balancing creative force with technical knowledge

There’s a distinct difference between my approach to music software in my undergraduate degree versus my graduate degree and beyond.

When i switched my major to music composition in my undergrad years at West Chester, my creative force was still in development. I had written random piano pieces and drum cadences in high school, but a lot of that was based on my musical instincts and innate musical talent. I never took a lick of music theory or counterpoint until i was in my undergrad, and the idea of honing my compositional skill through private lessons, seminars, and general exposure to contemporary music and the techniques contained within that music didn’t really happen until my junior year.

My understanding of music notation software and sequencing software was similarly very “basic skills” at the time. I was pretty computer saavy having been an early adopter of networking and on-line communities before the internet became mainstream, running my own BBS and being a regular member of about fifteen others through my high school years, but as it related to the programs being used at the tech lab at West Chester (Finale, Studio Vision, Max), i was starting from square one.

Because of this and because of the structure built by both my compositional/counterpoint classes and my music technology classes, a lot of my initial education was to learn these things well enough for it to become a honed instinct by going through a lot of small repetitive exercises to hammer a concept into my head. Here’s how to do proper voice leading; don’t write parallel fifths when you’re doing harmonic progressions; here’s the shortcuts for speedy entry; here’s how you can manipulate the numbers out of the notein object. And although those would lead to some bigger musical projects, most of those were just that: projects that were written not to be serious works of music but to showcase and exemplify how well i learned the skills that were taught to me.

As a result of that sort of education, there wasn’t a whole lot about Finale that I didn’t know how to do after a year and i had a pretty great understanding of the mechanics of Max and a lot of its objects. But my output as it related to those programs wasn’t that great – a lot of college projects that didn’t have any lasting power because my creative force was still maturing and developing as was my use of the tools to realize that creative force. But as I continued to hone my skills, direction, and vision as a composer/creator, the expertise i had gained in my musical vocabulary and use of technological tools helped accelerate and define that vision in a way that i think i would be lacking or not nearly as instinctual if i didn’t have that sort of education. I recognized this early on and started to adopt this concept when approaching any new skill or piece of technology – learn as much as you can about it, practice it until you become an expert, use that expertise to help create.

When i was in my graduate studies at the University of Oregon, I started getting deeply involved in the electronic music studio there, and there were elements in that studio where i was back at square one. In my undergrad I learned a lot about Max and MIDI and some basic digital audio stuff, but i never used any software or got a grounding education that dealt with sound physics or sound generation/manipulation. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a sine wave and a square wave.

The main program that was used in the studio for sound creation was Kyma. When i first started working with it, I tried to approach the program in the same way that I did Finale and Max – figure out as much as i can about it, then use that as tools and vocabulary to help define my creative voice for the program, then create music. In the meantime, my professor and mentor of that program, Jeff Stolet, had an approach that was very different and tried to convince me to adopt it: find something you like, and just work with that. You can create an entire piece out of one effect. Ignore everything else.

We had some initial arguments about this. For me, it felt limiting – there’s so much that the program could do to manipulate and create, to only use one small slice of the program felt like buying a car with a pimped out sound system and never turning it on. It also had a side effect that a lot of the early pieces for everyone in the studio sounded alike because everyone would latch on to the part of the program that Jeff liked and showed us, which at the time was grainclouds. Sure, everyone had their own take on how they used the graincloud, but you could still tell that everyone used the graincloud. So while i practiced this idea begrudgingly to produce the necessary output for classes, i rejected the concept philosophically in favor of my original credo of “become an expert first, then see what you can do with it.”

After a while, it became evident that this approach that served me well with Finale and Max wasn’t working so well with Kyma. First, i was trying to use a lot of tools that assumed that i had a better understanding of sound generation and sound physics than i already did. I would raise and lower knobs and hear sound change but not understand how or why in a way that would stick, so i wasn’t developing skills as much as just spinning my wheels, doing a bunch of random stuff and hoping that it would come out right. Second, Kyma was a very vast and complicated program and also not the most intuitive. There was no end to what it is you could do to generate or manipulate things, and trying to tackle all of that was overwhelming and wouldn’t produce the sort of output that was expected of me every term for a final project/piece to go on the concert.

