All animals learn by imitating, even fancy apes like us. It’s the most efficient way to master the basics of a new field of knowledge. Want to become fluent in conversational Italian? Spend a year in Venice surrounded by native speakers, listening to everything and imitating it like a four-year old: words, inflections, rhythms, phrases, idioms, hand gestures, etc. Want to become fluent in chord progressions; immerse yourself in tonal harmony – classes, textbooks, pieces – and imitate away!
Imitation is the first step to competence, which is a good thing, a glue that holds the world together. But most artists are not satisfied with just being competent. The desire to transcend, to make something “more than, different from” lies at the very heart of the creative drive. (And drive it is! As much as eating, breathing, and reproducing.)
Once an artist has attained competence in a chosen medium, does imitation still serve a useful purpose?
Well, if you want to sound like a famous musician or band then imitation is definitely the way to go: assimilate recordings, learn licks by heart, copy musical styles. Cover bands take this route, often with great worldly success.
But there is another, more satisying way to open yourself to the influence of others: emulation.
Imitation is like cloning: a clinical process that yields an almost exact copy of the original. Boo! Emulation is like conception: sexy and creative, with two partners and plenty of passion – an explosive intermingling of DNA that brings about unpredictable results. Yeah, baybey!
To successfully emulate an artist, band, genre, or style you need to dig down to its essence and merge it with your own. It’s a true meeting of minds/spirits, a collaboration in which both musical personas take part. Imitating Bach is an academic exercise; emulating Bach by divining his musical essence and merging it with yours can be an act of transcendent personal expression.
I’m a huge fan of Frank Zappa. I’ve learned a great deal from his music, particularly the early stuff. Imitation was a big part of the process; without it I wouldn’t have had acquired the compositional know-how to create Zappa-esque melodies, rhythms, and harmonies. But if I had stopped there I would have ended up just another Zappa clone; there are plenty of them out there! No doubt Frank would have despised this, seeing as how such a large chunk of his genius derived from emulating (not imitating!) a compositional smorgasbord of different styles and artists: rock, blues, Edgar Varèse, jazz, avant garde, serialism, and Las Vegas cocktail schlock, to name but a few.
The moral of the story? Use what’s out there – everything! – not to copy what others have discovered, rather to discover and compose your SELF. There’s only ever going to be one of you in the entire history of all possible universes, right? Might as well celebrate your uniqueness. :-)
I’ve always loved beachcombing. Growing up, I’d wander the shores of Jones Beach looking for whatever the ocean happened to yield that day: shells, rocks, driftwood, dried-up hermit crabs and jellyfish and other mysterious aquatic beasts.
Now I’m landlocked, 350 miles from the ocean. So I do my scavenging in the audio arena: soundcombing. I fire up one of my favourite sound generators – Reaktor, Max/MSP, Absynth, you know the drill – and go hunting for sounds. I proceed in pure exploration mode, open for anything, my ears my guide. If a sonic object intrigues me, I file it away; if not, I toss it back in the ocean. Just me and my canvas sack combing the beach for cool sounds.
When you work this way, you end up with a slew of random audio files: beats, pads, melodies, chords, fx, noises, some usable, some not. The next step is to hone these files, extract the excerpts that are musically satisfying and edit them into clean loops, fragments, phrases, sections. This becomes your toolbox, the sonic repository you draw from to make music.
When it comes time to compose a piece from your soundcombings (you’ll know), work bottom up and let your sonic objects guide you. Rather than fitting them into a preconceived compositional template – verse/chorus song, 4/4-ish electronica track, ambient soundscape – let the sounds and shapes of the individual objects give rise to their own form. Think: sculptor enabling a slab of marble to reveal its intrinsic shape.
One of the great things about soundcombing is that it can broaden – sometimes dramatically – your sonic palette. If you think of yourself as an explorer open to whatever may come your way, you’ll end up with material you never would have otherwise chosen to use in your tracks. You’ll surprise yourself, and in the process, make music that will surprise your listeners.
Escherilia is an example of a piece I composed – or perhaps more accurately: montaged – from a set of random soundcombed objects. The form is like an nine-course symmetric meal: I serve up nine objects, then unserve them in reverse order. Enjoy!
Different cultures have different takes on what makes music beautiful.
