Saturday, May 7, 2011

Creativity and the Electronic Musician

The possibilities for creating interesting music are almost endless with all of the technological tools that are available today. Nonetheless, all musicians know what it is like to have “composers block” – that state of being “stuck” during the creation process. I know this state from my own experience as a composer and producer.

The experience of composer’s block for the electronic musician typically presents itself in one of the following forms: 1) spending hours looking for the appropriate sound patch that if found would enable you to compose the track. 2). playing the same sequence over and over but can’t seem to add anything substantial to the track as a whole. 3). or, relatedly, you have composed twenty intros to songs but have no idea how to finish any of them. 4). on average, you spend more time looking at gear online than actually composing and recording anything with the gear you have. 5) Worst of all, you have a plan to compose, you are focused but nothing, absolutely nothing gets tracked. Any of these situations can be quite frustrating, especially if you are a professional musician who must finish a project to get paid.

Much of the experience of composer’s block comes from the lack of inspiration and musical ideas. However, a lack of focus, distractions, and technical problems with gear can also hamper the creative process. I hope to provide you, the electronic musician and producer, with some useful tips for overcoming barriers to the creative process and “finding your muse”. Although much of this blog will be universal to all types of composers, there are creative aspects of electronic music composition and production that are unique to this art form. In particular, electronic musicians must rely on high technology to do what we do. The virtual instruments (e.g., software synthesizers, plug-ins, etc.) available on the market today, provide a plethora of built-in sounds and sound generating capabilities. Thus, whether you are hobbyist or professional, you must consider how technology influences your creative process as well as your ability to work efficiently. I hope that after reading this you will not only be inspired, but will also share your thoughts and experiences as they relate to this topic.

Here are a few of the primary ways that I find inspiration as well improve my focus that I recommend you try.

1. Listen to other people’s music. You probably do this already; however, do you pay close attention to what is going on in the compositions/productions of other artists’ music? Try listening to music from different genres. Listen carefully to how the composers use particular chord progressions or melodies to communicate something in their music. Also, try to focus on one instrument or part, such as the bass line. Be careful not to copy what you hear. Sometimes this can happen subconsciously though (which can be good or bad).

2. Expose yourself to other forms of art. Visit an art gallery or look at an art book. Perhaps read a novel or some poetry. I have been inspired by some of Salvador Dali art books – strange stuff but perfect for the electronic musician! Also, I often find inspiration from the titles of pieces of art or literature. Sometime I will compose a piece of music with a title as the starting point!

3. Pay attention to your own emotional states. Sometimes our ability to be creative will be driven from our inner states. Our emotions can both hamper our ability to be creative but can also drive us to new creative heights. Learn to work with your emotions. For example, sometimes beautiful and powerful musical compositions can come naturally after intense emotional experiences. In other words, capitalize on this when these states occur.

4. Travel. Exposure to novel things can inspire creativity. Maybe this is a walk in the woods, a mountain climb, or trip overseas, or simply a stroll in the big city.

5. Doodle in the studio. One of the most common recommendations for writers who are experiencing writer’s block is “to write, write anything”. Sometimes a great composition will rise like a phoenix out of a little doodling.

6. If doodling does not help, take a break! If you find yourself experiencing “composers block” deliberately take a break from the studio! That’s right, take a few hours or even a week or two off from it. Don’t panic – it will come back to you!

7. Try playing other instruments or manipulating the sound they make. This follows from my recommendation to try novel things. For example, I am a guitarist by training and occasionally work the instrument into my synth-based ambient compositions. One technique that I have done in the past is to play a basic chord progression or long sustained notes on the guitar and record direct without effects. I will then chop up the audio files based on each chord or note and then subject the audio files to a lot of signal processing to completely abstract the sound. I will then reassemble the “parts” into a progression. You can hear this technique on the track “Ascension” on my album The Divided Line and on “The Sands of Time” on the album When the World Was Young.

Also, get creative with synthesizers and effects signal processing. I challenge you to try to customize patches to make them unique. I will often play around with filters, attack and decay to customize the sounds. Effects are also a great way to make your own sounds. Try adding in a flanger, chorus or long reverb delays, or even a step filter. For example, you can hear my use of the step filter on the track “Walking in the White Light” from the album The Divided Line.

8. Remove the distractions. One of the most significant distractions for the electronic musician is the Internet. Ever find yourself surfing the Web on monitor #2 to read up on a piece of studio gear or scanning EBay for that one piece of equipment you “need”? Unplug your network connection for an hour and compose!

9. A little competition won’t hurt you. Enter a music composition or remix contest. This will give you a reason to compose and with a little time pressure, can motivate you to get something done. Uploading your tracks to sites such as sound cloud for others to comment on can help too. Knowing that others will be listening to what you create, you might be motivated to stretch to new heights. This phenomenon is called the “social facilitation effect” in the world of social psychology.

10. If your studio is not broke, don’t fix it. In other words, get your production studio in basic operating mode to facilitate the production process and keep it that way! If you have to rewire a bunch of gear every time you sit down to compose, or feel compelled to constantly tweek hard drive performance, you will likely hamper your creative process.

I hope that these recommendations will be helpful in your creative process. Again, I look forward to hearing what works (or does not work) for you. Happy composing!

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