Notes On Sharing Process

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One of the many themes preached by social media gurus is that you need to create content that has value for your audience. The content-value-audience chain of connection is to be upheld at all times, lest your fans lose interest in what you’re doing, in what you’re selling. Is all this is true, then I’ve epically failed. You see, even though I’ve blogged here for nine years, I rarely think about my audience because let’s face it, my audience is mainly me. This myopic view may be the reason why brettworks has grown so slowly over time, and despite this growth, I’m convinced that a fair percentage of my audience is still spam bots. In addition to rarely thinking about audience, I rarely think about the concept of content either. The problem with content as imagined by social media gurus is that it’s by definition prefab information that one either hurls at others or has hurled at oneself. This hurling of information is the reason I’ll unsubscribe from a blog or newsletter if it gets too intense—if there’s just too much coming too fast and it all doesn’t add up to much that I can do anything with. Keeping in mind this reservation about content, I still think about what is valuable–that is, personally useful–when it comes to music, and I’m always on the lookout for music or interesting writing about it. For me, something that has value is something I can return to again and again and continue learning from. 

One social media-speak idea that I do find interesting is that sharing your process is as important, if not more important than, sharing the fruits of your work. While it’s common to use social media to publicize one’s latest accomplishments, maybe the most useful way to use blogs, Twitter, Instagram, and the other apps (which I ignore) is to share the steps you’re taking as you work on whatever it is you’re working on. In other words, to document. If someone meticulously chronicled their weekly home dinner menus, I would probably enjoy reading that.

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This idea of narrating where you are in your process isn’t new, of course, nor is it unique to social media and the commoditization of the self. Recently, as I was reading Geoff Dyer’s book about D.H. Lawrence, Out Of Sheer Rage, I noticed that what makes the writing compelling is Dyer’s constant interweaving of his own (often humorous) experiences into the narrative. Every few pages he lets the reader know where we are in his journey towards, around, and away from his topic, and for the first 90 pages we seem to be getting nowhere fast. This is wonderful because you forget you’re reading a book, an experience which is, in turn, proof that the book is weaving its magic. Dyer’s writing demonstrates the truth that we don’t want to read about a particular topic, but rather a particular interpretation and journey through a topic. For me, his approach to writing is a model for how to build a narrative out of one’s subjective and idiosyncratic experience. (This, by the way, is an interpretive approach that is often trained out of people when they go to graduate school.) I noticed a similar journeying through dynamic in Wes Anderson’s film, Isle Of Dogs. At several points in the story, the narrator (Courtney B. Vance) announces bits of key information about the characters and which part of the movie (Part 1, Part 2, etc.) is about to unfold. As with many of the visual details in Anderson’s films, the effect of the narration is both practical-useful and quirky-touching, and the viewer finds herself drawn into how the film was conceived and designed. Surprisingly, Anderson’s meta-commentary about the film’s action never negatively impacts our immersion in the story itself. On the contrary, it becomes part of the experience of watching it unfold.

So: there are several reasons why many of my blog posts examine my working process. One is that this is something that I do every day, and I’m trying to understand it better myself, or at least accurately chronicle my failures and have something to write about. Another reason is that among musicians, artists, and writers, process is often something of a guarded trade secret: the writer doesn’t want you to know how she maps her novels, and the painter doesn’t want to reveal his process for layering colors, and so on. Trade secrets. I get that process is often a personal and hard-fought thing, but it’s also sort of the main, most fascinating thing in that it contains within itself the steps it takes to get where it’s going. Process is inherently reflexive, referring back to itself as it goes along. Process is endless, and process can be shared. And what is music but processes unfolding over time? So too this blog is a process that circles around itself as it evolves, trying to document what I find interesting and what you might too.         

On Being Comprehensive (And Coming Up Short)

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One evening I was going through sounds on the computer, listening through effects, trying out combinations, and realizing how faint a grasp I had on the production process. I was both excited and frustrated as I felt my way through a sonic darkness. At the end of the session I scribbled a single phrase in a notebook: 

how to be comprehensive 

a phrase which maybe should have included a question mark. 

