Monday, January 19, 2009

Production principles

I have two reasons for writing down my current account of my avocational "production principles." The first is that, being the first month of the year, it just seemed like an appropriate time to "officially" get these out of my mind and out there to read. The second, and probably most important, is that I've felt some unnecessary pressure with regards to my avocation recently. I've felt unproductive. And I have been disappointed in what I have made. I realized, however, that I was comparing myself to professionals and folks with more training in music, production and the arts. I had to remember that this is my avocation - not my vocation. So it is okay for me to expect amateur results from myself. So, here goes.

Keep joy central

Joy (or, vulgarly, "fun"), after all, is the whole point of pursuing anything avocationally. So this is my whole purpose in returning to music and (sacred) art as a "hobby" (what a horrible word).
  • use presets shamelessly
  • when frustrated, always ask myself: "why am I doing this?"
It is okay to use presets, especially in my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, which is to say, musical production software). I am not an engineer or producer. The presets do what they are supposed to do. I will not make something stellar, or "unique." But I will make something that sounds acceptable and allows me, in some way, some artistic expression. Good enough (see the principle "No perfectionism," below).


A general aesthetic philosophy of minimalism needs to be the main principle driving my approach to composition, whether musical or iconographical (or architectural). And this for several reasons, both philosophical and practical. Philosophically, I just have an appreciation for and a loose commitment to (sacred) minimalism. I will write a commentary or theoria post on why some other time. Practically, these artistic pursuits are not my vocation. I will only stress myself out expecting professional or virtuoso results from my amateur and self-trained capacity, skill and time.
  • simplicity
  • unimportant / non-serious
  • limits = paramaters for creativity (a good thing)
My old roommate, Tommy Falby, taught me the importance of the word "non-serious." Brian Eno says, "regard your limitations as secret strengths. Or as constraints that you can make use of." The very fact that he ends his sentence with a preposition is a case in point.

No perfectionism

The principle of "non-perfection," literally "in-completion," is obviously related to and a corollary of the previous two principles of "keeping joy central," and "minimalism." "No perfection" is my principle for recording, and for using and knowing my DAW for audio capture in general.
  • record without fear
  • snappy / quick
  • take the 1st take
  • "mistakes" = "hidden" intentions
Again, Eno: "honor thy mistakes as hidden intentions." That is, when it generates something new and unexpected. Not simply because you've played off beat or you've screwed up the sound irreconcilably!

Explore sounds and timbre

The exploration of sound generation and timbre manipulation is the goal behind any creative use of synthesis in general. So this is nothing too profound. Expect for one thing. It is amazing, as an amateur synthesist, how often I will forget this. I forget the central joy of exploration and go for perfection, where perfection is understood as finality. It is amazing how often I will get stuck with a crappy sound because I keep trying to get it ready to "save" as a preset. Now, this is in no contrast to "use presets," above, under "keep joy central." No, I use presets in areas I don't care or haven't had time to learn, e.g. setting up a track to record vocals. Logic Express sets it up for me good enough for now. No, I mean presets with regards to synthesizers. And even there it is OKAY. So long as I remember two things:
  • play with synthesizer presets shamelessly and without fear of "loosing it"
  • don't leave my prophet 600's knobs in the same place between two sessions
In general, I really don't save presets. I treat my synthesizers as if they don't have memory. But that freaks me out when I like a sound. I have to kiss them goodbye and let them go.

Best quality gear (that is moderately priced)

Clearly, this principle is about gear acquisition and the avoidance of "gear lust."
  • analog synthesis (in the main)
  • digital control (sequencing, arpeggiating) and capture (DAW)
  • not modular
  • not "better," only "different"
I learned the distinction between analog "hardware" and digital "software" from Stretta on his bio page. I liked it so I am adopting it too. I have to set (even if artificial) boundaries for myself to keep this thing an avocation and not pretend that this is my vocation. So, as cool as modular synths are, they eat money and require a level of skill and theory in synthesis that I would only frustrate myself in trying to achieve. Instead, I'll go for the best quality poly analog synths and enjoy other people's use of their modular systems without envy (this is a principle, of course, we'll see how well I put it into practice!). More knobs, gears, and choices do not necessarily equal "better." But if I see something that would really help me create something new altogether, well, then maybe I will allow myself to consider it!

