Lessons Learned from Swimming Blindly Through the Aural Seas

When I write I have some idea of where I’m going. As you can see from my experiment with trying to go free form, I need some structure when I write. Nonetheless, when I write I’m acting with intention and purpose – I see where I want to go and try to get there.

When I make music, it’s almost completely the opposite. Essentially, music comes about in one of two ways. First, I get a flash of inspiration when a riff or rhythm or something pops into my head (and, hopefully, onto the computer). Second, I take whatever winds up on “tape” and fiddle around with it, adding things, taking things away, and generally just figuring out what works. I very rarely come to a song idea with a clear conception of what the end product should be.

In other words, when I write, it’s like setting out to sea in a boat, with charts, a destination, and a plan on how to get there. When I make music, it’s more like diving in head first and seeing where the tide sees fit to deposit me. Swimming blindly, if you will.

That’s not to say that the drifting, searching musical creation doesn’t require making choices. Sometimes, those choices are relevant when it comes to thinking about writing, too.

I’ve been thinking about this lately after finishing a new song with the deviously serious title of “Dummy Tickle” (it’s embedded below). I have no idea where that title came from, because this song, all not-quite-four minutes of it, began five years ago.

Which brings me to lesson number one I’ve learned from making music – creativity takes time.

The DAW I use has a metadata field that lets you put just about anything you want in it. I always put (1) when I started the song; (2) when I finished “writing” it; and (3) when I got it in final form (mixed down, etc.). It’s a very rare thing when a song goes from idea to completion in a week or a month. Usually it takes a while, but not five years.

What was I doing with “Dummy Tickle” for five years? I’d like to say I tried out dozens of different things to try and bring the basic idea (that lazy, bouncy bass line and equally laid back melody) to bigger, better life. Nothing really clicked, nothing seemed right. I let it go for a while, but every time I went back and listened to unfinished tracks I thought “there’s something there” and marked it down as something to finish.

Finally, a few weeks ago, something clicked. I don’t know precisely what or why then – maybe a session of playing with the puppies trigger up some kind of endorphin rush or something. How couldn’t they?

Pups
Anyway, the damn burst and I started making progress. It just took some time to get there. Patience really is a virtue, especially when it comes to creative things.

Still, it wasn’t a matter of just banging out a few more notes and being done with things. I was in need of ideas for a transition, a middle section, and started playing around with a couple of chord progressions.

Then I hit on the second lesson I’ve learned from “Dummy Tickle” – sometimes, simpler is better.

I have a sign tacked to the wall in my studio:

Monphonist Pic

I put it up when I realized that a lot of the early electronic music I like – from ethereal Tangerine Dream to the synth-pop of The Human League and OMD – was done by people with access only to monophonic synthesizers (that is, ones that can make only one sound at a time). That is, they can only make one note at a time. By contrast, without even getting into the virtual synths in my arsenal, I can bring to bear 150 voices! At once! I only have 10 fingers, after all.

My point is I tend to think in chords, even thought single notes are often what’s called for. After struggling to find the right sequence for this song, I backed off and gave it a fresh look. And I looked at my sign. The heart of this song was that simple bass line, the simple melody. Don’t mess that up by building it up unnecessarily. Take the simple route. Thus, that middle section was composed entirely of monophonic lines weaving together – as was the rest of the song.

None of this is Earth shattering. Still, as creators sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the vision of more – more words, more notes, more colors – until you disappear up your own backside in search of your next complexity fix. Sometimes you have to step back and think about what works for the song, book, or whatever it is you’re making. Some of them are just simple little things that don’t have airs on being anything more.

“Dummy Tickle” is like that. A little goof of a tune, a good mood wrought by bouncy synths. Enjoy!

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