Conyach, a term used by the Scottish travellers, is a quality of music that inspires strong emotional response in listeners. Salsa, as in salsa music, is used to describe musical wildness and ecstatic frenzy. Duende is a mysterious and difficult-to-translate term from Spanish music (especially the flamenco tradition), implying primal force, struggle, emotion, expression, fierceness and authenticity. Ma, from Japan, refers to the sensual beauty that derives from the space between events.
Many cultures ascribe great beauty to the evocation of melancholy in music. Sakit Hati is an Indonesian term that denotes a sense of wistful longing and sadness. Dor, associated with the doina music of Romania, is a “pleasant feeling of melancholy”. Blues is an African American quality of music that expresses melancholy, loneliness, and tragedy. Tezeta is an Ethiopian musical term, evocative of melancholy, nostalgia, and bittersweet longing.
Saudade is a Portuguese term that refers to a mood: “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness, but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.”
For electronic music composers, life is a grand – and crowded! – playground. We are surrounded by thousands of great-sounding toys: sequencers, samplers, synthesizers, VSTs galore. There is such a glut of sonic beasts out there, one could make a full-time career out of downloading and auditioning them … with little or no time left for actual composition.
Which is why electronistes would be well served by heeding the maxim: less is more.
In synthesis terms, this means limiting your instrumentarium. If you work with 20 programs, put 19 of them aside and focus in on just one. If you are presented with a bank of 80 patches, get to know a select few intimately, instead of jumping giddily from one to the next. If you pump your signals through a dozen effects plugins, force yourself to use just one or two.
Compositionally, “less is more” means simplifying your materials, structures, ideas. Rather than cramming a piece with 147 loops arranged in dense fractal overlaps (resulting in ugly musical overkill), try working with just a handful of exquisite loops served up simply and elegantly. If you’re a groovester, go sparse instead of dense, allowing your listeners to savor the beauty of each individual pattern.
Resist the temptation to overstate, bombard, show off. Leave space, formal and sonic, in your music and trust your listeners to fill in the blanks.
Excess, when applied in an artful manner, can dramatically enhance the power and expressiveness of music. Two dazzling examples jump to mind: Birds of Fire and Go Plastic.
John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, which had its heyday in the early 70s, was the most ecstatically loud and musically dense band of its era, perhaps any era. (When I heard them live I became physically sick from the assault, but it was a good sickness, an exquisite pain.) Who can listen to the sonic vortex that is Birds of Fire without feeling transported, wrenched upward?
Squarepusher’s Go Plastic is my favorite avant-d’n’b(ish) album. Some tracks are quite pedestrian, others so astonishingly dense and out-there that listening to them feels like eavesdropping in on the internal stream of consciousness of a brain in the throes of a ecstatically virtuosic musical convulsion. To wit: Check out Go! Spastic and My Fucking Sound (especially from about 4:00 onward).
Excess can also work brilliantly in the equipment arena. If you are a composer who thrives on multiplicity, then by all means embrace the surfeit of DSP programs and plugins out there. Money is no obstacle, since many of these programs are cheap or free.
Embrace the temptation to overstate, bombard, densify! Assault your listeners (lovingly) and trust them to come back, hungry for more.
Groove, defined conventionally, is a rhythm whose notes conform time-wise to a periodic pulse grid that specifies which beats are permitted and which are verboten. You can tease the grid, play ahead of it, play behind it, speed it up, slow it down, syncopate. But you must respect it and, ultimately, adhere to it. This is particularly true in dance music, where stepping outside the grid is like breaking a sacred contract between composer and audience.
I’d like to expand the definition of groove to include any rhythm that “swings” – that has vitality, complexity, intelligence, musicality, beauty. For example: the rhythm of spoken language (conversation and recitation), the rhythm of abstract electronica (think: Ryuji Ikeda), the rhythm of freeform improvisation (free jazz), the rhythm of natural phenomena (a forest, thunderstorm, city street), and so on.
For clarity, let’s call rhythms that adhere to a periodic grid, pulse, meter, etc. grooves and rhythms that don’t free grooves. And, rather than thinking of these two rhythmic species as mutually exclusive, let’s think of them as two poles of a groove continuum, with an infinite set of groove gradations in-between.
Just finished revising the 12 classic-TV-theme (extreme) covers of TV Covers II. I tightened them up and added a little pizzazz to the mixes (too much would have ruined their delicious lo-fi-hood). Have a listen!
