On Music’s Right This Moment’s Dynamism With No End

IMG_3735

One of the wonders of music is how it holds our attention despite being built upon moments that keep disappearing into a past of its own making. As the adventurous musicologist David Burrows (who was one of my teachers) observed: “music takes place in its own almost total sonic absence” (“A Dynamical Systems Perspective On Music“, p. 529). When we listen to music, we’re carried along a series of moments strung together out of rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, or by the plain fact of juxtaposition-succession, as if the music is saying to us, now this, and now that, and then…this! I recall Prof. Burrows once riffing in a seminar about what makes a well-written book—he may have used Harry Potter as an example—which is that it sets in motion a series of happenings that make the reader want to know the answer to the question, And…then? It’s wanting to answer this question that keeps us turning the pages. Good music is like this: it compels us to keep listening to figure out what will happen next.

In music production, the producer has a panoply (and frankly, an excess) of tools with which to alter the music to make it sound more compelling and engage the listener’s attention in various ways. Most of us are familiar with the conventional techniques for building a piece so that it changes over time. Some of these techniques are transparent and annoying. For example, the four-on-the-floor kick drum is both of these things because, although it can be powerful, its presence often comes at the expense of other more interesting ways of generating pulse and momentum and groove. A music drowning in reverb is another annoyance, because, although it’s an evocative tool, reverb is often used at the expense of more careful articulations now lost in the mix.

Ideally, the electronic music producer uses tools to create subtle means of propelling the music so that it becomes not less, but more interesting over time. For me, the good musics keep you coming back to them because

you can’t figure them out and you’re not entirely sure how they were made,
they sound enchanting, and
they draw you into their designs so that you notice new things each time you listen.

For me, the musics that fit this description (see Brett’s Sound Picks 2019, for a start) tend to be more complex than simple; or even better, they sound simple but underneath that simplicity are layers of complexity. By complexity I don’t mean excess, such as incorporating a ton of chord changes or a million sounds, but rather subtlety. And by subtle I don’t mean hard to discern, but rather understated. The good musics that keep you coming back to them are understated while at the same time compress a lot of information into themselves to conjure a rich world in which you listen and everything feels inevitable and then you want to listen again and again to re-live the sensation of And…then? Like the playing of a great musician, a complex, subtle, and understated music production exudes a dynamism that appears to have no end.  

 

Resonant Thoughts: Stefan Goldmann’s “Presets” (2015)

 

0006323602_10

“I think sidechaining is a perfect mirror image of what’s going on in society right now. It’s an analogy to a society of market criers. A struggle for survival of sounds…

[Sidechaining] introduces a new elements into music because it’s a very efficient way of eliminating the need to arrange elements to interact meaningfully. Just press them down. Sound design once freed you from thinking about harmonic relations, now sidechaining further frees you from arranging elements spectrally. Instead, a hierarchy is established in which the kick drum is God. Then there’s the snare and the bass, and anything else may breathe only if these three rest. You’re listening to a permanent struggle of characters pushed under water that desperately try to draw a breath. King snare then bangs everything away every time. Such treatments of sound are way more influential for where music goes than any new form of synthesis. This kind of sidechaining was theoretically possible sixty years ago. And it’s interesting that it became prevalent only now.”

– Mike Daliot in Stefan Goldmann, Presets–Digital Shortcuts to Sound (2015), pp. 90-91.

Trompe-L’Oreille: Notes On An Enchanting Mix

732px-Hieronymus_Bosch_(follower)_-_The_Conjurer_(Musée_Saint-Germain-en-Laye).jpg

Hieronymus Bosch, The Conjurer (c. 1496 and 1525).

An enchanting mix is a sleight of the producer’s hand–a kind of conjuring trick–insofar that it creates the impression that you’re hearing more than you’re hearing, or that somehow the music extends beyond what you’re able to hear—as if it’s fooling your ears. But by what means does a mix sound enchanting, and what can the producer do to move a mix towards an enchanted state?

In his 1992 article “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology”, anthropologist Alfred Gell explains how the power of art derives from the magic the artist has managed, somehow, to exert or compress within the work in the form of symbolic processes which in turn provoke a strong reaction in us. “The peculiar power of works of art” says Gell, “resides in the symbolic processes they provoke in the beholder, and these have sui generis characteristics which are independent of the objects themselves” (48). Gell uses the example of John F. Peto’s 1894 painting, “Old Time Letter Rack” to illustrate the conversion process he’s talking about. For Gell, the “magic exerted over the beholder by this picture is a reflection of the magic which is exerted inside the picture, the technical miracle which achieves the transubstantiation” (49). Here is Peto’s painting:

