Thursday, 1 October 2015

Evaluating Music

It comes to the last quarter of the year. So it goes the Earth, round and round. Its easy to feel that we are going in circles. We are. But its ever spiraling ones. Maybe those of us who make music are doing that too. Ever on and on we go, pushed by some urge we cannot offset. We must make more. We get frustrated because its just more of the same. We want to create but we don't know what. We make something and then hate it. Then we love it. Then we hate it again. Circles, circles, spirals.

I suffer from various maladies many of which come into their full effect as the days draw in, as they do at this time of year for us Northern Hemisphere folk round about now. So its never a time I look forward to. I've probably had at least 2 major breakdowns in the month of October. (Why am I telling you this? Not sure. Its not really relevant.) For this reason I thought I would scale back the music (which, on past history, is always the worst I produce from October to December) anticipating some sort of personal crisis and concentrate on what I had done in the first nine months of the year. (Its not working out that way. I keep feeling a Dionysian ecstasy come over me and I head into... The Void to make more!)

And so I looked back at the over 20 volumes of stuff I had done in those nine months. I officially started making music this year on January the 12th. At the time I was reading about Nazi concentration camps and wanting to watch sci fi films. One such film I watched was Under The Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, a tale of an alien who disguises herself as a tasty temptress to lure unsuspecting Scotsmen to their untimely deaths. Now the soundtrack to that film was already outstanding (and must by now be surely award winning) but as I started to make music I conceived of what I was doing as an alternate soundtrack for that film - all mixed in with a soundtrack to concentration camps too. Harsh and serious stuff. What came out was soundtrack, music for film, something dramatic.

So that was the beginning. But I wanted to do more than just re-trace my steps over. I wanted to rank or grade or judge the music I had made. What was better and what was worse? I don't really have any quality control on the music I make. What happens at the time is what you get. I don't start off with any idea and try to realize it. The idea forms in the Dionysian ecstasy and that is what remains when the switches are flicked to the off position. I'm relieved to find that that approach works, more often than not. Actually, MUCH more often than not. So the idea of then judging it (implicitly by some kind of standard that I don't actually have when I make it) is a very strange one. Its been made more strange by my reading of John Cage (about which much more at the start of my blog if you go searching). Cage thinks music should not be about subjective judgments at all. And that is not how 99% of the world thinks. Most people value subjective judgment and deliberation. But Cage does not. He thinks it is a problem to be got over and not a solution to anything. And like a good contrarian I'm happy to go along with the guy who takes the lesser trod path.

But how do you judge music? You might be staring at this now and thinking I am mad. It's easy, after all. We just all do it instinctively. Judging, that is. This is good. This is bad. This sounds great. That is terrible. I have a problem with all this. Its true of course and it can't be avoided. But its not at all..... rational! Of course, its not even true that we are consistent in our judgments. And this is because we don't use hard and fast rules to do it. We may hate all Country music. I would say that I do. But I like Johnny Cash singing about the Tennessee Stud! I don't like Thrash Metal but if I listen to enough of it there'd be one I got into. Our judgments are there to make fools of us it seems.

It doesn't change when you judge your own work. Now some music people are very fastidious (read: slow) in going about their work. Fine, its their business. But this lends them a certain quality control that I don't have the luxury of. I work on instinct and inspiration so there is not months of time in which I tell myself to stop and not do something and go in a different direction like those other people. For me its all about NOW. And now is only ever a moment grasped... that slips away. And what you are left with is the memory. And hopefully a recording of what happened during it. This means that so much decision time and thinking time is just not there. And so I have to look back on a retrospective collection of moments I had throughout my year when I listen back to my music.

In judging I was very conscious of what I was doing. Its totally subjective and arbitrary, of course. All matters of taste are these things. There is no rational way of saying A is better than B. You are only ever giving a subjective, gut view on things. Often you might not even know why. You just know you FEEL this way. And feelings can't always be explained.

I determined to pick out the best track of each project I had done, in my very subjective view, and then collect these together. From these I would make a top 20 tracks of the year. Then I would whittle it down to 10, 5, 3 and, finally, my best song of the year. I want to count down the top 10 below and say why. It explains my process and my views on music - which is what this blog is about!

10. Eschatology (from Human/Being X) This is from the last album of my Human/Being project which lasted ten albums and a number of blog articles in the first half of the year. The style of much of the music in these albums, and in this track, was mostly Berlin School style evolving synth patterns with some synth pad wash on the side. Eschatology is a perfect example of this style of music which I have been studying closely for about a year now. Its thoughtful, progressive and analog sounding.

9. String Theory (from The Existenz Equation) Another Berlin School style track. I've only moved away from the style in the last couple of months as it inevitably broke down under its own creative weight and turned into something else (another consequence of a high turnover of music). Here the sequences overlap and repeat and there's a kick drum setting tempo which gets some percussive help later on. This track is showing how I progress using the Berlin School style.

8. Infinity (from Zeitlos) More Berlin School but this time slower and atmospheric, a song of textures. I'm so very glad when songs like this come out because I like to think they are in there somewhere.

7. Dionysos (from Trickster) A Berlin School tour de force. Slow, evolving, a repeating bass squelch all over it. But with great chord pads and spacey sound FX to go with it. Its not a matter of progress though (this track is much more recent). It just happens in the moment.

6. Eight (from The Void is an Oszillator!) A song from only the last couple of weeks. The Berlin School model has been taken and played with. What we have here is still a long, evolving track but the sounds are much more dynamic and generally more has been done with it. Note also the rhythms. And those sounds! Very lush. Luxury music in my eyes.

5. Weak Nuclear Force (from Forces of Nature) This one is more electronic instrumental than recognizably Berlin School. Of course, the first is a development of the latter which basically wrote the book on long, evolving electronic music. Incidentally, only one of these top 10 tracks is under 10 minutes long. The longest is almost 18 minutes.  Music this year has been about building a mood or riding a wave. The challenge is not to fall off. This track is one where I play a bit more than just arranging sequences to play off each other.

4. Refugee (from Intoxication) Another recent track and I have no idea how to describe it. The main "riff", if that's what it is, was just there in some synthesizer when I played it a certain way and I started to build around that using the techniques I'd employed for 8 months before. It sounds kind of glorious and hopeful to me. Its not a sad song about refugees. Its about their struggle for life!

3. Zeit (from Existenz²) This is peak Berlin School for me - but my adapted version of it. I love this song primarily for the sounds which seem raw and real. Its 17 minutes long but I never want it to stop. The metallic base and the way it churns and grinds leaves me always wanting more. Its kind of appropriate its called "Zeit" (German for "time") because I see both the idea and the song as all-encompassing things. If songs are there to express and communicate moods or ideas then this does to me.

2. Crisis Moment (from Doktor Existenz) The stand out track from my super hero spoof album. This is the shortest track here at 8 minutes. Its like a mini, condensed popular version of the longer songs. Again, its about the sounds - which stand out. And how all the elements just work together. Again, there is keyboard playing here - such as I am capable of. It feels good to know I can make a song like this and it is within my capabilities. I especially love the beat which has been hip-hopped up (including my characteristic deliberate mis-timings and missteps). It makes this song more modern.

1. Fünf (from Within The Void) And so this is the track I judge my best of the year. And it only happened a few days ago. But I'm sure it will stand the test of time. It marries that Berlin School sensibility I had all year with more great sound choices and an electro beat. I'd claim credit for it but, you know, shit just happened!

But then that's music. Its not rational. Its just moments. Enjoy the ones you can.


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