On Being Musically Authentic

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authentic — of undisputed origin; genuine; real; bonafide; legit

Every artist aspires to be authentic to how he or she thinks of themselves to be. In an ideal world, we would only make the music/art/literature/sculpture that we want to pursue, whether that’s because it expresses us, it expresses a concept important to us, seems compelling in some way, or embodies a mixture of all these motivations. We don’t live in an ideal but the real world, of course, and so we often have to do artistic things we would not pursue if it weren’t for pressing matters of limited money and time, boundless and unrealistic professional aspirations and ambitions, question for social relevance, and so on down the rabbit hole of forever trying to fit in. But there’s always space within the real world for carving for ourselves a niche of authenticity.

Within the realm of music production, authenticity can find you if you devise ways to free yourself from the pressure to fit in. The best way to begin is by pursuing only that which sounds enchanting. How you got there is irrelevant (though you might want to make notes on that to guide you the next time); what’s important is how it sounds. While there are certainly established ways of doing things—don’t make the piece too long, don’t swamp every part in reverb, don’t over compress the sounds—these ways only map what has already been done and what has already worked. The thing is, there are an infinite number of ways of arriving at an enchanting sound. 

The next step for curating authenticity is to build upon whatever you’ve found enchanting by devising your own methods and strategies and techniques for expanding your material. The tools of digital music production (e.g. plug-in instruments and effects) are configured so that there is no end for ways to combine them. New combinations and configurations of these tools always lead to new sounds. Your task is to be on the lookout for anything that speaks to you—anything that sounds genuine in a way that you can relate to. 

A third step towards authenticity is to refrain from seeking a context, an audience, a stylistic placeholder, or critical niche for your music. For as long as possible, you need to suspend your disbelief about the music’s prospects or future trajectory after you’re done with it and instead stay rooted in Just Is-ness. The music just is, just as you just are. Or as the vernacular saying goes, It is what it is.

A final step towards authenticity is take these three steps—freeing yourself from the pressure to fit in by pursuing what sounds enchanting, building upon that through new combinations and configurations, refraining from seeking a context for your work—and feeding these steps back onto themselves in a cascading feedback loop. Around and around you go as you work and develop the music and yourself too, feeling more authentic with every iteration. 

Friday Freestyle: A Miscellany Of Ten Things I’m Thinking About

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This week I introduce Friday Freestyle: A Miscellany Of Ten Things I’m Thinking About. It’s a new post format in which I share ideas and questions without developing them further into blog posts. It may become a regular thing, or this may be the first and last installment! I really don’t know.

• What are the qualities of a recorded sound that make is seem materially visceral and tangible? Are these qualities connected to the aesthetics of “warm”- and “vintage”-sounding audio? And are these qualities in turn mostly a matter of the nonlinear artifacts native to analog devices (or digital technologies that simulate them)?

• Alfred Gell (a most interesting anthropologist who wrote about time, enchantment, and artists) describes the artist:

The artist’s ambiguous position, half-technician and half-mystagogue.

(Alfred Gell “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology”, 1992, 59).

• If you like motion, here’s an awesome skateboarding video:

• How does physical training influence creativity?

• Has Auto-Tune pitch correction forever changed the rapper’s singing voice? Or will we one day look back fondly upon our current hip hop era?

• A really good recipe for chick pea curry:

• What does dragging and rushing in music performance tell us about the musician?
And how do we know we know when someone is going too far in either direction?

• Why are most of the cars with boom-boom-booming sound systems driven by men?

• Too Much Of A Good Thing Syndrome: Why does YouTube’s algorithm work to provide us content based on our previous viewing that eventually wears out our interest in what we thought we were interested in? In other words, why is the algorithm so uncreative and what does this tell us about how we actually think?

• Radiohead singer Thom Yorke discusses in an interview the paradox that learning how something works in fact means that, creatively speaking, it no longer works: 

“Once you’ve learned to use a drum machine, or learned to write in a particular way, the temptation is to go back there, because you know it works.  But…if you’ve discovered it works, it no longer works.”   

On Musical Knowing

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We have a recurring sense that we don’t know much about music.
A sense that we tried to learn a lot, but came up short.
A sense that we can’t commit to one musical thing.

But we know some musical things,
a knowing that lives in experience,
which includes the musics we’ve heard
and the musics we’ve made and studied.

