Friday, February 12, 2016
Notes on "Making Music"
Here are some random and scattered thoughts on Dennis DeSantis' book Making Music: 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers. As I said when I finished it, even though the book is aimed at, well, electronic music producers, there's much in it that can apply to all musicians, even improvisers working in areas where overall planning and detailed construction of orchestrated melodies and motifs don't really come into play. Although when I write it that way, it occurs to me that even in improv there's a fair amount of sound construction going on. I do try to aspire to what I think the best improvisers do, which is to improvise compositionally, to build a sense of structure of some sort from the flimsiest of platforms: thin air.
So DeSantis' book is organized around a series of possible problems and practical solutions to those problems, which is a nice way to get at many of the snags and hitches that can arise during the creative process. For example, in "Drums to Pitches and Vice Versa" (p. 194), he writes about the problem of coming up with appropriate melodic or harmonic ideas for already-existing drum patterns (or vice versa). One idea he offers is to use a melodic line for one instrument (say, bass) to trigger patterns from entirely different instruments (say, drums). How does that apply to my playing drums in an improvised context? Simply this: I listen closely to what the other players are doing, and sometimes emulate their lines (or sounds) on the drums. It doesn't match exactly, of course, but the inspiration is there and ready to expound on. I didn't need DeSantis to make me think of this; it's something I've developed on my own--but DeSantis does make me consider that process and how it fits into my improvisational toolkit.
A related idea he has is increasing your supply of rhythmic ideas by creating random loops from different sources and emulating the patterns that emerge ("Implied Rhythms in Short Loops," p. 146). Now this is something I have toyed with in the past but not pursued with focus. Reading about it will help me to be more aware of the rhythms and sounds around me, and while I won't be capturing any sounds out in the wild to make loops with, I will be listening for patterns and beats I can incorporate into my playing.
Two interesting concepts he deals with directly apply to some of the directions I've taken with my playing over the last few years: "Avoidance List" (p. 26) and "Arbitrary Constraints" (p. 42). If you find your music getting in a rut, repeating the same ideas, he suggests breaking the music down into its various components ("attributes") and experimenting with creating music while avoiding some of them. Similarly, you can try applying certain constraints on your music before you even begin (he suggests things like making every sound from one sample). I have pursued solutions like these by reducing my kit in various ways, sometimes limiting myself to just a floor tom and a cymbal, or just snare and hi-hat. Granted, sometimes this has been for practical reasons (it's hard to justify lugging the entire kit for a 15-minute gig!), but for a while there I was doing it purposefully. It definitely broadened my horizons, forcing me to explore different sonic possibilities with a limited set of sound sources. I was influenced in this direction by the example of Ian Davis, who I saw one time sit behind his whole kit and only play chains on top of his snare for an entire 45-minute set, all the while making it interesting and musical. I have often found myself limiting my playing to certain pieces of the kit even when I have all of it in front of me. Of course, it doesn't always work: once I decided to only play what I could find in an old suitcase of second-tier discarded toys and percussion instruments I'd recently rediscovered that'd been in the attic for years. Turned out they'd been in the attic for a reason--but that's experimentation for you.
Of course, not all of DeSantis' suggestions work for me, which is only natural. For example, "Write drunk; edit sober" (p. 46), while wonderful advice for a producer, doesn't really work for me with improv: there, I've got to do my editing on the spot, and the challenge is to do that while, if not drunk, then pleasantly buzzed...on the music. Overall, though, Making Music is a great way to jump start different thought processes on the whole wonderful activity.