Words About Things
More recent writing will be on the Anticipate Sound site.
November 13, 2011 - Creative Discipline
In some ways the term itself sounds weird. Creativity is often associated with dreaminess, spaciness, abstraction, lack of rules, stream of consciousness. Discipline is associated with strictness, order, routine. These terms go hand-in-hand though. Without order, organization, limits, there is no direction, no point to move towards, no boundary to give the creative work meaning. Negative space defines the contour of material as much as what exists "on the page," and maybe more so. What something is not is part of what it is, because if it's everything it is also nothing.
The routine is also needed, the sense of work, which is a limit unto itself. Just as a boundary funnels creativity towards a form, a regularity to the practice funnels the entirety of what you're doing, allows it to develop. Practice is the perfect word here. Just as one playing an instrument feels the need to practice to get better at it, one needs practice in other, less immediately concrete ways of thinking and making. It exercises your instincts and thought patterns in the same way bowing a violin or strumming a guitar would.
I find that having a creative discipline helps to pull ideas out where you thought there weren't any, or to help work through the mildly satisfactory ones to get to the good stuff, the material that requires some unpacking to get to. Without the discipline to work through the difficult parts or the times where you're not feeling inspired you may never get to what's a few layers down. I'm writing this as much as a reminder to myself as a message to others. I stepped back from working on music for a bit, which is usually part of my process right after finishing an album, but nonetheless, even acknowledging that on a logical, conscious level, it always concerns me to not feel as much motivation, as much inclination to work it out.
Usually that time passes after a bit and I get excited about a new project and appreciate the time I took to think about the process, to flesh out ideas and do the work that happens before the work, which is incredibly necessary but often underappreciated. This time around the rest seemed to be lasting longer than usual, so I made myself sit down and begin something - anything - and have been taking this idea to heart, of routine, of working every day just to do it, to see what happens, to be in the habit of creativity. I'm allowing that to go in any direction it leads, whether music making, recording sounds, painting, or writing. It's all serving the same purpose in a sense, exercising the same concepts, fulfilling the same need.
I don't mean to say that this is easy. I also don't mean to say that pure inspiration isn't important, because it is amazing when ideas just pour out and you lose yourself in a moment, though it is a rare and fickle experience. Discipline means that you work through it. You find the inspiration in the mundane normalcy of being in that state every day. You try things you might not feel comfortable with. You attempt a different practice that isn't your expertise. You get creative with creativity itself. New connections will be made in your brain. New output will happen. Even if it's not what you were hoping for it will be an important step towards it.
August 3, 2011 - The End Is Important In All Things
A common saying, which has been attributed to a number of different people, is that one doesn't finish a work of art, but merely abandons it. This trope points to the simple fact that the idea of completion is a grey area and is surrounded by ambivalence. After much energy and time is poured into something we want it to be done, but we also want to keep at it. To finish is essentially to abandon a relationship that you've built up with the work at hand. How do you just walk away, and yet without walking away it never becomes anything other than a practice area. Practice areas have value, but if the intention is to exhibit something to others, the abandonment point is necessary, which becomes the point of finishing, a more positive term.
The psychology of finishing is integral. It requires one to stop working, to let go, which is counterintuitive in a sense because isn't the work a constant process? If things are practiced correctly, one recognizes that you are never actually done, because the point isn't to finish, but to develop. The approach of an idea ends up branching out into a myriad of other ideas, rethinking the original intent and refining it, so how can one simply stop and say this is now ready?
This is bound up with the element of exposure. To finish usually involves some sort of releasing of the work into another place, where it is no longer protected from the perception of others, where it is essentially no longer under your control. A listener is required to close the circuit, but that also changes the circuit. Perhaps intentions aren't communicated exactly as you hoped. Perhaps the listener hears it "wrong" or perhaps they just don't like it very much. The lack of concrete results leaves a world of possibilities, even though logically, none of those positive possibilities can come to fruition without the finished, concrete, defined work. I am writing this on the principle that putting something in to the world is a form of finishing, whether you intend that to be the case or not. Exposing it to another brings it to a different place automatically.
Personally, I have always consoled myself with the concept that no one piece of work can be everything that you want to communicate. It can satisfy itself within itself, but there should always be room left for something else to happen, for another direction, another idea. If that is so, then there is no need to feel pressured to make this one thing perfect or fill the entirety of what one wants to put into the universe. It can only be what it is. Perfection is simply the closest approximation of the thing to its chosen identity. It can leave space for more to happen and still fulfill its potential.