Most of all, we know musical things through our hands:
experience resides in our hands.

Hands have knowledge earned from
the terrain of musical instruments,
the labor of practicing and trying to play better,
the urgency of copying others,
the exploration of chord shapes with no idea how they might sound,
the uncertainty of failing yet persisting over time,
the intuition that the best music is physical. 

We don’t know much about music, but our hands do.

Notes On Anti-Automated Music

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“The higher the creativity component of a profession,
the more likely it is to have disconnected inputs and outputs.”
– Naval Ravikant

No one, especially me, wants to listen to automated music—music, acoustic or electronic, that’s on auto-pilot, that just unfolds without responding to its environment or to the subtleties of its own exigencies. (I also don’t want to listen to a musician playing a memorized piece.) No one wants to listen to automated music because it doesn’t make very compelling perceptual demands on us. (Which is the main reason Muzak sucks.) Instead, we want anti-automated music—music which, no matter what its style or instrumentation (or popularity), resounds with some kind of thoughtfulness. Music that makes us tilt our head and go, Wait, what? 

In music production, getting some kind of thoughtfulness into the music so that it avoids automation is simple in theory, yet involved in practice. The task is figuring out ways to translate your sensibility, taste, and decision-making into audible musical details. To do this you need to devise a repertoire of techniques for shaping all aspects of the music according to your exacting standards and predilections. I think about it as being your own virtual band where you get to play all the parts simultaneously, plus you’re also the sound engineer and the audience too, listening on. In short, you’re an omnimusician. No detail is too large or small to escape your attention because you notice everything that’s happening at all times. At least, that’s the ideal.

In music production, musical techniques are virtually infinite. For me, it begins with a repertoire of go-to moves on keyboard and percussion instruments. If all else fails (and how do I know all else won’t fail somewhere down the production line?) I can always play something on these instruments, and, in the worst case scenario, if I have nothing to say I can at least repeat what I’m doing right now and see where that leads me. My go-to moves help me discover chord shapes and melody vectors, bass lines and rhythm webs—all good things upon which to build. But once these initial ideas are inside the computer, another game begins in a major way, and this game has neither rules nor time constraints. It feels as if I could play it forever, limited only by my own time and energies. In its sense of endlessness, music production feels like what James Carse calls an infinite game. “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning” he says, while “an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” 

With my ideas in the computer, a task is to figure out how to create thoughtfulness out of the material by spinning it in various ways: 

Sounds can be changed.
Structures can be re-structured.
Parts can be multiplied.
The whole can be resampled into something new.
A moment can be interrupted.
A harmony can be removed.
A melody implied.
A space conjured.
A timbre morphed.
A stereo field reduced.
A rhythm sliced and diced.
An ambiance suggested.

And on and on and on and on and on.

(The tools of digital music production are vast, but remember that your ever-changing taste is your most powerful plug-in.)

At first, making changes to music feels merely experimental—a sort of, I wonder what will happen if I do this questing for variations. But remember that each change you make to the music makes it less automated and conventional and more enchanted, more human. The process is simple: you try something and if it sounds good you keep that and build on it. Also, each change is additive and an incremental refinement of what you started with—the music is literally accumulating traces of your little changes. After a period of making changes that feel merely experimental, the music will eventually start to vibrate differently. There will be more going on in it that you can consciously grasp at once, and you’ll hear it anew, wondering how it was that you got to this point. I’ll remind you: you got here by making small additive changes whose sum has begun diverging from its parts. What began as a very linear process (Let me just record this sequence of chords…) is becoming nonlinear as your output becomes disconnected from your inputs. 

In my experience, the more I refine a piece the clearer the connection becomes between a non-automated sound and audible thoughtfulness in the music. As the music is distilled and its parts refined, it becomes easier for me to discern which details are doing the Good Work of generating an engaging listening experience and which details have yet to pull their weight in the mix. The small things that I worked on in layers are now speaking back and speaking up, reminding me of Gregory Bateson’s definition of information. “The elementary unit of information” he says, is “a difference that makes a difference.” In sum, the specifics of what techniques you use are not as important as whether or not the techniques make audible your decision making. Good music lets you hear thinking inside of it—the differences that make a difference—and so the best way to make anti-automated music is to refine it at every step of the production process until it’s finally talking on its own.       

(Speaking of non-automated music, have you listened to Brett’s Sound Picks 2019?)