Fishing For Happy Accidents — Some Thoughts and Feelings about the Future of Electronic Music

When people think of electronic music, electronic dance music is what usually comes to mind. Of course, I enjoy dance music quite a bit; I’ve actually got several gigabytes of it on my iPod. In no way is this article intent on portraying contemporary dance music as a degenerate artform. On the contrary, much of today’s music has improved in large part of EDM migrating from the basement to the professional recording studio. Now that production techniques originating from mostly hip hop and early house artists of the late 80s and early 90s are now standard practice, synthesizer and sampler instruments are now to popular music what the Fender Stratocaster and the Les Paul Standard were to the classic rock era of the 60s & 70s. But even though the players have changed, the game remains the same.

In spite of what you hear from mostly insecure adolescent males regarding all things “Emo”, music is and always has been very much about emotion. While the power of dance music captures the essence of a beating heart, the sensibilities of classical and purely instrumental music can express the pain of a breaking one. Dance music is fun. It feels good. But truly beautiful music hurts like hell. It’s not fun. It’s about acknowledging and somehow celebrating the pain of being human. You can’t do that with drum machines at 140 bpm. First, you have to slow down. The next part isn’t as clear. It’s a complete mystery, a sort of “happy accident”. Thing is, in order to have a successful accident, you can’t afford to have a plan.

The problem with dance music is that it’s so structured, so formulaic and predictable, even the most innovative EDM producers struggle to think outside the box, which can be especially challenging considering that technically, rhythm is a box. But the most frustrating thing of all is our only other alternative: an absence of rhythm. However, I’ve come to wonder if there are more alternatives than we typically think there are. In pursuit of my next “happy accident”, is it really necessary to get off the grid? Is it possible to have a relationship with the grid that allows me to work beyond ordinary time constraints, and more importantly, compose emotive and expressive pieces of music that don’t feel stale and overly repetitive?

As a musician, I’m very much a hobbyist, but as a listener, I’ve become very enthusiastic about ambient music in the last four-to-five years. Of course, in my youth, I listened to pissed off, angsty metal and dark industrial stuff like Rage Against The Machine, Rob/White Zombie, Garbage, a little Nine Inch Nails, System of a Down, The Crystal Method. You know, the usual stuff any ordinary depressed teenager would listen to while growing up in Southern California during the late 90’s. I actually still listen to some of it. But my real musical education began several years earlier, before I joined the Navy and was eventually “turned” by the sinful world outside our very Christian home. Let’s just say I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything with a tempo faster than “Little Drummer Boy”. Fortunately, film scores were made available in the all-too-brief heyday of Blockbuster Music when my allowance afforded me the privilege.

Eventually, my parents took notice of my burgeoning interest in film scores and bought me the Original Star Wars Soundtrack Anthology, with four discs including some material that was withheld from previous publications. Of course, this was in 1993, before the Special Editions and the Prequels sullied my long lost childhood love for Star Wars. I remember one very special piece of music on Disc Two – Track 14: “Yoda and the Force”. In my less than humble opinion, the last two minutes of that track conjure one of the most emotionally provocative moments in film scoring to date. The fanfare occurring at precisely three minutes encapsulates everything I love about how music can affect the human experience.

So, what does any of this have to do with me thrashing around the barracks singing along to “Killing in the Name” more than seven years later? Emotion: a raw, pure, unstoppable force of nature. It’s what keeps us going, what makes it all worth the struggle of getting there. But it’s the struggle itself; that’s what John Williams understood so many years ago, what Zack de la Rocha managed to express with the guttural warcry “f*** you I won’t do what ya tell me!” There’s a desperateness underneath it all, a white-hot fury that makes it so painfully familiar. Regardless of where it comes from, or what it’s all about, the essence of the human spirit lies at the very heart of music, whether it’s a ballad, a call to arms, or perhaps a little of both.

As a composer, I’m faced with the extraordinary challenge of establishing “the setting”, a sort of musical landscape wherein the story of a song can seamlessly unfold. But that’s just the appetizer course. Unfortunately, the main entree consists of an evermore illusive ingredient. I used to think it was all about having something to say, but I no longer see it that way. Music is about saying what can’t be said. The trick is knowing what the heart so eagerly wants to communicate. For such a tall order, we turn to the cumbersome utility of musical expression.

Well, atleast that was the general idea “back in the day” when the great composers of the early Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras so eagerly aspired to such great heights. Unfortunately, contemporary music has been polluted with words, and the emotional gravitas of the symphony has been reduced to the cheap three-minute thrill of “the hit song”. Okay, okay, perhaps that’s not completely true, but it certainly feels true.

