Indeterminate composition techniques

In the music I make, for some reason, I am always persuaded to incorporate a certain amount of chance. In a way, I want the music as an experience to remain somewhat “new” to me when I first listen back to it, even though I made it. I also seek in some ways to make music that doesn’t sound like it is being “played”, but instead appears as though it just is. I guess in a way I am looking for a sort of lightness of hand. I think this is why in some ways I am attracted to the theories of John Cage. He believed in separating the self from music as much as possible in order to let something more subtle and natural come in to view, something unburdened by popular culture or personal intent. While I don’t take these concepts as seriously as Cage, I do firmly believe that no matter what we do, no matter how mundane, there is a piece of our personality fingerprint on all of it. No matter how far we stand back, no matter what we use to block it or smudge it, it is there, naked for anyone with the sense to look. What they see is the unconscious mind, the true self.

Unfortunately the conscious and unconscious minds are at constant war with one-another. The conscious mind has all of the emotional needs, paranoias, hang-ups, ego, etc. that we turn about in our heads daily to seek even the most basic understanding of our place in the world. It is a jungle of frauds and misperceptions that must be constantly unravelled like a ball of string that has been left in a junk drawer for too long, if we are to be of use to ourselves or anyone else for that matter. This fact makes it extremely difficult for us to do anything truly genuine. The network of opposing influences, misconceptions, misperceptions, hopes, needs, oversights, crutches, etc. etc. etc. that we must sort through to make any form of creative decision is so dense that most people will never manage to cut through it. This does not mean of course that we cannot make anything pleasing with our creative minds, but it will always be somewhat addled by the burden of consciousness.

One way to avoid the trappings of the consciousness, is to utilize chance, randomness, or generative processes to dampen it. Probably the most familiar form of this process is the cut-up, brought to some prominence by William S. Burroughs and popularized by David Bowie and later Kurt Cobain. While these techniques on the surface may seem “cold” or “scientific”, this assumption is in ignorance of an important point. As I stated above; we are never free from our unconscious mind, so that all the decisions we make in selecting and deploying our randomness techniques are governed by our innermost self and therefore, no matter how abstract, still form an image of ourselves. This image, expressly because it is so unconscious I believe, is the truest form of expression we have of who we are and in creativity, our overarching aesthetic sensibility.

In my personal musical explorations, this idea of “randomness” has taken many different shapes. the following are a few of the techniques I often employ:

Field recording and the use of physical spaces as a randomness field
I consider these to be one in the same as it applies to my music. I carry around a mini-disc recorder most of the time and at home I have a beat up, but no less sublime Marantz Field Recorder. Whenever sounds strike me as interesting or somehow meaningful, I record them and save them for later, usually with no real idea of how they will be used. When I have a need for something, I go through my recordings and select something I think will work, drop it into my composition somewhat randomly and listen to the results. At times I use it straight, at times I take pieces of it, and at times I process it somehow. Almost always this is done with some form of respect for randomness, so I try not to edit too much.

The use of spaces as a randomness field, is the idea of recording in some form of unstable environment (like a room with a window open to the street) so as to capture the juxtaposition of played and ambient sound and to inform the music with a sense of place in a direct manner.

Blind Overdubbing
This is the practice of overdubbing by recording a new track within a composition without listening to playback while doing so. This frees one from having any idea of time or composition and so the final result often contrasts with the rest of the piece in an unpredictable and interesting way.

Improvising with elastic time
This is simply allowing yourself to speed up or slowdown time in your playing at will. I often find that in doing so, more complex rhythmic structures emerge which I am not aware of at the time, but am always surprised by on playback.

Similar to Burroughs technique but with music. Parts are recorded and either cut up pseudo-randomly and placed back together, or, cut up based on some kind of rule, and reassembled by numbering and drawing.

Back to consciousness
All of these techniques can produce either wonderful or horrific results, and this is where the conscious mind comes back, but ultimately in a much more sober state, to make some kind of aesthetic sense of the mess. This is of course a fine line. With the advent of digital music editors (I use protools ironically enough) it could be very easy to edit everything into oblivion and destroy any of the piece’s subtler characteristics. Lets just say I try not to let myself get out of hand.

The ironic thing about all of this, is in order to communicate it here, I am forced to use language and descriptive techniques that inherently make this all sound very boring and intellectual. This is a shame, because in practice it is much more like playing a game. You have your strategies, but when push comes to shove, you are playing the game to have fun. Part of the fun of employing these techniques is seeing what kinds of interesting things come of them. It can be really cool to hear the result of a process for the first time, or the result of a blind overdub. And when something interesting or compelling does happen its very exciting.

The piece I am posting today was made with a few of the above techniques and I am quite pleased with it. With each new piece I apply these techniques to, they become more refined and my aesthetic for their use becomes sharper. In a way I feel like I am inventing my own form of music, even if that feeling is a complete illusion. Either way it is exciting, and a lot of fun.

– Birds, Bells, and Barnacles


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6 Responses to “Indeterminate composition techniques”

  1. the improvising guitarist Says:

    Hmm…. Now that you’ve captured (“strike me as interesting or somehow meaningful”), selected (“something I think will work”), deployed (“drop it into my composition”), it’s too late to have “respect for randomness”. Discuss.