Ideally, your work is constantly in motion. When one arrives at a certain style, it is a means of working through something, but exploring different directions in which it can go. In many ways, this is a work-around for the finishing question. When a track is done (or painting, or screenplay, etc.), it can be less that it is done, and more that it allows a pause in the larger work of a certain style. You don't have to be done. You can do it all over again. You can break it up into pieces over time and finish the pieces. The accumulation of them can go on and on and add more meaning and development to the body of work, which can in many cases be seen as one piece of material with many facets to it, many wrinkles that act as the means of exploring everything you want to do in one track, but simply can't.
This is such a personal topic, since everyone has one's own moment of recognizing, or accepting, that something is done. It is as much a part of one's individual creative process, of one's mythology, as choosing which sounds to work with. It needs to be developed over time. The way something is mixed, the amount of closure or strands left undone, the way sounds are edited, and every other decision that happens is both part of one's general style and one's approach to finishing. Perhaps it doesn't need to be stated explicitly, but nonetheless: each moment adds up towards the whole and what is completion if not some sort of resolution to that whole.
As you finish more pieces you realize what your work sounds like when it's at that point, and what you want it to sound like in order to be deemed so. I suppose it's a feedback loop because the goal of completion helps to bring about a definition of it, which makes it more likely to happen, which reinforces the definition, and so on... You begin to develop a means of arriving at that place over time, through trial, error, observation, experimentation. It never becomes a rote process, hopefully, but perhaps can become more obvious, more understandable that something is completed, that it has reached a suitable end.
June 1, 2011 - The Joy Of Falling Objects
I love recording the sound of things falling down, falling on each other. The more the merrier. Over time there are certain percussion oriented hooks that have become recognized as part of my sound. I suppose this has happened naturally because I want to hear that type of thing in my music. I enjoy the odd, accidental rhythms that come out of setting up a situation that you control at the outset, but have no real control over the sounds that arise from it. Ultimately it is another one of those instances of knowing what I want to hear when it is present but not knowing exactly what it is until it exists.
What do I find so appealing about these types of sounds, of these noises emanating from random materials? It is difficult to say. Maybe it's the contrast of the clatter in the midst of warm textures. Maybe it's the specific rhythmic sense that I search for in these physical recordings, something which I couldn't play any other way because I don't know what it is I would be playing. It's not that they are overly complex, but that they have a specific personality, one which comes out of the makeup of the object(s).
There is also something about the detritus of it, the sound of destruction of sorts, of objects coming apart, or at least sounding like they are. In a certain manner it tells a story, speaks something of the experience of these materials, of their potential and their use. When they aren't the focus, yet add texture to the whole, is when I feel most comfortable.
May 9, 2011
My new album, Folding In On Itself, is about maneuvering through a city, how our experiences are directed, how we remember and how those memories are inherently edited, a "version" of what was there. The title refers to this movement of our surroundings and us within it, this single entity, a feedback loop that affects us and is affected by us, how things break down over time but are also natural developments of that time passing and how they can be reflected back and reshaped, re-contextualized, re-edited.
We think of our experience as a story. We fit it into a shape so that it makes sense on some level, and sound can tell these stories without defining them too concretely. I aim for one to find their own connotations and connections, to not be overly influenced by what I'm putting forth, but to nonetheless be affected by it, be drawn into associations that help define one's own story and build a relationship within the sound.
Admittedly these things get pieced together both in process and retroactively, going back and recognizing the threads that ran through it all, understanding the finished work better once it is finished. It isn't necessarily premeditated even though there are clear intentions and the production of one piece leads to ideas about another, to help finish the puzzle, as it were, of what the whole is supposed to be. Sometimes a bit of distance is necessary to understand what you were working on, what was actually happening, and where it came from.
June 28, 2010 - Making Choices for a Label
I thought it might be helpful for anyone sending out music demos to a record label to get a perspective on how decisions are made when releasing someone's work. I can only speak for myself, and my labels, but I bet the sentiments cross over to some other people in a similar area of independent music.
I think everyone is aware that we live in a time of immense clutter. More information and communication is available, but that creates overload and it is increasingly difficult to express something interesting and original (and good) and reach people. That being said, everyone has an individual definition of the words original and interesting. Let's not forget love. For an independent label like Anticipate or Microcosm the main force governing these decisions is am I in love with this music. Do I want to listen to it over and over again and do I hear something extra special in it? Do I connect to it in a way that goes beyond whether it sounds good or is produced well? Does it connect with the concept of the label and its sound? Because the label is a personal extension of an idea, it's essential that a release both fits in with, and adds something new to the whole. Occasionally the commercial perspective comes into play, but it rarely sways a creative decision for me.
