Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Random Machines and Indeterminacy Engines: My Latest Projects And Other Ramblings

This week I have been conducting some musical experiments. Or writing albums as the rest of you might call it. Recently I had been doing some thinking about how I make my music and what informs that process because I thought that this was an important thing to do. Many people, or so it seems, have a pre-determined notion in their head about this or are informed by supposed "professional" notions of the process. I was content with neither of these things and determined to think for myself through the issues.

I came to the conclusion that I was a major hurdle in creating new and vibrant music. In fact, I came to the conclusion that all of us are. We can only make music as ourselves. We are informed by notions of what is right and wrong and have personal preferences regarding how things should be. We will always favour this synth sound over that one or that guitar tone in preference to another. It is human to have preferences. Let me make it clear that these things, and our choices, affect what comes out of our speakers to a much greater degree than any fiddling or messing with faders as we mix what we have recorded. And yet how much time have you given to this major conceptual premise of any music-making as opposed to the latter? Maybe not as much as you should have.

So its my intuition that people don't think enough about what it is they are doing. A fair chunk of the time you allocate to your project should not be doing anything else but thinking about it, conceptualising it. What are you trying to achieve? What will you use? Is there anything you especially want to try out? Is your music meant to represent, or even reproduce or create, any idea or emotion? The questions you find relevant to your project will be your own. But there should be questions. And there should be some conceptual weight behind what you are doing. Otherwise you are just playing. That's fine. But it is what it is. Work that has pretentions to be art needs to be more than play. Unless "just play" is the artform!

As you may know, recently I have been exploring randomness and chance in music in an effort to escape the gravitational pull of my own choices. I had stumbled upon John Cage and read some of his writings. In more recent weeks I have thought this through in my own context and limitations. Its a necessarily on-going process. In the last week I recorded two projects, Random Machines and Indeterminacy Engine. They are, to lesser and greater degrees, works of controlled randomness. Crucial decisions, ones that a musical creator would usually consciously choose because they wanted to determine what happened in the music, were purposely taken from my hands by utilizing tools which allowed random choices to be made.

In the first project, Random Machines, I conceived of random talking over a musical background, the two not in anyway meant to coincide. This is taken from an idea John Cage and David Tudor utilized way back in 1959. There Cage read out one minute stories in one room whilst Tudor played piano and manipulated tape in another. Neither knew what the other was doing or when. In my case I read out the blog of a friend on Twitter that just happened to be advertised as I was thinking of my idea, taking that as my text to be read out. For the music I set up some random instruments in Propellerhead Reason. And then I married the two together.

My second experiment was more thorough-going in its randomness. I set up what I chose to call an "Indeterminacy Engine", a device (actually 2 devices in the end) that was created with the express intention of allowing as much randomness as possible. I again chose Reason as the perfect environment for this experiment with its proliferation of cables and utilization of CV control in software form. This allowed all manner of things to be connected to a sequencer and controlled using CV curves or gate and pitch events which could be drawn and plotted at random and programmed to change throughout the tracks recorded. Thus, the instruments could essentially be operated at random outside of choosing the sounds they played. This was my concession to the creator's vanity.

As was stated, I created two Indeterminacy Engines, one for synth sounds and one for percussion sounds. The percussion engine was centred around two drum modules with the sounds individually wired into a mixer so that send effects could be used on individual drum sounds in varying amounts. However, as the drum kits and patterns were to also be randomized how this might work out in practice was another unknown. It was a neat but controllable way of allowing the randomness to happen. With all this set up, I randomized the patterns and changed sound sets between pieces in order to create the 8 track album.

But the question is what, if anything, do I learn from this?

One thing I learn, and talking to my friend Jeff who is currently mixing every frequency of his latest project to within an inch of it's life this is confirmed, is that the idea is to get the sounds as right as they can be at the start of your project rather than at the finish. This also informs how I create my projects. You will never find me running 60, 80 or 100 tracks. I usually can do it in under 8 because I don't wish to complicate matters, either deliberately or undeliberately. This, you might say, is my iconoclastic or eccentric approach to things. Yes, I will quite happily tell "the professionals" to go and stuff themselves and take their received wisdom with them. All the genuinely creative people did it their own way anyway. And doing it "like a pro" guarantees you nothing but that you sound like someone else's idea of what correct is. Big deal. "Being pro" is the excuse of someone who doesn't have the nous to think for themselves. (Too harsh?)

I have always believed that when it comes to music you should really just keep it as simple as possible. For years I never touched a dial. I just recorded what I did and that was it. Over time I learned that a bit of reverb added some presence and that to keep your music from sounding dull you emphasize the high frequencies a little on your master output. I'm not advising anyone here. To be honest, I don't think its that important. What you decide to record, the ideas you have, matter much more to any music than tinker's tricks at a mixing desk. And no one has ever told me my music sounded bad for all my lack of "professional knowledge" (which I regard as dogma in any case). Some have told me it sounded good though. And for avoidance of doubt I'm making music for my ears anyway.

So I don't go overboard with a million tracks and 5 effects for each sound source. I don't spend 5 days trying to get just the right amount of convolution reverb. I set it and forget it, usually using the same settings for any and every project I do. It works. I keep it simple and I look for good sounds to use. "Always get your sound right as near to the sound source as possible" was something I once remember reading. Its really good advice I think. It saves a lot of the interminable hassle of recording. And have a good idea, I would add.

As far as all the randomness goes I am learning that you need to control it. We live on planet earth but how many other planets, that we know of, could we live on? The point in that example is that randomness may provide staggering beauty quite by chance but more often than not it supplies inhospitable conditions. Clearly, when applied to music, uncontrolled randomness could supply 100 million terribly sounding tracks. And one good one. But none of us have time for that so my experiments are teaching me that it is about finding ways to tame the chance elements and utilize and control them to produce musically pleasing results. You have to ride the wave of chaos. That's an on-going journey I am making and my experiments are encouraging me to do so. The end game is to widen and deepen my musical world, to go places I could never consciously go because my preferences would always lead me down similar paths. I don't want to keep repeating myself and so I must always try new things and move on.

We musicians need to remember that there is truly no right and wrong way to do things. I see and hear so many people burdened by how they think it should be done who would never have it occur to them to question or even explore the possibilities for themselves. Arguments from authority (which is all all the "pro" talk is) reinforced by magazines, media and professionals themselves have never impressed me because I am basically anti-authoritarian. So do what works. Do what sounds good in your ears. Do what you enjoy. You cannot go wrong. You can't. You might even write a Tubular Bells, Oxygene or Dark Side of The Moon one day. Because no one knows what will come out of their speakers as they sit down to write. Mike Oldfield, JMJ and Pink Floyd didn't know either. Until they checked their bank balances. Music is the world of the possible, of the being bold enough to dream. If you are lucky you might capture that dream but you have to be prepared to dream in the first place.

And that leads me to my last point. If you make instrumental music don't let anyone tell you it isn't popular. As I tweeted a day or two ago, there are instrumental albums that have sold in 8 figure numbers. The world record for the greatest concert attendance has been held by Jean Michel Jarre numerous times (and still is at 3.5 million for a concert in Moscow). This is not indicative of music that is "not popular". I believe that electronic instrumental musicians actually choose a harder and better job for themselves. Singing is for the mainstream where people only want to sing the words back. But when you have no words the tune or, as with my interest, more especially the sounds must carry much more weight. That is what interests me and its not a lesser form of music. It is, for my money, a more interesting one.

Should you wish to, you can hear Random Machines and Indeterminacy Engine at

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