I sometimes write notes like that in the middle of, or just after, a session as a way of gauging if I’m still thinking clearly or whether I’ve gone off some subjective deep end. Keeping track of one’s inevitable oscillations between mental clarity and delusion is important, if only because it happens so often. For me, just listening to music sends my mind in many directions at once. This is why I always listen to what I’ve worked on the next morning to hear if it still sounds coherent. Writing notes is a way to keep untangling the roots of my excitement. Sometimes these notes become blog posts, which further help me learn (and share) something from the process.

To be comprehensive means to include all the elements or aspects of something, and in writing down that word I was expressing a sense that my methods are everything but comprehensive. I’ll never master my material or learn all the potentials of my tools. But when I’m in the middle of something good—a constellation of sounds that sound genuinely new (that is, less like me than other stuff I’ve worked on)—I have a fleeting sense that maybe I can figure all this out if only I learn how to work better and how to do things more systematically. But musical situations are rarely systematic, right? The ones that resonant the deepest seem to just happen, and suddenly you find yourself inside one, reacting. When you’re really in it, it feels like your life is being continually interrupted from what you thought you wanted to do.

As I was going through sounds my plan was to just listen and evaluate, maybe tweak, and maybe save something here or there. Sort of like deciding to just take a walk down a path in the woods. But then I heard something interesting, forgot my plan, and started playing. I liked how the sound was responding and how I had found a suitable part for the sound—as if the sound and my hands were talking to one another. Back to the walking through the forest analogy. I went off the path, climbed up a tree, and took in a grand view. So much for plans. 

Playing with the sound led me to quickly try to compose with it. Testing the musicality of the sound became seeing if I could come up with something using the sound that I would like to listen to. With this goal in mind, suddenly the stakes felt high and my time limited. I had forgotten about just going through sounds/talking a walk down a forest path. Just as you see a lot more from up in the trees, new vistas open when you compose around a sound’s inherent qualities, and it’s best to work fast. 

I kept at it for a while, finally recording what I did so I could go back later and…Maybe I won’t fix it. Maybe this will be the piece. I’ll refine it, but I won’t fix it. I’ll take more walks, but that view from up in the trees might have been a one-time experience.

It may sound as if I’m advocating for straying from a self-imposed path, but I’m not. For me, finding an interesting sound and then immediately working with it is an outlier case. Most of the time I don’t encounter inspiration that way and most of the time I don’t stray from my plan either. Instead, I slowly accumulate material of one kind of another. These accumulations can be tiny things—like a set of sounds, or realizing that my favorite timbres often lack high frequencies, or that a melody that sounds obvious on a piano sounds intriguing on another instrument. As these tiny accumulations accumulate a sense of inspiration begins to materialize. 

Returning to the idea of how to be comprehensive, I have a few thoughts. It requires being patient, recognizing the power of gradual accumulation (of ideas, your understanding, techniques, sounds, etc.), and being open to trying things just to hear what happens. Wanting to be comprehensive in creative work is a powerful impulse, but the reality is that any single project is always more a partial expression than a complete statement. You’re going to come up short, but that’s okay. You could be doing more, but one makes do with what one has, here and right now.  

Notes On A Music Production Workflow

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I know some ways to work, but there are so many routes to get musical things done that each session is a re-thinking of how to work. (Begin anywhere Cage said.)

I began with marimba chord samples that I had recorded a few months back.

I played between 20 and 30 different chord rolls—plenty to make something out of later on, which is today!

I had hoped that one of the marimba chords would turn out to be so interesting that I could ignore all the others, but that didn’t work out, which is okay. 

I narrowed down my choices to a handful of chords that sounded better than the rest and played the chords on the grid controller. The goal was to de-familiarize them and come up with a new sequence. Playing the chords by tapping the rubber pads, I left space after each one so that they could resonate within their own echoes. I recorded sequences that were odd lengths—not 4 or 8 bars, but 15 or 23 bars long. Why? I’m trying to surprise myself.

With these chord sequences as placeholders, I began trying out other parts. 

What might “go” with them?

I have thousands of sounds that could potentially sound good with the marimba chords, but it rarely works out that way. Most of the time, very few sounds fit. In fact, on this project I have only found three or four sounds that fit.

An ongoing music production question I have is
Why is it so difficult to find sounds that fit?  

Sometimes nothing fits, which is its own kind of helpful information.

