Notes On Production Clichés

“Beware of clichés…
There are clichés of response as well as expression.
There are clichés of observation and of thought–even of conception.”
Geoff Dyer

I struck out a bit yesterday when I tried making something. I liked the sound, but the melody was hackneyed. It was so bad, so uninteresting, that I recorded it as a reminder that this is the best I could do at 10:30pm on a Monday. 

I began thinking about clichés of producing that I rely on: 

The cliché of a chord progression that is either so short that it’s predictable,
or so long that it lacks focus.

The cliché of a 4/4 beat that obviously loops around, showing its seams.

The cliché of added parts that “respond” to an initial part,
decorating and counterpointing well enough, but annoying.

The cliché of the slow build and a slow unraveling of that build.

The cliché of the abrupt ending.

The cliché of individual sounds dutifully playing their traditionally ascribed roles:
bass line, chord progression, lead melody, distortion grit, reverb resonance, etc.

Clichés can be productively useful, insofar as they get you going in a general direction. I often play parts that aren’t yet free of clichés, just so I have something to work with. Often what happens is that what I thought was totally cliché last night turns out to be totally usable today—as long as I spend time making it less cliché. A lot of what I play on the keyboard I find to be clichés of the hand, but there’s always stuff to work with. Sometimes, hidden within a cliché is an interesting accident that could be a starting point.   

I deleted the uninteresting melody and tried out some more chords, playing for a while and recording. But nothing was sounding good. What I had so far wasn’t passing the Is this enchanting? litmus test.

Now I wonder: Was I looking for clichés to rely on rather than doing the more difficult work of sidestepping or dismantling clichés to hear what was behind them? Maybe the reason nothing is sounding interesting is that I have not yet done anything interesting. I want enchanting results without having put the work in—without, in fact, acknowledging how long it will take to get where I want to go.

The problem with clichés is that they prevent us from accessing more direct and meaningful encounters with expression. In other words, clichés are barriers to artistically rich experience.

Thinking about clichés reminds me of TV ads’ use of music. I sort of loathe ads, but their use of music is fascinating for thinking through clichés. Ads hijack the signifying power of music, using its sounds to telegraph in as concise a way possible the essential attributes, feelings, associations, moods, and qualities of a product or service. Here are a few examples.

Ads for various telephone service providers humanize and domesticize their invisible networks by using music for plucked pizzicato strings. I call this quirky strings music. Ads for various pharmaceutical and bio-tech companies frequently use music for marimba that is repetitive, angular, and minimalist, its patterns evoking the complexities of what actually goes into a pill that seems to have more bad side effects than benefits. I call this we are figuring out how the world works! music. Ads for beer and spirits always turn to mid-tempo, soulful and funky R&B music. This music has the good grit of an old LP and conveys the possibilities of a night out with friends. I call this who knows what will happen tonight! music. Ads for financial investment companies use well-known hits from decades past to strike just the right chord (sorry, another cliché) with their targeted age group demographic. With this use of music, the features that once made a song exciting and cutting-edge when it first appeared, are the same features that make it boring and safe when it reappears in an ad. I call this Oh I know that song! music. (Simon Reynolds calls our obsession with the past retromania.)

How does the use of music in TV ads relate to clichés in music production? They are both shortcuts to genuine creative experience. TV ads hijack music—piggybacking on its affective world—to try to sell us the feeling that we are supposed to think is inherent in a product or service. And when I resort to clichés in my own work, I’m hijacking my own capacity to discover a sound world that escapes my full understanding. By using clichés, I sell short my prerogative to be experimental and chase after surprising sounds. TV ads show us that music as sound can be bought and sold. But whenever I manage to escape clichés, for a moment music regains its mystery. For a moment, music feels like a gift. 

Resonant Thoughts: Nassim Taleb On Tinkering

“It is in complex systems, ones in which we have little visibility of the chains of cause-consequences, that tinkering, bricolage, or similar variations of trial and error have been shown to vastly outperform the teleological —it is nature’s modus operandi. (…)

Take the most opaque of all, cooking, which relies entirely on the heuristics of trial and error, as it has not been possible for us to design a dish directly from chemical equations or reverse-engineer a taste from nutritional labels. We take hummus, add an ingredient, say a spice, taste to see if there is an improvement from the complex interaction, and retain if we like the addition or discard the rest.”

