens. When something interesting comes from it (which often does), I make a point to save whatever device I’ve made. So if it was a delay mixed with an EQ, I might call it brett delay + EQ 1. While I won’t remember the settings of this effects rack and while it may never be useful again, the simple act of having saved it captures that moment when I went with the arbitrary and tried to make something useful. 

Another point about my grasp of the sounds I have at hand is that this grasp is perpetually tenuous. I work by drawing on hundreds of sounds that I’ve made, and also thousands of sounds I have yet to get to know well. I want to get to know them, but I’m not sure that will ever happen. This brings us to the crux of the matter for anyone who produces music with a computer: 

have a level of familiarity with one’s tools to zig and zag here and there quickly to find sounds in the passing moments of composing so that you don’t slow your flow. 

I can’t say I’m good at that, maybe because I don’t know my tools well enough, and also because I want to move so fast that any search beyond a few moments is enough for me to settle on a trusted piano sound. This isn’t necessarily bad. A conventional sound can be a placeholder sound (I term I first heard from Jon Hopkins, as I discuss in my book) that is eventually either replaced with another sound or altered in some way to sound different. 

A final reason I’m not great at finding sounds is that I constantly make new ones. This might be a bad idea: Maybe I should stick to a limited palette? But the strategy has the benefit of creating situations that resist mastery. My sounds are scattered all over (in the DAW, and in third party plug ins), my memory of which sound is where is tenuous, my naming methods too vague (e.g. “brett pad 132”), and most of all, the possibilities for arbitrary juxtapositions of the sounds I encounter feels infinite. In other words, I’m not fully in control of the work, instead always seeking but not quite finding, aiming for one sound, but then reacting to another more interesting or surprising one. I have my creative habits, but the system I’ve set up keeps disrupting them: Oh this sounds better, why don’t I use that? 

Resonant Thoughts: Nicholas Cook’s “Music” (2021)

“The knowledge in terms of which universities operate is based on observation, systematized into generally applicable principles, documented and archived. It is knowledge laid down for the future, a kind of cognitive capital (hence the term ‘knowledge economy’). It is what performance students are taught under the title of ‘theory’, which suggests you become a musician by first learning the theory and then how to apply it in practice. But this is only one kind of knowledge, sometimes called ‘explicit’ in order to contrast it with the ‘tacit’ knowledge characteristic of complex decision-making in real time. Think acrobatics, cycling, motor racing, playing videogames, and of course music. This kind of knowledge tends to be embodied rather than purely mental. You recognize it when your fingers know something better than you do.

Music is a global phenomenon because it is inherently viral. People can’t help imitating what they hear, and so—like internet memes—music spreads between cultures at speeds limited only by transport and communications technology (from the 30 miles per day of horseback or 120 of a sailing ship to the 100 Mbps of a fast internet connection). The British rock singing style epitomized by Joe Cocker or Amy Winehouse is an imitation of white American rock singing style, itself an imitation of African American singing style. Descended from the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, arguably the foundation of American popular music, this musical blackvoice is not only a mode of vocalization and a nexus of cultural associations but also a form of ethnic role-play. It may seem astonishing that the Black and White Minstrel Show aired on British television as recently as 1978, but musicians are still blacking up vocally (and perhaps literally in the case of Ariana). And imitation gives rise to hybridization. […] Musical hybridity had come by the end of the 20th century to be celebrated as an expression of the creative vitality that results from the mutually respectful interaction of diverse musical cultures.

Music, in reality a practice that is constantly changing, presents itself as not only natural but also immutable (remember how people resisted the evidence of early recordings). Gagaku, the long but discontinuous tradition of Japanese court music, was reinvented in the late 19th century and instantly became the audible symbol of Japan’s ancient and unbroken nationhood. Western music introduced to Europe’s colonies legitimized imperial power by giving it the appearance of universality. Music also naturalizes hierarchies of gender and race, so abetting the essentialization that reduces people to tokens. Race is not a biological given—there is a continuum of physical features and skin colours that belies cultural constructions of race—but music perpetuates such divisions through social practice, even as it has the potential to erase them.

Music is a powerful force in both personal and social life, and understanding its effects is as important a skill for navigating today’s world as understanding the potential for deception inherent in photography or deepfake video.”

– Nicholas Cook, Music: a very short introduction (2021)

(This book, updated from its 1998 version, is one of the finest survey books about music I’ve read. It ranges widely, cites some of the best ethnomusicology/musicology/anthropology/sound studies texts about music, takes a bird’s eye view of all the world’s music, and concisely explains issues of theory, interpretation, technology, phenomenology, and meaning. It’s written for the generalist, but maps the state of thinking about music for the specialist. I wish I had read it while in university, or even high school.) 

Resonant Thoughts: Robert Twigger’s “Micromastery” (2018)

“Every micromastery is there to be twisted, turned, done back to front, messed up, and generally had fun with. It’s the way you learn the variables—how far they can be pushed and how they affect each other. One of the grave errors of learning-outcome-type teaching is that it moves too swiftly for endless experimenting and mucking about. Keep drawing circles, making skulls out of clay, doing wheelies on your bike—forget learning outcomes and come out and actually learn.

Masters keep going at what they do. They bend before opposition but do not break; they take the path of least resistance, as long as it still is the path. Masters use ritual instead of repetition to achieve long-term, maybe even dimly conceived, goals. Ritual is making repetition into something fun that you look forward to, or at least tolerate.”

– Robert Twigger, Micromastery

Art About Music: Vincent van Gogh’s “Marguerite Gachet at the piano” (1890, 1928)

“The wall in the background green with orange spots, the carpet red with green spots, the piano dark violet. It’s 1 metre high and 50 wide. It’s a figure I enjoyed painting – but it’s difficult. [Dr. Gachet]’s promised to get her to pose for me another time with a little organ. I’ll do one for you – I noticed that this canvas looks very good with another horizontal one of wheatfields, thus – one canvas being vertical and pink, the other pale green and green-yellow, complementing the pink.” – Van Gogh, To Theo van Gogh