A Personal Connection
Even in a segment of the music industry that is driven more by art than by commercial considerations there is a benefit to knowing someone; probably more so, actually. Because a label like mine is so personal, it can feel odd to release music by a complete stranger, to enter into a creative and professional relationship with someone knowing so little about them and how they carry themselves in the world. Having some sort of friendly relationship (or a relationship with someone who recommends or vouches for an artist) helps to understand one's music better: where it's coming from, what it's trying to accomplish, how it defines the person. I have released music by total strangers and been happy with the results and then grown to be friends with some of those people, but it is incredibly rare for a random demo to grab my attention enough to want to spend a great deal of time, energy and money on bringing it out into the world. I'm sorry to say it but it's true. I have heard plenty of demos that I thought were good, but still didn't compel me to release them, didn't make me feel like I would regret not working with this music. On the rare occasions that I have felt that way, it has been a combination of the music's quality, its style, timing and probably mood. It's difficult to align all these things, but occasionally they come together.
How To Present Your Work
Speaking of sending a demo to a stranger, to begin with, find a label that your work would fit with. Too often people blindly send their material to a label that they have done no (or not enough) research on and it's simply a waste of everyone's time. If you make metal you wouldn't send it to a hip-hop label. Find an organization that you love and that you can see your work being compared to. Remember, a small label is a personal statement and the music needs to work within those boundaries. It can stretch them a little, but it probably can't be part of a different universe (depending on the label). Also, almost as an aside, because I think it's fairly obvious: don't send a mass email to a bunch of labels at once. It looks cheap, as if you don't believe enough in your music to spend a bit more time writing emails. It's not personal and you're asking someone to then invest some of themselves in your creations. Why would they if they don't even get a direct note from you? Similarly, don't send an email with just a link. If someone doesn't know what your work sounds like and you don't feel the need to tell them, why would they care to listen? Presentation is important in all things.
I hope this gives some helpful information to anyone who's lost out there in the sea of finding a home for your music. It's a weird time and there are lots of options and no strict answers. Stay true to your work, find your own voice and if you connect to people in the right way good things should happen.
June 2, 2010 - Less Definition = Awesome
I was listening to Grouper's Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill the other night, for the first time in a while (though I think it was my favorite album of 2008, released on the stupendous Type label). It's kind of painfully good, in that listening to it can almost be too much concentrated goodness to handle. It just reminded me of what caught my attention the first time I heard it, that it has clear melody lines and vocals but is so obscured that it gets into a place I love that combines pop elements with the smearing and blurring of those lines; not just the lines of pop vs. not pop, but the lines of the songs themselves. The borders which surround a vocal or guitar or piano are porous because of the way it was recorded and processed and those pores fold outward and mesh with each sound source, and yet it is still more defined than a big slab of sound. This is something I find kind of magical in lots of music but when it's done with such a clear "song" at its core it manages to create even more dark/light and pretty/dirty contrast. I'm not sure that pretty and dirty are opposites, but I'm going with that.
This lack of definition - obscurity, smearing limits - adds layers of meaning, implied meaning and most importantly, the meaning of the listener attaching it to the music. Though I realize it's not for everyone, and not for every time, I think it does a great service to leave an openness for the listener to fill in their own blanks, whether it's an assumption of what a track 'means' or simply the experience and associations a track evokes individually. I believe the way we use art is as important as the way we make it and that music becomes somehow more completely finished when the circuit is completed by a listener. If it's more open for one's personal interpretations, all the better.
May 18, 2010 - The Place of the Album
I've been thinking for a while, but maybe a bit more lately, about the role of the album in our immediacy-obsessed world. If music is consumed at a faster and greater pace than ever before and 95% of it is not paid for, then the album becomes an even grander statement: a document of a large body of work at a time when one could, if they want to, finish a song and post it for anyone to hear in the same day. In this context an album represents not just a complete grouping of material, but an act of patience. For an artist (and label) to wait until an album is finished when it is the norm to obey a certain schedule for manufacturing and promotion and release is an incredibly different process than to slowly work on something of a different scope when quickly distributing material into the world is so easy and commonplace and probably necessary. If the rate of exchange is so quick and the commercial necessity so minor, how long will the album reign as the standard form? How long will it last at all?
Admittedly, its origins are one of commerce, not art, but the art has taken it on as its own and used it as both a limit and a freedom to explore new possibilities. A container is needed to define the extent of one's work, to give it both breathing room and a place for that air to stop. If albums are so few and far between then what is the degree to which artists should be disseminating work in the space left from one full-length release to another? If the ease of transferring a piece from hard drive to the ears of strangers (and friends) is so simple, to what degree is in-process material acceptable? Do people want to hear unfinished versions of songs that then end up on a larger release in their final form? Does that tip the quality vs. quantity scale too far? I realize these are questions with no definitive answer, or rather, with numerous answers that differ for each listener, artist and piece of work. We should all be thinking about this in our producing and consuming efforts.