– Nassim Taleb,
Understanding is a Poor Substitute for Convexity (Antifragility)

Getting Granular: Notes On Obsessive Listening

I have a habit of obsessively listening to certain pieces of music, while ignoring vast swathes of new releases—intending to get to them sometime, but I won’t. What’s up with that?

An answer is that such obsessive listening is an antidote to an excess of options as to what to listen to. Now that music streams into our lives via our phones and computers, we can have anything at anytime. There’s a playlist for every mood, a soundscape to tint your life, and at ten dollars a month, it’s a steal. 

But perhaps a price we pay for infinite choice and access is diluted attention. For me, a question I keep returning to is how to get granular about what to listen to and how. Getting granular has the benefit of limiting our field of listening, paring down our options. While we might appreciate the artistry required to make music in so many styles, some artistries speak to us more than others, some gestures are enchanting while other production moves sound like clichés. Getting granular pushes us to choose a specific musical something and commit to it for a while. It’s not just a question of having enough time to listen, but rather deciding where our attention might best be employed.  

One strategy I’ve used, without realizing it as such until now, is a sort of descending levels of zoom focus on the music of a single artist.

I begin with a single piece that stands out from the others. I find this by quickly spot-listening to every track on a recording in search of a gem. When I find it, I’ll listen to it over and over. Incidentally, I’m also curious if the music will wear out its interestingness if I listen to it enough. I do this with my own music too: if the track can’t withstand my repeated listening, I’ll abandon it.

I’ll focus on a single section of a single piece. Sometimes there is a catalyzing moment when the full weight of the music makes itself felt. It’s like a fulcrum or pivot point, but in time. Maybe the moment is when a part enters or exits the mix, when an unusual chord appears, or when one texture becomes another without you realizing it. That kind of thing. Magic!

I’ll also focus on a single sound within a single section of a single piece. Sometimes there is a detail in a catalyzing moment that stands out. You listen and think, That sound just sounds so perfect. How did they do that? How did they know that? Once I’ve identified such a detail, I listen to it a lot, wondering about how it works. If I took an explicitly analytical approach, maybe I could explain and theorize how the detail works. But I have enough of my own production experience to know that sometimes the most interesting sounds emerge as a by-product of your doing other things.    

Getting granular guides my obsessive listening. For a moment, the process consumes my attention as I relentlessly try to understand as much as I can about an artist’s work, a piece, a single section, or a single sound. To illustrate, as I wrote this post I listened to The Humble Bee and Benoît Pioulard’s track, “Off Camera” about twelve times. As I listened I wondered: 

voices—where are they from? a sample?
a progression I can’t quite grasp: just two chords?
some liquid, steel-pedal guitar-style sounds
noise—especially off on the left
layers of texture 
a slow build
the sound that sounds like gong, but maybe isn’t? 
how was this made?

Resonant Thoughts: Ikonika On Arrangements

“I’m trying to exhaust what I’ve got. I’m trying to keep things simple, and build layers, basically. And so when I make a tune, I will concentrate on 8 bars at a time. But that first 8 bar loop has to bang for me, and I have to be able to listen to that loop over and over again in different rooms around the flat…I have to see the potential of it, and it has to say something to me, it has to communicate with me. 

What I actually like to do is have an overloaded 8 bar loop and then spread it out across 3 to 4 minutes or whatever, and get that arrangement done. And sometimes with my songs, all you’ll get is just melodies arranged, with no drums. Maybe hi hats, because I hate listening to the metronome…So I need something that’s going to set the tone, so a little hi hat will do a lot for me. 

I’ll get the arrangement done, and then I’ll start, one by one, choosing a sound. I’ll just want to focus on one sound at a time, and make sure that that sound is worth it, basically. And it just goes from there, until I can’t fill the space anymore, until everything’s gone and it’s filled to the max. That’s my idea of production.

Little simple things just build up. That’s it.”