Thanks for reading the post. If anybody reads this out there and likes it or has anything to add or suggest, let me know and please comment. Other musicians, what do you think? If you are professional or otherwise virtuoso, what do you think of these as principles for a non-virtuoso amateur? Thanks!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Monome theurgy

When the Neoplatonists combined Plato and Aristotle in their mystical philosophy, they fully intended to synthesize the best of all the available western philosophies of the day. What they did not know was that one of their own, Iamblichus, would "defect" from their pure theoretical vision and get his hands dirty doing things like justifying (pagan) sacrifice. In a last ditch effort to save dying classical paganism from the new religion, Julian the Apostate used theurgical Neoplatonism in order to justify and promote the pagan sacrificial religion of the crumbling empire.

So much for the history. Theurgy means god-work, or god-action. As opposed to thaumaturgy, which means wonderworking. Thaumaturgy is just straightforward "magic," or sorcery. Theurgy is "magic" for spiritual, transcendent ends, rather than material and immediate ends.

The Neoplatonic myth was that of emanations from the One. The goal of the philosopher was to meditate back to the one and escape the illusion, ugliness, evil, unreality and multiplicity of the emanated world. Iamblichus and the theurgist agreed with this synthetic vision, but used the apophatic theology of Neoplatonism to create a paradox requiring physical ritual and transformation in order to return to that primordial unity. If the One were incomprehensible, inconceivable, etc., then how could a mere human being actually meditate his or her way back to the one? The answer for Iamblichus and the theurgists? You couldn't. But what you can do is use the rituals revealed by divine hierarchs in order to retrace the steps of creation and, as a physical being, in the world of the physical, using physical objects and offering them in sacrifice to the gods, return to that primordial and blessed state.

Through theurgy, the adept imitates (mimesis) the Creator (the demiurge) in a ritual reenactment of the creation of the cosmos. This imitation takes the form of pagan sacrifice and other amalgams of superstition and magical rituals in imitation of the "sacrificial" means of bringing about the material universe on the part of the one through emanation. These sacrifices aren't necessarily the "gross" kind. It could be libations of wine, burning of grain or incense, you name it. But something is usually lost, emptied or consumed (by fire). These ritual actions are means of both personal meditative return, and, eventually, the return of the entire material cosmos, to the One. (If this sounds a bit Hindu at this point, you should not be surprised. Yogic and Tantric Hinduism on the one hand, and pure and theurgical Neoplatonism on the other, are both parallel Indo-European religious systems.)

Well, this is all very interesting stuff. My own Christian commitments make me want to tell this story a bit differently. But what about monome?

Perhaps the main reason why I love the monome interface for making music is that it allows real-time manipulation of sequences, patterns, samples, data. This manipulation of patterns in "real-time," and not just in meditative thought - like an old-school MIDI-sequencer - makes the monome thus a kind of musical theurgical device. Just as the theurgical adept imitates the demiurge in following the patterns of emanation in ritual performance, so too the conductor of the monome creates new patterns and manipulates them in real-time just as the Creator, although creating from pre-existent patterns, nevertheless reacts to and manipulates those patterns "on the fly" as per-necessary. Creation "ex nihilo" is creation out of nothing previously hanging around, not simply out of "nothingness" at all. The patterns pour out of the infinite mind of the Creator.

So conducting the monome is like a ritual performance or mimesis of the divine act of creation itself! That is why the monome is so obvious a musical tool to those who are attracted to it. It causes the (new to be) conductor to exclaim: it is so obvious! Why hasn't it been around longer! (See Antimon's comment on the monome community's discussion thread "So I have this ponderage . . . ")

The monome as theogony: Orpheus was the greatest musician because he sang the birth of the gods. When you see something like Edison's fingers at work, you see someone tapping out the birth of the gods (perhaps I am pushing my fortuna?). The monome, in its minimalist and pattern driven simplicity, allows the artist a kind immediacy to the creative moment - both in him or herself, and, I believe, thereby, to divine creativity that is channeled through our human sub-creativity. (Just look at some of the divine creations made possible by this device, for example, on the Vimeo Monome Group.)

So I am getting increasingly more theological. But I haven't quite gotten there yet. More to come. Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Polygomé pop song project

I've been fooling around with Stretta's polygomé for a while now. I've been enjoying some of the bizarre, and (to me) unpredictable behavior of its "gomeizer" function. Playing with it in this mode, I came up with this little pop song. I call it "Only One" (as in, "you're not the"):

I plan on working it up into a full blown (but minimalist, of course) pop song with vocals. I want to work on the drum bed and add some kp3 effects and fills.  I want to work in a few other synth bursts, effects and sporadic melodies. I can't figure out whether I want it to be silly, sarcastic or just weird. But I just can't take pop too seriously, so it will have to conform to one of those adjectives.

Please let me know what you think, any comments or suggestions. Thanks for listening, and thanks for the encouragement.