    All of these techniques can produce either wonderful or horrific results, and this is where the conscious mind comes back, but ultimately in a much more sober state, to make some kind of aesthetic sense of the mess.

    You’ve already privileged the ‘unconscious’ with the status of the ‘true self’, why would you then want to bring the conscious (untrue? false? counterfeit?) self back into it?

    S, tig

  2. howsthatsound Says:

    Interesting comments, kind of assailing though. How dare you order me to “discuss” on my blog! (previous line to be delivered in the voice of the wizard of Oz, from the movie of the same name). I will “discuss” however, this is a blog afterall.

    “Hmm…. Now that you’ve captured (“strike me as interesting or somehow meaningful”), selected (“something I think will work”), deployed (“drop it into my composition”), it’s too late to have “respect for randomness”. Discuss.”

    You’re picking on my conscious choices here, as if I’m unaware of them. If I wanted pure randomness, I wouldn’t make anything at all. I respect randomness by my definition of respect. If you want to take the hard line here, stop making music, the only truely random “music” is pure environmental sound. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

    “You’ve already privileged the ‘unconscious’ with the status of the ‘true self’, why would you then want to bring the conscious (untrue? false? counterfeit?) self back into it?”

    Privileged is an interesting word choice, apparently you disagree with a wry, aloof, superiority hahaha. Yes the unconscious mind is the true self, it is everything we have ever experienced, sans the annoying habit of analyzation often undertaken by the conscious mind.
    Considering I’m attempting to make a piece of music, I cannot operate using only the unconscious mind… duh! I would if I could, my unconcious mind has really good taste. Yes of course, the conscious mind is untrue, false, counterfeit, as well as true, kinda true, maybe true, sorta deceptive, etc. if it wasn’t life would be extremely boring. Every had to think about something that you had a really tough time sorting out? Ah the simplicity of consciousness, hahaha.

    When it comes down to it, I do like “musical music”, (total abstraction is fun too, but I don’t see a need to do it since i’m… uh, completely immersed in it every day of my life!) so I at some point need to make conscious aesthetic choices. However, starting with a base that has bit of randomness in it, helps temper the fickle nature of my conscious mind and allows my unconscious mind to come to the party too. Fun is had by all.

    Anyway, don’t take this as a rant, it’s all just good natured ribbing. 😀

    Thanks for reading.

    ps- Your blog is good. You handle a lot of stuff I think about, but don’t have the patience to put words to.

  3. the improvising guitarist Says:

    Interesting comments, kind of assailing though. How dare you order me to “discuss” on my blog!

    Yeah, that I came across more aggressive than I thought—my apologies. I thought some issues warranted further unpacking, and I wanted to avoid giving away my position on these matters, thus, the ‘discuss’ (as an open, unweighed question).
    You’re guess right that I don’t quite share your position. Well, I’m somewhat skeptical that the self can be neatly divided. Or, if divisible in such a way, that we end up with neat piles of ‘conscious’ here and ‘unconscious’ there. Or, should the self be divisible that way, that one would be ‘true’ and the other not ‘true’. Or that musical tasks are somehow clearly delegated into those divisions.
    Not saying you’re wrong necessarily, just that you leave a lot of questions unanswered.
    I’m also unsure about the notion of the ‘random’ (despite being the bread and butter of Cage and his followers), especially in its apparent interchangeability with expressions such as ‘indeterminate’.

    S, tig

  4. howsthatsound Says:

    No hard feelings, I appreciate the questions.
    I guess you are right about the unpacking, but if I really got into it I could write a book. The problem with these questions is there are so many factors that at some point one must call it quits. I guess could have explained my position better in certain areas, but I was more concerned with just getting it all down.
    I think conscious and unconscious are as cut and dried as things come, that is if our definitions of conscousness are the same. You could put the bucket of subconscious in the middle to catch the run-off I guess, but as far as I’m concerned if something is in the most minute way conscious, its conscious.
    Now, that doesn’t mean the unconscious is never accessible to the conscious or that conscious things remain conscious forever… blah blah blah.
    To your other questions, I think that consciousness brings with it conflict and for most alive today, too much so to ever touch truth if such a thing exists in a universal sense. The unconscious can only be what it is, a record, it does not think or emote, it is just the filing cabinet where everything we forgot about our lives lives. This is all theoretical mind you, but it’s good enough for me.
    Musical tasks are in no way neatly delegated to the divisions of conscious and unconscious. However, I do think that there is a great opportunity for the unconscious to play a role in “art”.
    I realize I leave a some questions unanswered, but I can’t answer them all. This is all bricolage anyway, and highly theoretical. Either it rings of truth to you and you fill in the blanks as you see fit, or it doesn’t in which case I doubt I could convince you, so what’s the point?
    Random is as good as indeterminate to me, any real division would be splitting hairs. Anything I don’t determine is indeterminate and therefore random. When I walk down the street random things happen, things which I did not determine. Sure you could say randomness is the construct of a bewildered mind, but dealing with that here would be beyond the point. On some level I need to cap the existentialism or stop talking about things as banal as “creativity” or “music” altogether.

  5. Evoreal Team Says:

    music is tied with image !

  6. frans vermeer Says:

    moeptum of nie frans

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