The challenge with finding sounds that fit is that it takes a while to get to know both the sound I’m trying to fit to and the sounds that could potentially do the fitting.

I’m surprised that a sound that fits is not one with a similar timbre to the marimbas but rather one that contrasts by occupying a distinctly different frequency stratum of the mix.

This suggests a lesson: pay attention to contrast.

As I auditioned sounds I was simultaneously writing new parts that might work with them. Like the sequenced marimba chords, these new ideas are also placeholders—attempts at filling out the mix in a meaningful way.

(How you define a musically meaningful mix might differ from how I do. I like hearing a sense of space and being able to pinpoint everything that’s going on within that space.)

Even though they’re placeholders, I try to make these parts as complete as possible by performing them as well as I can, thereby giving me a decent chance of sequencing a part that can be used later on. Sometimes what was once a placeholder part becomes, with a bit of editing, a final part. The for now unattainable goal is to play everything only once and perfectly. That would be something, wouldn’t it? 

You never know, so make the part excellent the first time.

While I’m trying new sounds and new parts, larger-scale forms are suggesting themselves. If a part is sounding good, I’ll keep playing it for a while. This playing can outline a possible new section that I’ll then have to fill in with other parts. It helps to be able to see everything I’m doing as a left-to-right sequence on the screen.

This suggests a lesson: the arrangement page is the musical score.

Everything I do in terms of part-making is potential scaffolding to hold up something else later on.

 

Accidents and errors are sprinkled through each aspect of the workflow—from sequencing the marimba chords, looking for contrasting sounds, recording placeholder parts, to noticing the emergence of larger-scale forms. Here are two examples:

I solo a part and like the sound of that, so I delete all the other sounds that were once around it. Musics don’t always have to be busy. Now the sound can shine on its own.

I accidentally drag the marimba sequence a few beats too far and now one of its chords is newly juxtaposed against another part. The accidental counterpoint sounds interesting so I’ll leave it (for now).

(Accidental counterpoint often sounds more interesting than my deliberate counterpoint. Why is this?) 

Accidents and errors are welcome and I go with them if I like how they sound.

But in general, chance procedures aren’t the ideal way to develop the kind of music I like to listen to because I like the sound of intentionality. 

One way to develop the music is to question it at each of its passing moments. I don’t mean question the music while making it! I mean question the music when I’m listening back to what I’ve done and thinking about how arrange it into a more cohesive and intentional whole.

The following questions come to mind as I listen:

Is this boring me? If so, why?
Is this repeating too much or not enough?
Is this part adding something?
Is this part getting in the way?
Why is this part even in here?
Is this part distracting from the main one?
Do I need a main part?
Is there even a main part?
What aspect of the part is irritating?
Are the details within this part sufficiently audible?
Is this effect drawing attention to itself rather than the effect it seeks to create?
Is static what you want for this section, or should it be changing?
Why is this music reminding me of (…)?
Is the tempo a bit off?
Is the percussion merely adding energy without helping the mood?
How else can I incorporate pulsation into the music?
Has the music become out of touch with its overall sense?
If only the end section sounds good, do you even need the beginning?
Could I start from the end?
Do I like this piece as it is? If not, why?

Summing up:

I know some ways to work, but what makes music production fascinating is the complexity of the possible interactions between a musician and the technologies/musical system at hand. 

At any given moment, a sound can morph in infinite directions. Likewise, at any moment, my understanding of what the piece is can shift. 

Am I engaging the production process in a way that is both systematic yet also open-ended and exciting?

  

 

  

 

Frames Of Attention: Deciding On Musical Materials

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One of the primary tasks involved in building a piece of music or a piece of writing is figuring out as early as possible in the process what materials you’re working with. Our process won’t reveal itself until we’re further along it, so there’s so sense worrying about that until we get there. But our materials we can decide upon now, even if that deciding feels arbitrary because, at least in the case of electronic music production, what constitutes one’s materials is perpetually in flux and potentially has no end. I can decide, for instance, that my piece will use at maximum one or two tracks of percussion. I can also decide on the (initial) sound sets for those tracks. My rationale is that two tracks of particular sounds afford me exponentially more options than one track does (especially in terms of polyrhythm and timbral call and response), but that any more than two tracks will be overkill. Am I missing out by not adding more tracks and more sounds? Maybe. But I gain a sense of clarity from having chosen to make do with just one or two tracks. I feel this clarity as I get to work figuring out what I might do with my chosen palette of percussion.

