We recently started a collaboration with an up & coming producer and I was surprised by how early on in the process he wanted to start arranging the track.
(In case you don’t know, ‘arranging’ is when you take your ideas and arrange them along a timeline to build the structure of the whole tune).
He talked about wanting to figure out the ‘direction’ of the tune and I found this interesting because I realised that the way we normally write our tracks is very different from that.
Working in modern sequencers often forces you to think about music in very compartmentalised ways – everything moving from left to right, everything contained in little boxes, everything beginning and ending at very rigid moments – and this can often lead to highly formulaic ways of writing tracks.
Generally, we leave our arrangements as late as we possibly can. They’re always the very last thing we do.
What we have instead is a collection of sounds looping around & around, over which we let new sounds drift in and out, (often out-of-time), until we have a whole palette of ideas which we think are substantial enough to support a whole track.
Working in this way and not really having a ‘start’ or ‘end’ point allows us to treat the music as a ‘field’ rather than a ‘path’, a space where things are able to relate to each other in terms of depth, rather than over time.
I remember once reading a glib description of the way memory works. As an adult we perceive events as having happened in sequential relation to each other; C follows B follows A and so on. We see events as a path leading backwards into our childhood, with memories as signposts in sequence along the path. However, the further back you go you eventually reach a point where an infantile lack of self-consciousness means that a linear perception of events fades and instead of a path we perceive our memories as a field with the signposts scattered in a haphazard fashion all over it, having no sequential relationship to each other, (one reason why it’s so hard to definitively pin down your earliest memory, or to put in order events that occurred between the ages of 4 and 5).
I think it’s this same diminished self-consciousness that you’re granted when working in an infinitely repeating loop. Like repeating a word over and over again until it loses its semantic tethering and just becomes a sound in its own right, you’re free to listen to and enjoy the sound of the word without being constrained by what it signifies. If you listen to a loop for long enough the edges start to fade away and you’re able to ‘drift’ sounds into it and work on their sonic qualities in relation to other elements rather than their ‘meaning’ in terms of an overall structure; not as things that have ‘direction’ but as things which occupy a place in space. This means that, when the time comes to arrange the track, the elements are less likely to have been formulated in such a rigid fashion and will, (hopefully), lend themselves to a more interesting progression.
As usual, Brian Eno has some interesting things to say on this topic.
I have this word that I think about a lot which is ‘unlocked’ music. Ambient – my kind of ambient music – is the most unlocked music possible. A lot of things drift separately from each other and you listen to the result. In fact, African music is basically like that, because you have two time signatures going on always, a three-beat and a four-beat, and they don’t always lock. They are cycles of different length that don’t overlay in precise numerical ways – or if they do they overlay in such long cycles that you are not conscious of that, necessarily. So, I’m always arguing for the unlocked. Some technology really encourages lock, so you have a problem with it being locked vertically. And if it’s keyboard-based you have a problem with it being locked horizontally as well. The instruments play either this pitch or that pitch, they tend not to move fluidly between them. You may have a mod wheel, but it’s not an expressive element.
When I make loops on a sequencer, I always try to play them all the way through, so I play the whole part, then I listen to it, and quite often I find a long section that I like. Loop that, cut it up so that the loop doesn’t recur regularly. The idea of always editing in straight vertical cuts is the most single annoying thing about most of that music. Because a whole part of my feeling has been to make music that is ‘unlocked’. And all that stuff like Thursday Afternoon, Discreet Music and so on, is very deliberately that: music where the elements float separately from one another.
One of the things I love about soul music is that it’s relatively unlocked, so there are things that are very tight, like the rhythm section, but it’s not tied: tight, but not tied. People can shift around, and they create inflexions by not falling together when you expect them to and so on. So this unlocked thing has been a big issue for me for a long time. And then suddenly this kind of music appears that is not only locked, but absolutely fucking bolted down together…