Some music notes

27 June 2016

I wanted to gather various notes about musical things I’ve been up to or enjoying. It seemed sensible to write them all down.

I suppose, most notably for me, I’ve been making music again. What do I mean by ‘again’? I guess I mean ‘with a degree of conviction and purpose’. I’ve always been tinkering with composition and production again – mainly at arms’ length – over the past, well, 10 years. But I’ve never quite settled into the routines I had in my late teens and early twenties, when, in what once upon a time might have been called ‘a tiny bedroom project studio’ I recorded some quite bad electronic music that almost nobody’s ever heard.

It may have been quite bad, but I was turning up and doing the work. Then, life happened, and I stopped.

Somehow, in the past 12-24 months, I’ve slowly been getting back in the saddle. Not just tinkering from time to time, but doing so with a degree of purpose; something like conviction.

Some of what’s changed is giving myself a surprising amount of permission to fail. I have no huge ambitions; in the list of goals my partner and I shared with each other at New Year, I said (as one of mine) “I’d like to record four pieces of music I’m happy with in the next twelve months“. Four doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? But that makes it achievable. I’m fantastic at setting myself unrealistic goals and then being disappointed. Rampant realism was important to me.

By those goals: I’m succeeding, and definitely on track to make that much. I’m slowly finding something like a voice, even if my approach is somewhat scattergun.

You can see that I’m dancing about the subject, can’t you? Not saying what it is or showing off. That’s partly down to a degree of caution and, frankly, the fact it’s very exposing to talk about creative work. Somebody in my circles – and I’m afraid I forget who – pointed out that at some point, around the dawning of Web 2.0, hobbies became performative (it crops up in this newsletter from Dan Hon, but I’m sure I came across it a while before). We did things we enjoyed, but sharing the output was part of the validation. Look at me! I’d been a photography enthusiast since I was a young teenager, but Flickr changed a lot of things about what that interest meant, and how it was perceived.

And whilst I was perfectly happy to share my photo albums – perhaps even joining in the performance of promotion, or over-sharing, or making things in order for them to be liked… music is much more personal for me. I’m acutely aware I don’t meet the standards I set for myself, and actively don’t want to self-justify.

It has been liberating keeping so much to myself for the past two years. Even if most of it went in the virtual bin, I have to remind myself that I enjoy the process and that time spent enjoying oneself is time well spent.

Right now, though, it feels like things are slowly sticking; that I’ve started to move forward the tiniest bit, rather than turning in circles. So I wanted to write about that. This is why, if you follow me on Instagram, there are occasionally cryptic photos of instruments, or computer screens, or strange electronics.

Interlude: here’s a piece I wrote a few months’ back:

One of the things I’m also doing is “making things to make music with”. The past twelve months has seen me spend more and more time building things to make sound with. Yes, I’ve tinkered a lot with Arduinos and so forth in the past – but I’m now at the point of building (though not exactly ‘designing’) analogue circuits, designing and manufacturing PCBs, and so forth.

It’s very satisfying making things to make with. Much like building any kind of tool, I guess – although more interesting when you’re building things to afford creative possibility, rather than straight utility. As part of this, I’ve been getting into modular synthesis, building a small and esoteric Eurorack synthesizer. Some of the things I’ve been building for it might become open-source, or shared as kits; currently, I’m trying to take a prototype of a particular module that some people have been enthusiastic about to Brighton Modular this weekend.

And, of course, I built a touchscreen music box over the past six months. That reminded me how much I enjoy working in and around this space, and how I’d like to spend more time making that part of my practice.

But it’s not just about making and gadgets. The point of all this is turning up. So some days I just play and don’t hit record. Some days, I do. Some days, I take advantage of a nearby piano and rattle through some standards. Playing in every sense of the word is what’s important.

I’ve also been taking part in a few Disquiet Juntos. They’re run by Marc Weidenbaum over long weekends; one a week. Each is a provocation to make sound or music or both or neither; a constraint to start with. (“[Weidenbaum] writes reviews of music that doesn’t exist yet and then gets internet strangers to make it.“). Some of my entries were given up on when it was clear they weren’t going anywhere; others have been more surprising. Here’s one, my response to treat the notes that make up a chord:

The juntos force you to examine process a bit – but also listen to very different responses to the same provocation. It’s also striking how happy I am with the outcomes – a few might get polished a bit more into longer pieces.

Oh, and every other month or so, I’m singing again, with this lot. That helps: a brilliant way to clear and empty my head.

I’ve been spending some time in musical communities, too. I’ve found much of the community around modular synthesis depressingly gear-focused in the least interesting ways; the Pokémon-like attitude of so many modular fans is exhausting – not to mention almost antithetical to the idea of building an instrument. The DIY synth community is a lot of fun, though, and I’ve particular enjoyed spending time at Lines, the monome community forum: it has an attitude and thoughtfulness that’s very welcome.

And finally, I’ve been enjoying a fair few podcasts:

  • Why We Listen is wonderful: Marc Kate talks to interviewees about three pieces of music they’ve chosen to listen to; not nearly as Desert Island Discs as it sounds, but great to take time over listening.
  • Meet the Composer is wonderful – deep, meaty, well-produced, it interviews modern classical composers about their process in depth.
  • Radio 3’s Composers’ Rooms is lovely, in part because of its pared-down nature: short, focused conversations with composers about their workspaces, which vary wildly. Nice as audio documentary for its necessarily heavy amount of acutality; it’s a very simple programme but Sara is a great interviewer, and the conversations are meaningful and concise.
  • Darwin Grosse’s Art + Music + Technology does what it says on the tin. Tends to focus on a few particular communites – modern electronic composition, modular synthesis, the Max-and-similar world, computational music – but again, by giving interviewees time to think and discourse, Darwin goes some interesting places fast. Nicely connects the technical and artistic – and never loses site of the artistic nature of all music technology; the plusses in the title are very deliberate.
  • And, of course, Song Exploder, which felt like a neat secret when I started listening and is, of course, now wildly popular. Fair play; it’s an accessible format, well produced, and speaks to that need of wanting to understand the art we see and here.

One final piece. I wrote this last weekend, mainly on a QWERTY laptop keyboard, as an entry into Junto 233. I wasn’t sure it’d turn into anything, but doing everything on earbuds and a laptop keyboard felt like another interesting constraint.

I’m keeping going, making the path by walking, under this moniker that seems to feel about right for what I want to do, even if the music I’m making isn’t always living up to it yet. I’m probably not talking about it again for a long while. But it’s freeing doing this for myself, for finding a way to share something without feeling a need to make it for a particular audience or listener, and seeing what – and who – sticks.