As I get further along the process of recording parts with my decided upon two tracks, the limitations I’ve set for myself come in handy. Now I have a super narrow frame for attention: each track of percussion has only three or four sounds, thus I only have 6-8 different sounds total for accomplishing whatever I’m trying to do. Though it’s difficult to capture in words, the moment of confronting a super narrow set of options feels like a crux of composing insofar as in that instant I have to decide how to make do with what I have. Conditions aren’t ideal, so I invent a way forward despite them. In sum, improvising with, and adapting to, the moment happen because I decided beforehand on the materials that set the conditions for creativity.

Notes On Weezer’s Cover Of A-Ha’s “Take On Me” 

“Weezer isn’t stuck in roles, so we just do what we want to do, what makes us excited.”
-Rivers Cuomo, Weezer

I’m listening to Weezer’s cover of “Take On Me”, a synthpop hit from 1984 by the Norwegian band A-Ha. I like both versions of the song: the original was exceptional—a song almost sublime in its MIDI-sequenced tightness, arranged just so, here for a pristine three and a half melancholy minutes then gone—and Weezer’s cover is a surprisingly moving tribute. Even though A-Ha was a trio powered by drum machines and sequenced keyboards, their song remains intact 35 years later with almost a billion views on YouTube and now, through Weezer’s rendering of it in rock form. The story of how Weezer came to cover “Take On Me” and other 80s gems is this: in 2018 a young fan reached out to the band on Twitter and suggested that they do a version of Toto’s “Africa.” Surprisingly, the band obliged and their Toto cover became their first hit in a decade. Maybe the success of that song got the band thinking about covering other songs? In any case, cover songs they did, and as a side note: when someone covers TLC’s “No Scrubs” and doesn’t change the lyrics to fit a male singer (TLC were an all-female 90s R&B group) it’s always worth a listen.

As I listened and re-listened to “Take On Me” I thought about what kinds of things the song was telegraphing to those of us around for the original. To start, the Weezer cover traffics in nostalgia for our always receding musical past, and maybe it exemplifies what Simon Reynolds has called retromania. Cover songs trigger our minds in certain ways: when you listen to a cover of a song whose original version you know well, you jump into a super-fast comparative mode, trying to figure out what is the same and what is different between the two versions. And when that original is powerful, something else happens as well: your comparative mind shuts down a bit and you lose yourself in the music, not quite sure whether you’re hearing the new through the prism of the old or the old through the new. Or some combination of both of these ways of listening.

What made the original “Take On Me” sort of exceptional was that it perfectly encapsulates what pop should do, which is unfold itself through brief verses whose sole purpose is to lead you to catchy and repeated choruses as efficiently as possible. But more than this, “Take On Me” is an example of musical form and musical sound perfectly melded. Returning to the song now, it sounds as if it was expressly designed for the synthesizers and drum machines used to make it. English Producer Neill King, who was brought in midway through A-Ha’s initial recording sessions to bring zing to the productions, explains in a Sound On Sound article some of the electronics he used to achieve a sound:

“There was the Synclavier from which everything was sequenced. This was used as the drum machine; a mixture of synthesized and live samples courtesy of Tony Mansfield. The Synclavier was the first synth that grooved a little more following the first generation of drum machines. In terms of effects, there was a lot of reverb going around and we slammed the hell out of a Lexicon 224X and AMS RMX16. There was also an RMX15 for stereo delay. Classic ’80s stuff.”

The version of the song recorded with Neill King was a moderate hit, yet the band’s record company, Warner Brothers, was convinced they could make an even more compelling version, so they brought in producer Alan Tarney to re-build the music. Tarney’s go-to studio equipment included a Roland Juno 60, a (by then slightly dated) LinnDrum drum machine, and a UMI MIDI sequencing computer which were all used on the song. As Tarney recalls in the same Sound On Sound article,

“’Take On Me’ had a fairly standard Linn snare sound and I just remember compressing it quite heavily to get a very slappy feel. At the same time, while the quality of the Linn’s snare, toms and kick drum was quite good, its cymbal sounds were a bit crappy—no high end. So [A-Ha guitarist Pål Waaktaar] overdubbed real cymbals and possibly some hi‑hat in the studio, to add some clarity and get more of a live feel.”

