40 minute music projects

I’m traveling through Uruguay and Argentina this month, returning to the States (and this music practice) in early March. Looking forward to exploring some less computer-based music while I’m away… watch this space!


After yesterday’s exercise in high-concept creation, I felt pulled back to a purely aesthetic approach for today’s piece. The concept—time—and Colin’s image are abstract enough that almost any mood could be made to fit sonically, but I decided to take a gentler tack, opting for ambiance and beauty over the more aggressive sounds I’ve been producing recently. I also mixed a number of the elements in this one at barely audible levels in an effort to provide more subtle cues that should stand up better to repeat listenings.


Doublethink, an integral concept in George Orwell’s “1984” is defined by Wikipedia as “…the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct.” I spent a fair amount of time pondering the artistic implications of the concept before receiving Colin’s visual interpretation. His use of doubled eye sockets led to my “aha” moment: the fact that most humans have two ears could be exploited to deliver two contradictory sound streams simultaneously.

I experimented for a while with different executions of this idea: two melodic lines in differing keys; two rhythmic lines at different tempos or time signatures; two entirely unrelated pieces playing in stereo left and right. Ultimately my desire to produce something pleasant overrode my desire to adhere strictly to the theme, and I chose a compromise of concept-driven techniques with more traditional instrumentation based on my aesthetic impressions of Colin’s image.

The resulting piece has a few interesting features:

  1. The two melodic lines introduced at the beginning of the song are harmonically connected, but presented in 1/16th and triplet timing to create a sense of rhythmic disconnection. The lines pan suddenly through the piece to call attention to this disconnection.
  2. Many of the high percussion elements introduced in the second half of the song are looped in a 7/4 time signature vs. the overall piece’s 4/4 time.
  3. The pad sound introduced at 0:41 is phase inverted in the left and right channels. This creates an odd sense of space, and if the work as a whole is played back on a monophonic system, the line entirely disappears due to phase cancellation.

While I find these interesting from a conceptual standpoint, I don’t feel that they necessarily contribute to the overall aesthetic of the piece. I struggled with keeping the panning changes in particular, as they feel jarring in a way that detracts from the flow of the song. I ultimately compromised by letting myself add a few extra bars of straight beat and bassline to the end of the song- a little break from concept by a dip in the funk.

Colin threw me a beautiful curveball with his six-part examination of today’s element, “dissonance.” My first inclination was to build a sound for each image, but that level of sound design effort felt out of reach given my self-imposed time constraint. Instead I chose to take on the image as a whole instead of as a collection of smaller pieces. The coloring and hand-drawn style reminded me of a fresco or cave painting, and I started to imagine it as an artifact of some long lost chaos-worshipping civilization. This led me to a fairly bleak, war-tinged piece with sonic elements loosely inspired by Colin’s expressions of dissonance: choppy aural artifacts, inconsistent tuning, smeared atmospherics, and explosive accents.


Colin’s image for today’s theme (“Ripple”) immediately evokes a sense of grandeur and alien mystery. The central object feels simultaneously weighty and weightless, with its mass inexplicably resting on a single point.

I experimented for a while with grand instruments—timpani, big orchestral strings—but nothing stuck for me creatively. As a thought experiment I tried to see the object as very small instead of very large, and immediately made a mental connection with the complications inside a mechanical watch. Pushing the exercise further, I tried to interpret the flawless structure as very old instead of very new. My resulting soundtrack feels weathered and mechanical, but hopefully still retains a little of the mystery and awe I felt from my initial viewing of the piece. Dusty, lofi textures swirl behind a prepared music box and hesitant synth strings.

Full disclosure: I ended up spending more than 40 minutes on this one.

Today’s collaboration was built around the atomic element “voice.” I was in an appropriately dour mood, and ended up working significantly more than my forty minute limit on this one. Colin’s image has a dark, technical desperation to it that I tried to express in both literal (human screaming) and less literal (“screaming” distortion and aggressive synthesis) ways.

After a few days hiatus, I’m back this week with an experimental collaboration with Colin Sebestyen of Movecraft. Each day this week we’ll be taking turns naming a fundamental object that will act as the foundation for that day’s work. Colin will create an image, and I’ll write music to that image in line with the day’s theme.

Today’s object was “cube.”

This was a pretty free-form session for me, typical of the way I’ve worked in the past: I went in without pre-conceived ideas or direction, and just tried things until stuff started to “stick.” While this approach feels familiar and natural to me, I’m becoming more and more interested in using these short sessions to actively explore different ways of attacking the creative production process. A few ideas I intend to try on:

  • Begin with a fixed period limited strictly to sound/instrument design, followed by a fixed period dedicated strictly to writing/arranging with that material.
  • Begin with 5-10 minutes of writing/drawing away from the computer (or any other musical instrument) to generate a conceptual framework for the piece prior to production. Regularly check in with the concept during production to ensure that the work remains “on topic.”
  • Choose a single sound (5-10 secs) and limit all production to manipulations of that sound- no additional source material allowed.

It’s a bit of a struggle to challenge myself in ways that feel like they might lead to sub-par results, particularly given my commitment to make those results public. That said, I believe that there can be no growth without discomfort, so I’m diving in head first.


ProTip: save your work. You never know when an errant plugin might trash your entire session 42 minutes into your 40 minute project.

I had a tough time getting going for this session. My goal from the outset was to push myself to explore outside of the darker vibes of the previous few nights, but I really struggled to get into a cheerier headspace without succumbing to what felt like cheesiness. I recorded the opening synth/bass/arpeggio lines on a whim, not feeling particularly attached to any of them. Time, however, dictated that I go with what “came out”, so I decided to spice up what I had by resampling and chopping the resulting synth lines in the second half of the piece.