It took me about a year or two before i started to really understand Jeff’s approach and some of the Why behind it. Part of it is that using only one slice of a program like Kyma still has more depth to it than, say, learning basic musical compositional skills such as different kinds of cadences, and the use of that one skill really *can* lend itself to the creation of a multilayered work that supports the creative vision behind it. Part of it is understanding that it’s not just exercises and projects that can evolve into serious and respectable works, but it’s also serious and respectable works that can evolve into better serious and respectable works.

But most importantly, there’s a balance that needs to be struck between the amount of time put in to the education of a product with the practical output. If i want to build a big sound effect crescendo with audio samples of voices shouting, there are a lot of ways to do it both simple and complex that can all successfully achieve what i want out of it; how i choose to do it turns into a matter of personal taste, preference, and current knowledge and context, and knowing 10 ways to do it vs 100 ways to do it doesn’t necessarily net much difference. The more i limit my focus to learning all of the small picture details, the less i focus on the big picture, and some principle of “diminishing returns” starts to get greater and greater.

That said, it’s not as if I should completely abandon my education and knowledge of concepts that will help enhance my creative voice, it’s more that one thing shouldn’t have so much importance over the other that the other resultantly suffers, and that I should trust my maturity as a musician, composer, and general creator to supercede some of my more technical weaknesses and allow experiences and my natural constant self-evaluation, monitoring, and development to help deal with those weaknesses over time.

Two practical case in points:

This past marching band season was the first time i ever wrote the drill for an entire marching band and an entire marching band show. I’ve done smatterings of drum drill both for outdoor and indoor, and i’ve done some basic movement for winds in the past, but to truly create and conceive of a cohesive visual program from beginning to end is something that i plunged myself into with little practical experience of drill writing or the drill writing software.

The drill i ended up writing wasn’t a complete success, but neither was it even close to an abysmal failure, and i attribute that to a few things. One, I’ve had a lot of conversations with Mark about how he writes drill as we’ve been very collaborative in our music/drill packages in the past. Two, i’ve always been conscious of the visual package as it relates to music ensemble and staging, and have worked with a lot of organizations that know how to do that sort of thing well. Three, Pyware, for all of its faults, gave me a great playground to help me discover things that worked and didn’t work. And last, i did a lot of big picture conceptual work to try to make the music and the drill integrate together as a whole before i wrote any specific dots or pages, and i that helped me work through the jigsaw puzzle details i needed to make the drill work effectively and practically.

Not that i think the drill was anything close to spectacular, but it was functional and had some great moments that i’m not unproud of, and i know that if i continue to do visual design i’ll only get better.

Second, and the main reason that this entry came about in the first place, i’m currently deep in the throes of writing music for Galaxy Interactive’s launch project, and all of the music that i’m creating is being done using Ableton Live. As a Live user on a scale of 1 (novice) to expert (10), i put myself pretty much in the middle 4-6 category. There’s a lot about the program that I don’t know, and there’s a lot to learn. But that’s not stopping me from taking the stuff that i *do* know and creating the framework for what i hope are some great musical ideas.

And there’s a balance to be struck. While i’m happy with my big picture musical conception, i’m only somewhat happy with my musical output and level of maturity in how i’m using the program to compose for the project. Resultantly i feel like i need more education on the program; not something that would take the equivalent of a semester to learn before producing more output, but there’s a youtube series out there that talks about basic and advanced concepts of Live that I think would be valuable for me to go through that i ultimately think will help me feel much more solid on the program and therefore my output for what will hopefully be a successful global product. Years from now i want to still be proud of this project in the same way that I’m still happy with some of my early compositions. And i’m sure that there will be parts of it that i’ll look back upon and cringe a little, but that’s only natural as i continue to learn, create, and evolve.

Which i suppose is all anyone can ask for, really. To feel good about the contributions that they’ve made in the big picture of society and life.

*laugh*

i’m not sure how i got there when this entry’s focus was supposed to be more about how i learned to forgive myself for not being an expert in something before putting out creative output, but it seems like a good line as any to end this long ramble. If you made it this far, thanks for reading.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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