Recently I asked the members of Electronic Music Philosophy a question. The question was the following one: You are asked to write a motto for every electronic music maker to remember at all times. What motto do you give them?
The question was, of course, a trick one. It was a trick question because, conceivably, every answer given could be right and every answer given could be questioned. There was no possible answer on which everyone would agree or to which everyone would have had to assent. It was, then, merely an excuse for a discussion. Or a blog. But then the question was set in the context of a Facebook group set up to encourage thought and discussion about electronic music. So its purpose was served. And I was very happy to find that I got quite a selection of answers. Some of these were jokey and not serious. These people are not yet aware that I never joke when I'm talking about electronic music but good humour dictates that I let their answers stand. Perhaps if they are reading this now they have become aware. It may be that as I now discuss some of the answers that were given I make a fool of myself by taking as serious something that wasn't. However, for the purposes of this blog I need to and so I will have to hope that the discussion overall is judged worthwhile at the end. Of course, before starting to argue against all the people in the group I'd like to thank them for taking the trouble at all. And now I'm going to tell you why your mottos were all wrong.
There were some mottos that suggested that what was required was industry or effort. Examples of this would be "just keep patchin ooooon," "Always do more than the machines" and "Get back to work". But I question whether electronic music is about work or effort. Of course, many will say that it is. They will point out that its only when you work that the synapses can start to fire and ideas take shape. By working you start to put your habits to work and enable what you are thinking to take effect. But yet it remains the case that you can just have an idea and bring it to life relatively simply. I myself use a kind of inspirational idea of music in practice. It remains a mystery to me why what I do that I like for an extended period thereafter is "good" and why other things I've done are "bad". But I know it has nothing to do with effort for often I have barely made any but the results are fine. Other times (a few!) I've made lots and it isn't. I cannot distinguish between my good pieces and bad ones on the basis of some kind of effort to results ratio. I doubt anyone can.
Perhaps the polar opposite of the "hard work" mentality in the answers given was the one which praised thinking. Examples here are "Get quiet and think," Do not forget to listen," "Start by silence" and "study music". Of course, you might expect that I have more sympathy with such answers but not simply so. Now I am never going to write in this blog that you shouldn't think in general terms but I am going to ask what you should be thinking about. If this thinking is a mere stroking of your musical egos then I am more firmly against it. Thinking is your opportunity to not do what you always do or what you want to do or what you might like as a result. Thinking is your chance to design an idea or a technique or a strategy for something you haven't done before and don't necessarily know the outcome to. So I'm more against the kind of thinking which studies conventions or enshrines ways of working that either the musical body as a whole or you yourself have canonized and more in favour of using thinking to think of new ways for you to do things. If you are going to think, don't waste it.
One idea which cropped up in the answers I was definitely against. This was the idea that you should do something you will like. No person who reads and is stimulated by reading John Cage can go along with this. Examples here are "Make the music you want to hear" and "Make music you love and others will love it too". The second idea there I simply don't believe not least because very many people make very private music. This is not least in that the internal sense of the music they make is very attuned to a particular person, the one who made it. It may not have been made to be widely liked for, in that, it loses the sense of being the music of a single soul that created it. Music is not simply communication nor is it simply made to amuse or entertain others. And, to be honest, I'm not sure if it should even be made "to be loved" at all in the first place. I also absolutely don't think we should be making what we want to hear. In fact, I think the opposite. I think that is a lot of the problem with why many hit a roadblock when making music. They want to make something they would like. On the contrary, I say that you should surprise yourself. You should make something you might not like and then challenge yourself to change so that you can come to like it. Music making is not ego stroking. It is consciousness expanding.
Some responses I got I especially liked. These are because they were both thoughtful and enigmatic in themselves. They challenged me and made me think about them. This is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping for. So "the more you think about music, the less you feel it" intrigued me because it suggested that something not necessarily cognitive, feeling, perhaps intuition, was important. And I couldn't agree more here. Thinking is one thing and has its uses, as mentioned above, but there are other human things which are no less important. Feeling or mood or intuition are some of these things. And this is nothing to do with knowledge or logic. It is allowing yourself to be guided, giving up micro-control. In a world when so much of music and so many music discussions are dominated by ideas of professionalism or what is the "right" way to do things I want to be that guy who constantly says there is no right way. Following a feeling or just doing something at random are equally as valid. There is no optimum place to put your speakers. There is no ideal way to use compression. There are just people who do things and sonic results. Stop getting bogged down in the idea music is about knowledge and just feel. Then have the confidence to go where your feelings take you. You cannot go wrong because there is no wrong.
Some of this attitude was mirrored in a number of answers, I'm happy to say. A number of people talked about breaking rules which is both good and bad in my view. Its good that they want to break them and advise others to do the same but its bad that they ever thought there were any rules to begin with. Of course, most people when getting into some interest start off very straight and play according to what the rules of their particular game appear to be. I remember the first music I made. It was a carbon copy of things I liked informed by reading articles in Sound on Sound magazine about what the right way to do things was (or the right way in 1985 when I started buying it). But the resulting music was a very bad, unfeeling, join the dots, kind of copy of the things I liked, things I had merely tried to imitate. In layman's terms, it was utter crap. I thought about this for years and had a couple of periods of doing nothing at all, trying to figure out why it was so dull and stilted. And then it hit me that I was trying to conform to someone else's ideas. Or even a whole industry's. I stopped buying Sound on Sound or, indeed, paying attention to what others thought was right. I started trying to do what I felt and disregarded any rules. Indeed, I tried to forget anyone else had any. That's when I started to get somewhere. So yes, Ian Haygreen, your answer "Everything's permissible. Including the kitchen sink" is absolutely correct!
I didn't answer my own question when I made it. I wanted to see what everyone else said and then use a blog to set mine out. So I didn't answer because to do so would have stolen my thunder here. The answer I would give, which is equally as wrong and as challengeable as everyone else's, is "Be interesting and explore something". I say this because, first, it is meant to be a motto which is a kind of guiding thought or direction in which to head and I think we all need those. Without them we are simply inert. But I also think that because I think music should be about something. This can be an idea, an experiment, a feeling, a mood, or anything that can be explored musically, that is, in sound. So my motto is giving impetus and direction. But its also giving a purpose and a standard, its saying that you should aim for something, try to do what you are capable of and not stay in a comfort zone. "Be interesting and explore something" is about taking a risk and perhaps even getting into trouble.
Because electronic music shouldn't be safe, right?