I attended a talk by Ivy Ross, the head of design for all hardware products at Google. Ivy started her career as a jewelry designer, and when she was 24, had some of her work acquired by the Smithsonian. “The ego trip lasted for all of three weeks,” she said. The success was great, but transient. The process of making those pieces, in comparison, took way longer. What she learned from the experience was you spend more time doing the work than experiencing its outcome. It’s better to make that time worthwhile instead of worrying about how it will land.
I recently finished a song, played it back and felt very excited. It was the most evolved piece of music I had composed so far. The sounds worked well with each other, the mix sounded clean and the composition had a well-defined narrative arc. I played it to a few friends and co-workers and felt delighted as I watched them move (just a little) at parts where the momentum picked up. It felt like months of practice was finally beginning to pay off.
Then, after a day, I revisited the song and realized the melody was cheesy, the synth sounds were plain and the whole thing felt unmemorable. It was a good track in a utilitarian sense — it had all the necessary musical components arranged in a sensible way, but nothing about it would make dance uncontrollably in the middle of the street. Even though the track was a marker of progress, it was far from transcendent.
Even though music is my hobby and I don’t have any aspirations to ‘make it in the industry’, it’s hard not to have dreams for how I want my music to sound and what kind of reactions I want it to invoke. I’d be lying if I said I don’t periodically imagine crowds of people losing it to something I’ve composed. As a result, while producing music, I often tend to get stress about doing things the ‘right way’. I get so focused on the outcome that I begin to drift away from what I’m feeling in the present moment. Ivy’s talk made me realize that the present moment is more important than anything else.
This is something I was beginning to forget. While working on the last few tracks, I was worried that my music didn’t have enough micro-moments to stay interesting (micro-moments being layers of small, often percussive sounds that add texture, variation and movement — Nicolas Jaar’s Don’t Break My Love and Ross From Friends’ Talk To Me You’ll Understand have a lot of good ones). I spent a ton of time pulling in samples one by one, processing them, cutting them up and arranging them in time with everything else.
This process was arduous and ultimately ineffective. I would make an edit, play the beat back from the beginning and realize it was a little ways off. I would move the sample just a little, tweak some more parameters, play the beat again and notice something else about it that didn’t work. I spent a few hours doing this and ultimately didn’t end up using any of it. The results weren’t worthwhile, the process felt like a chore and I accepted the fact that the idea I was trying to develop didn’t -need- these micro-moments to work. It was just a requirement I had imposed on myself for no specific reason.
I don’t regret going down this path. Putting myself through it gave me a sense of what doesn’t work. I was trying to design sounds and compose at the same time. It also provided a few ideas on how I could create a more fun approach for putting together micro-moments. I could spend an evening messing with samples, creating a ton of random, weird sounds and loading them up in a drum rack. Then, I could play the core beat and trigger the samples live, leading with feel and intuition as opposed to obsessive tinkering.
Success and failure and transient, and we’re constantly oscillating between both states. There is no guarantee that if you suffer, you’ll succeed. Likewise, having a good time is not a hard prerequisite for failure. The results of our efforts are often shaped by forces beyond our control — all we can do is not get too carried away when things are working and not get too crushed when things aren’t. More of our time is spent doing the work than reacting to the results anyway.
It’s super important to set things up in a way that the core work remains fun and interesting. Creativity is built on magical, spur-of-the-moment events, but you need to create the right conditions (both external and internal) for it to happen. You need to be in a non-judgemental state of mind, and you need to set your equipment up in a way that you can get up and running as soon as an idea arrives. How you do it depends on how your mind and body work. The more you put yourself through this process, the more you’ll understand and the better you’ll get.
85 to go!