Musical flow is the succession of sounds (and silences) that spans the duration of a piece. It’s the way a piece unfolds for the listener; its rhythmic and melodic dance; its storyline. A piece’s musical flow cannot be reduced to a simple formula, diagram, or analytical mapping. Flow is a complex and mysterious quality, more alchemical than scientific. It is a very important part of what makes a piece work (or not), so composers owe it to themselves and their listeners to pay attention to flow, to find their personal flow and develop it.
The first thing to consider in musical flow is density: the number of musical events (notes, beats, impulses, hits) that occur in a given period of time. Unchanging density tends sooner or later to stasis. For example, if an audible percussive event occurs on every 16th of every beat, after a while the groove will become static, predictable, dull.
Changing density makes passages dynamic. If some 16ths are skipped, others accented or played very softly, others subdivided into 32nds or even 64ths (ie, a roll), the groove becomes less predictable, more engaging. Unless the goal is to induce a trance state via rote repetition, variety of density is a key factor in keeping your listeners tuned in.
Another key determinant of flow is the rate at which new material is served up. Just like unchanging density, unchanging material tends to stasis. No matter how gorgeous a beat loop might be, if it repeats long enough without any dropouts or additions, it begins to sound mechanical and dead. Build-ups are compelling because of the gradual accretion of new material, layer by layer: snare, plus hi-hat, plus kick, plus bass, plus effects, and so on. A skilful composer knows exactly when new material is needed to keep listeners creatively imbalanced; unsure of what’s coming next; interested.
Forward momentum is another key factor in musical flow, especially for high-energy genres such as dance or drum ’n’ bass. The beat must propel listeners forward in time, keep them moving internally and, in the case of dance genres, externally. Ambient, on the other hand, often works with zero or even backward momentum, in which the listener is encouraged to slow down, lose themself in contemplation, listen to the moment or perceive echoes from earlier passages in the piece.
On the global level (that of the entire piece), flow manifests through the interplay of longer sections (typically between four and 32 bars). In electronica, these sections generally include: intros and closings, build-ups, mains, dropouts, bridges and breaks. The way that a piece’s sections arise, develop and transition among each other gives way to a kind of ‘plot line’. The dramatic contour of a well-plotted piece generates a suspenseful and riveting sonic story, thus keeping listeners engaged.
No one can tell you exactly how to work the flow of your pieces. Your personal musical flow is as idiosyncratic and unique as your personal sense of melody, rhythm, timbre. Become aware of your unique flow, develop it, stay true to it – in the end, your music will love you for it!
Music is (un)filled with silence.
On the macro level this silence occurs between movements, sections, passages, phrases, and even single notes: gaps in sound-time. On the micro level it occurs within every sonic event, at the infinitesimal points when the sound waves attain zero amplitude (zero crossings).
Silence can be pure (absolute) or coloured (relative). Pure musical silence occurs when all sound generation halts: a fortissimo climax followed by a two-second pause. Coloured musical silence occurs when the sound level drops to a whisper, sometimes to the very threshold of inaudibility: a dropout where a loud passage gives sudden way to a very soft sub-bass drone.
After spending time in an anechoic chamber, Cage declared that there was no such thing as absolute silence: “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”
Silence in music is normally thought of as absence. One has a block of sound and removes chunks from it, a form of subtractive synthesis. This is the sculptor’s way of composing; you chip away bits of the piece until it finds its ideal form.
To create music using the silence-as-absence approach, you begin by writing a passage (groove, melodic line, chord progression) of substantial density. You then listen, over and over, to your passage until you find where it wants to pause, hold back, stutter, breathe. Then you silence audio by reducing its volume to (near) inaudibility, or insert silences between events.
You can also regard silence as a presence in music. This is similar to additive synthesis, in that sound accrues upon silence. It is the painterly way of composing: you start with a blank canvas (silence) and add colours and shapes to it.
To create music using the silence-as-presence approach, you begin with emptiness and add sonic objects to it: single notes, phrases, loops, layers, sections, etc. In general, pieces composed this way tend to be sparser and softer than those composed using the silence as absence approach, since the starting point is pure silence. If you truly love silence, you don’t want to impose unnecessary sound on it.
Check out my most recent album, Groove Quotient, released by Brainstorm Lab.
It’s the closest I’ve come (so far) to bridging my two main compositional worlds: avant-garde Euro atonality + quasi-pop electronica/IDM. Julian at Brainstorm Lab pretty much nailed it: “Classically trained composer rachMiel electronically decomposes himself.”