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Making Music in 2019

My creative goal for the year

Earlier this month I launched Tinnitus Tracker, my last big personal creative project left over from 2018. That frees me up to get down to business on my main creative goal for 2019: making music.

I’m a lifelong music fanatic and always wanted to be able to call myself a musician, but I didn’t get around to really making an effort until about ten years ago, when I started taking guitar lessons. I had to cut the lessons off after a year when I moved from Boston to New York, and my subsequent unstructured self-education didn’t get me very far before it effectively fizzled out. Time to get back on the horse.

The goal

I want to make a musical recording this year. This is an exploratory goal, so I can’t be much more specific yet, except to say that I want the recording to be the product of a concerted effort to better understand music and how I can speak through it. It might just be one song, or it might be a collection of songs, or it might take some form I haven’t yet imagined. We’ll see. Ordinarily I’d be uncomfortable with a goal this nebulous, but for now I’m optimistic.

The plan

Here’s what I want to work on:

Theory/composition

For whatever reason, I’ve long regarded music theory as somewhat arcane and impenetrable, and consequently, past attempts to learn were effectively abandoned before they really started. As a designer, I’m a big believer in structured constraints, and a number of the concepts that guide my work in typography, layout, and color are shared with music theory (e.g. scales). I want a similarly educated approach to hearing and composing music, and to develop a deliberate method that knows the rules and when to break them. After perusing the dizzying landscape of music theory books, I settled on Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory, and have begun working my way through the basics.

Technique/performance

If you give me some guitar tabs and time to practice, I can play a composed work on guitar (provided it’s not too complex). What I can’t really do is participate in musical dialogue. I don’t want to form a jam band, and I have no expectation of improvising on “Giant Steps,” but do I want to be a more conversational player, and to be able to more fluidly express myself with the guitar and better use it as a compositional tool. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, “I bought this guitar” but I haven’t yet “learned how to make it talk.” After a brief hunt for a new guitar teacher, my buddy Smo connected me with his friend Oscar, a veteran musician, producer, and teacher who has started me on sight-reading with Hal Leonard’s Guitar Method.

Recording/production

I’ve dabbled in recording here and there over the years, enough to deeply respect the skills of a good audio engineer. The art of layering and blending frequencies is still pretty mystical to me, and I’d like to make it less so. In addition, I want to learn more about the nuts and bolts of MIDI technology, as it’s central to the writing and recording I’m doing at home, and will be the connective tissue between the music and corresponding visuals I want to experiment with. Recording and production proficiency is the lowest priority in the broader goal, since it won’t do me any good before I’m able to make something worth recording and producing. So there aren’t any specific plans in place for this just yet.

The music

I have an off-and-on tradition of recording Misfits covers for Halloween. The melodic punk sound I’ve developed through them suits my current skills and I’d like to continue playing around with it. But I also want to try some other things, and I recently put together a playlist of songs that have ideas I’d like to explore.

  1. Atlas (Dawn of Midi): It’s about rhythm above all else. Melody barely factors in. The composition is as spare as can be, reduced to the absolute essentials. The instruments—which, though acoustic, evoke electronics—are like interlocking puzzle pieces, or like components in a segmented display.
  2. One Hour Empire (Broadcast): I love the looseness of the drums, how much air is in the recording, and the alchemy of distortion and reverb. It’s not quite a song, and there’s a tantalizing freedom in that lack of resolution.
  3. Walk (South): The dizzying layers of guitar loops and subtle phasing throughout invite scrutiny without overtly calling attention to themselves. The whole thing is reservedly pleasant and off-kilter.
  4. The Melting Sun (Tuatara): I like how the bells at the beginning are both tonal and atonal, and the relaxed simplicity of the bass and drums.
  5. Fit Song (Cornelius): Fascinating use of staccato. Every sound stabs as an individual entity, and especially in the song’s quietest moments, none of them interferes with another, even as they all work together. It reminds me of this film, in which a series of seemingly independent machines are revealed to be components in a complex organism.
  6. Ten-Day Interval (Tortoise): Pitchfork contributor Mark Richardson recently said it better than I could: “Tortoise’s take on Reichian repetition has an appealing pop edge to it, foregoing long-form trance induction and instead laying out a basic premise: tweak the rhythm with bits of piano, bass, and percussion, and get out.”
  7. You Are What Eats You (Palm): An exhibition of some of my favorite math-rock tropes: Everyone in the band is talking over each other, but their seemingly incompatible parts form a compelling whole, and occasionally they all come together in satisfying agreement.
  8. Audio Boxing (Isotope 217): This one does so much with so little. It’s a dead-simple bass line accompanied by the addition and subtraction of various layers of understated percussion. When the brass and guitar show up for a melodic coda, it’s something that might have seemed like an afterthought on paper, but it makes for a perfect denouement.
  9. Music for 18 Musicians: Section V (Steve Reich and Musicians): My longstanding admiration of Steve Reich’s brand of minimalism defies description (which I hope will be remedied somewhat by my theory studies), but for now, suffice it to say that his DNA is bound to be evident in whatever I end up doing, just as it is in several of the songs in this playlist.
  10. Tras 2 (Battles): For me, the weird time signatures are mostly the name of the game here, and I’d be fine listening to this if it were just drums (which it is eventually reduced to), but the confluence of guitar/bass/synth loops are undoubtedly also a worthy adventure.
  11. Terminus (Unwound): Sara Lund is one of my favorite drummers. Her work (which I’ve heard aptly described as “liquid [and] unhurried”) is stellar throughout this entire track, but of particular interest is the epilogue beginning at 7:06, especially the way Lund’s open hi-hat is choked by the snap of the snare, and the dreamy quality of that tremolo in the background.
  12. Surrender to the Night (Trans Am): This takes a somewhat similar approach to the Isotope 217 track above, but with less jazz and more drone. I like its sense of place: it introduces a space and takes you on a tour of the different colors and textures happening in its varied rooms.

The patterns found in my takeaways from these songs have helped me form some organizing principles around the music I want to make:

  • Minimalism (Steve Reich, Dawn of Midi), math rock (Battles, Palm), and post-rock (Tortoise, South) seem to be the main reference points.
  • Polyrhythm and percussion are the primary interests.
  • Vocals are irrelevant.
  • Melody is employed sparingly and avoids tidy resolutions and traditional appeals to emotion.
  • Common song structures are subverted or ignored.
  • Discord is an asset.
  • Spontaneity and rigidity each have their own rewards and needn’t be mutually exclusive.

With these things in mind, I’ve set up a workspace in the form of a Logic Pro template with built-in constraints to keep me focused. My “band” consists of a seven-piece drum kit, a synth bass, and a vibraphone, all played with an Akai MPK Mini mkII. I usually start with an idea for a beat, let that inspire a bass line, and then layer in the vibes. I’ve done a couple dozen sketches so far, mostly 16-bar grooves about 30 seconds long. A few examples:

I’m operating mostly on instinct now, and I still don’t know how I’m going to develop these sketches into bigger ideas or what they’ll ultimately sound like. It’ll be interesting to see how my approach evolves as my knowledge and skills improve, a process I hope to document in future posts. Onward!