March 19, 2010 - Accumulation as a Replacement for Narrative
What is it that attracts someone to art forms like experimental music, non-representational visual art, and sparse films where little happens? Why do some people find solace in expression that is more elusive and has less of a traditionally identifiable narrative arc? I mean that term in many senses: as much in an overt melody as a story with a conflict and resolution, in a painting of a plant on a table as much as lyrics that mean something specific (regardless of whether they are literal, metaphor, etc).
In works like these, it seems that concentration on moments, or the accumulation of these moments can be enough of an emotional payoff for some (myself included) while others still desire a different kind of structure. Are people constructing the story in their heads from the threads of what's there or is it a different mentality altogether, gaining meaning and insight from moment to moment and how they and the reactions to them accrue; it's not about any kind of resolution at all, but more of an ongoing conversation (with oneself, with the creator of the material, with the material itself). Why is it that a single piano chord in a song can work as enough of a melody for some people while for others it's a sound effect? Why can the texture and composition of certain images be the elements that hold meaning for some while others focus on the specific series and sequence of events to organize their experience?
Peripheral ideas, images, sounds, practices are important and can be elevated to the foreground, and then if communicated correctly can be the sole occupant of that foreground, and carry the weight of the entire material, regardless of medium. Granted, to a certain extent this is part of the continual process of culture and at several points in history someone came up with a genuinely new idea, even if it was built on what came previously, and people were either ready for it or they weren't, but it began a trajectory that kept moving. For some, part of that trajectory is focusing closely on smaller pieces, microscoping in to the way a certain sound or image or combination thereof feels, rather than a large statement like the hook of a pop song or the climactic moment where the hero saves the day. (Nonetheless, I acknowledge that it's dangerous to put these ideas into completely discrete categories, because they aren't entirely distinct from each other and beware the person who only wants to see and/or hear one thing, because that's just boring.)
Now we take certain things for granted (a canvas painted entirely white can be art, a tone that's modulated slightly over 40 minutes can be music) but they came from somewhere and were way more revolutionary at first because they had to create their own context. It goes almost without saying that creative statements like these aren't for everyone, but is it just cultural or is there a personal, biological process taking place? Perhaps there is an introvert/extrovert equation at work. One accepted socio-psychological idea is that introverts have enough internal stimulation, so they require less from outside (which causes them to be introverted), and in turn, extroverts want and need more stimulation because they provide themselves with less (hence the extroversion). Nothing holds true all of the time for all people, but it certainly sounds like a plausible enough scenario for a generalization. The more abstract and less defined a piece is, the less on the surface energy it exudes, the more it might be the perfect vehicle on which one can project their own internal goings-on, the more the perceiver gets to add to their experience and understanding of it if they choose to, which often means that even if it doesn't require this effort, it does at least reward it.
Isn't material like this functioning on its own internal logic, of what makes sense for itself within the universe it created? This allows the viewer / listener to find new elements / objects / layers / relationships within by concentrating differently, shifting the observational focus to perceive nuances that appear for the first time, and perhaps only to that person, unintended by the original creator of the work. I'm a huge proponent of people allowing this to happen, arranging tiny layers in a way that they become the main focus - the story to be followed - giving them more weight than the usual foreground material could have by the sheer virtue of the required attention to discover them in their full potential. The way they are handled and presented can then have this accumulation effect and the emotional impact usually afforded traditional audiovisual storytelling.
March 8, 2010 - Finding a Voice Through Mistakes:
I was on a panel recently (Feb. 2010 at Unsound Festival NYC Edition, with Sebastian Meissner and Sasu Ripatti), which was about making music with technology and finding an original voice. During the Q&A portion someone asked how can one do such a thing, find an original voice as they begin their journey through music-making within the modern electronic field, at this stage, where people are using similar technology and genres are codified and formulaic to a degree even when they aren't formulaic. Well, that was the gist of the question; I paraphrased it a bit. (As an aside, it's sort of depressing to think that everything has been done, but luckily I don't think it all has.) I didn't have a prepared answer for this but as I was responding to him I realized that I agreed with my thought enough to repeat it. My answer was basically, when you're starting to learn how to work and how you want to work, it's okay to copy people who you respect, and then, hopefully, you aren't very good at copying them, and you make mistakes or just do things differently because you're a different person, and through the process of trying to emulate you find your own voice: one which is relatable to another, but nonetheless your own. All music is relatable and influenced by something. There is no completely original idea free of the thoughts embedded in the work of others. So, my advice to you (person asking this question) is, go make mistakes. Find your own process through doing things wrong. If there's any way to find a sense of personal uniqueness it's in the way one works towards a certain result, the way one's mind works, the way one processes information. Hopefully the results come out of the process and not an automated system of arriving at the goal. This way you and your individuality are actually part of the equation, regardless of the technology you use or the genre you work in.