Out of this layered production process “Take On Me” emerged and became a chart-toping hit, in part thanks to an expensive and innovative video whose hand-drawn comic book graphics kept the song in heavy rotation on MTV.

If you toggle back and forth between A-Ha’s and Weezer’s versions of “Take On Me” a few differences become apparent. First, the original is in A major, while Weezer’s cover is transposed down a step, presumably to better suit vocalist Rivers Cuomo’s vocal range. Production-wise, the original has a crisper, livelier sound than Weezer’s, while Weezer’s has a darker, almost dull sound (the drums especially), albeit with more weight. This is strange insofar as the original was recorded onto a warmer-sounding analog tape-based system and not into a computer-based DAW as today’s recordings usually are. Also, the original recording of “Take On Me” has more layers of textural nuance than Weezer’s version. Little programming details—like the high register bumble bee-like keyboard line that flies around the stereo field and off into its own reverb (from 2:02-2:08), or the drum machine fills that sounds uncannily like what a real drummer would play—still sound amazing to me. Weezer partly makes up for that lack of nuance with some lovely filigree electric guitar arpeggios added to the chorus, but on the whole, the song’s original version remains a testament to careful musical construction. Let’s take this moment to remember a truth about music production: it’s not about whether the instruments used are electronic or not. What matters is how the music is put together.  

The second thing you notice is that Weezer’s Cuomo seems a stronger singer than A-Ha’s Morten Harket. Harket has a sweet choir boy voice, but I only recently noticed how his word enunciation wasn’t always clear and when he hit sustained falsetto notes his energy and pitch could flag a wee bit. (I guess those 1980s Lexicon 224 reverbs could only do so much.) To me, Cuomo’s voice sounds more present and careful in its phrasing and use of micro, almost Michael Jackson-esque breathy/rhythmic glottal stuttering sounds around the words. His voice is a subtle instrument. A third noticed thing is what we might call the transferability of great songs. In Weezer’s version of “Take On Me” there’s two new sections: a half-time bridge where the band breaks out the distorted electric rock guitars and sloshy cymbals and a brief break before the final chorus where the song reduces to just an unplugged acoustic guitar and intimate vocal. In the half-time section we hear the suppleness of A-Ha’s harmonic progressions, and in the acoustic break how Harket’s melody still holds up with even the sparest of accompaniment. A strong song maintains itself through all kinds of versioning by transferring its energies from one artist to another over time.

A fourth noticed difference between the two versions of “Take On Me” is the degree to which electronic pop can be “rockified”, which in turn raises the question of what happens when rock music gets a synth pop (or say, electro R&B) treatment, which in turn might push us to consider the general porousness of various pop musical styles. Weezer keeps the chord progressions and melody and basic keyboard parts from A-Ha’s original, but adds crunchy distorted electric guitars, bass, and drum set to the mix. I’ve written on this blog before about the “trickle-down” influence of EDM aesthetics on rock and pop. Weezer’s covers of 1980s songs now have me thinking about the hegemonic power of rock style to shape how we hear and imagine every other kind of music.

The impact of Weezer’s cover of “Take On Me” is heightened by the band’s video for the song, which is delightful and frames a simple story within a story. The simple story’s protagonist is a teenage Cuomo and his band. When mom leaves the house he grabs a slice of pizza and mobilizes his bandmates to rip through Weezer’s version of the song. The viewer sees Cuomo and his mates growing up in the 80s to the sounds of synth pop and rock: there’s Cuomo in his bedroom doodling a giant “W” (for Weezer) in a notebook and imagining make one day making it big. This simple story is simultaneously set inside A-Ha’s original video for their song with its hand-drawn graphics. Weezer quotes this video by having it temporarily turn teenage Cuomo and Co. into a comic strip—as if the comic is a visual representation of Weezer’s cover version interpenetrating with A-Ha’s original recording. The cumulative effect feels like layering nostalgia, and so for some viewers, these two versions of one song might bring back vague memories now blended into a single sensation. In music, the past lives in the present and the present uncovers the past. When conditions are right, some songs find unexpected ways to get us feeling again.