John_Frederick_Peto_-_Old_Time_Letter_Rack_-_64.411_-_Museum_of_Fine_Arts.jpg

I learned that “Old Time Letter Rack” is an example of a trompe-l’oeil (“fool the eye”) painting, a style that uses realistic imagery to create an optical illusion that what is depicted exists not in two, but three dimensions. The style has existed since antiquity, where it was first used in murals in Greek and Roman times. The concept was applied to ceiling paintings in 16th Jesuit century churches, flourished in the work of 17th century Dutch painters, and later, among Spanish and American artists. The (excellently titled) 1874 painting, “Escaping Criticism”, by Pere Borrell del Caso, is a vivid example of a trompe-l’oeil whose subject matter literally jumps out at you:

Escaping_criticism-by_pere_borrel_del_caso.png

I’ve been thinking about Gell’s work and also the concept of trompe-l’oeil as they pertain to music production, and specifically, mixing music. Although I’ve mixed my own music for years, I’ve only recently dived deeper into its complexities and realized how difficult it is. What makes mixing difficult is that not only the puzzle-like aspect of balancing many different sounds and making each of them appropriately audible, but also creating a sense of what Gell calls “the magic which is exerted” so that the music appears to move beyond the recording’s frame.  

Conventional wisdom on mixing is helpful here. It advises the producer to think of music in not one, but four dimensions. The first dimension is the left to right, stereo field. (Yes, there is surround sound, but let’s stay in stereo.) Sounds can be placed anywhere along this field, from the far left to the far right, or anywhere in between. Sounds can also move around. While you might keep a snare drum or lead vocal in the middle of the field, other percussion or background voices can move around the sides, for example. The second dimension of the mix is its top to bottom frequency spectrum. High frequency sounds like cymbals we hear as located high up or on top of the mix. Low frequency sounds like kick drum and sub bass we hear as located down below. And mid range sounds like marimba or guitar sit somewhere in the middle. Each of these sound types with their different frequency ranges occupy a different stratum of the mix’s overall frequency spectrum. The third dimension of a mix is its front to back aspect. Sounds that have sharp attacks and crisp timbres generally sound in closer proximity to the listener than sounds with slow attacks and mellower timbres, which sound further away. Adding reverb to a sound can also make it sound further away, while reverb-free dry sounds sound up close and personal. The final dimension of a mix is its sense of motion over time. Any sound can move about the stereo field, any sound can move (to some degree) about the frequency spectrum, and any sound can move from a far back depth to an up close one, and vice versa. These movements imbue the mix with a sense of 4D motion, independent from whatever rhythmic motion is already happening through beats, interaction of parts, pulsations of effects, and so on. That’s a lot of moving parts!

One of the essential tasks of the electronic music producer is to devise ways to put this conventional mixing wisdom into action with the goal of making the music more enchanting, so that you hear and feel things that aren’t obviously audible, and come away with an impression that seems more than the sum of its parts. Think of it as a trompe l’oreille, or ear-fooling. While there are no formulae for how to arrive at this enchantment, I have found a few concepts popping up in my own work as I pursue the edges of perceptual magic:

Think about contrast. Bright sounds let you hear the dull sounds, low sounds let you hear the high ones, full textures let you hear the sparse ones, slow lets you hear fast, and so on. There’s probably a famous proverb about this, I just can’t think of one at the moment. 

Think about compensations. When one part comes up, something else should come down, or else everything will be coming up and competing with everything else for your attention, creating that situation once described by Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who asked on behalf of all of us: “Can I have everything louder than everything else?” Even if it’s just for a brief passing moment done in a subtle way, have one musical thing foregrounded at a time. 

Think about musical lines. Each part can have its own arc over the piece—a journey it goes on that is its own. Even if the listener doesn’t consciously notice this line, perhaps it’s felt nevertheless? Who knows, maybe a good part of musical perception is our not fully conscious perceiving of such details.

Think about continuity and surprise. The way to make the music un-boring is through change, disruption, and surprise. Please don’t be boring. 

Think about efficiency. What is the least I can do in the mix to make the maximum emotional impact?

Think about accumulations. Trust that individual mix changes made over time will accumulate as layers and thereby have a composite power based on this layering.  

Curating The Week: Being A Polymath, The Senses, A Roadtrip

IMG_3011

An essay about being a polymath.

“The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.”

A discussion about the human senses.

“It’s always the combination of many experiences that are producing the experience of consciousness that you’re having at any time.”

An animated video short about a road trip.

 

Wont’s And Wills: Notes On Composing

IMG_2957

You will have to chose right now, right this very moment. 

You won’t go back.

You won’t judge it positively or negatively.

You won’t wonder, What if I had done something else?

You won’t worry how it relates to anything.

You won’t worry that it sounds too simple or too complicated.

You won’t speculate on how it will be received or ignored.

You will forget that you have a taste of preference for anything at all.

You will try to connect this moment to what you remember from the one just past,
but you will get it only partly right.

You will try to make something grand, but miss.

You won’t worry about missing what you intended to do.

You will do something and then move on.