The question is, are we still allowed to make art? I mean high art, a kind of engraving in the tree, letting everyone or anyone know that “we were here”. Isn’t that what art is after all, a sort of cry in the dark, a desperate plea? Sure, maybe I’m being melodramatic, but there’s a part of me that resents the general notion that, for whatever reason, we’re not allowed to feel that way about music anymore. Why not? Why have we disallowed ourselves from making art? For fear of being trite or somehow disingenuous? As artists, I think we should rage against this dying of the light. As musicians, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to rekindle the flame that brought us this far, to reach for greatness, even if or when we don’t succeed.

Meanwhile, back on the grid…we find ourselves at a crossroads. Each road is well travelled, yet perfectly paved, with a perfectly known destination that looks and feels exactly the same with each and every visit. In the digital realm, there are no surprises. Imagine living in a world where mistakes are as outlandish and far-fetched as a campfire ghost story. Today’s software developers are constantly improving upon highly sophisticated algorithms solely intent on reproducing the element of surprise, imposing imperfection on an otherwise perfect world.

So, how do we develop a relationship with the grid without producing the same repetitive mush electronic musicians have been hashing out for the last twenty or so years? In a word: imagination. We “boldly go where no one has gone before”. I don’t care what you’ve heard. There is something new under the sun, and we’re going to make it!

“Anything traveling through spacetime has to abide by certain rules, but space itself can do whatever the hell it wants.” — Lawrence Krauss

I don’t mean to get all “sciency” all of a sudden, but in order to get some perspective on this, I need to go back…way back, a fraction of a second after The Big Bang, when the universe began to expand at a rate faster than the speed of light. When first posited, this theory stirred up a tremendous amount of controversy within the scientific community, being that the speed of light is quite literally “the universal speed limit”. E=MC2. Those are the rules. Nothing can travel faster than light. But if you say those words in a slightly different way: “Nothing can travel faster than light”. Well, that changes everything, now doesn’t it?

The reason that our universe suddenly began to expand faster than three hundred million meters per second is because the empty space it was expanding into had zero mass. So, figuratively speaking, nothing beat light to the finish-line because it was already there. Empty space made it possible for something to do the impossible, and nothing was the key that opened the door. In a way, nothing is a universal happy accident.

So, what does nothing have to do with music? Everything! Just think about it. Reverb is used in practically every musical genre you can think of; it’s one of the most used effects in all of music production. Simply put, reverb is what you hear when a sound bounces off a reflective surface, but in order for that to happen, you need a space for that sound to travel through.

Without an acoustic space with reflective surfaces, sound becomes a dull nuisance. Anechoic chambers are rooms lined with absorbent soundproofing material where silence, in a way, can be much louder than sound. Because of this, anechoic chambers are almost physically painful to be in due to “sensory deprivation”. The human eardrum is incredibly sensitive, and in a room with no sound, the brain suddenly goes on “standby” mode, waiting for information that is normally received on a constant basis…which is a really weird feeling!

But that feeling can be a good thing! Cognitive dissonance, similar to harmonic dissonance, can produce psychological overtones called “binaural beats”, which are auditory artifacts produced by two “pure” sinusoidal waveforms tuned to ever-so-slightly different pitches and played one in each ear, thus creating a third perceived binaural tone, that being the sum and difference of the two. Yet another happy accident brought on by an imperfect dynamic imposed on a previously perfect one.

We detune oscillators everyday. Imagine if we didn’t, how painfully uninteresting that would sound, almost to the point of falling to our knees in writhing agony with our hands clamped over our ears, screaming “Somebody please make it stop! MAKE IT STOP!” Perfection is boring. As artists, in order to create beauty, we must corrupt.

However, not all imperfections are beautiful little snowflakes. Actually, there are many benefits of digital audio. Thanks to the application of C++ and the genius of modern DSP wizards encoding some truly revolutionary software, the “supersaw” has now become the “ultrasaw”. Unison engines are bigger and badder than ever before. Also, granular, additive and spectral synthesis would not have come nearly as far as they have if we were still soldering capacitors and transistors to circuit boards. Analog circuitry is a wonderful thing, but it has its limits.

But I’m getting off topic. Ah, yes, I believe I was talking about nothing. The reason I placed such emphasis on “the void” is because I think empty space is a largely underutilized aspect of modern sound design. We typically think of dynamic range as being the result of a sound source, but in recent years, we’ve been able to modulate reverb with automation clips, envelope followers and transient shapers in ways that challenge our understanding of dynamic range altogether. It’s time for a paradigm shift. Auspiciously, we’re living in a golden age of virtual instrumentation. Perhaps instead of trying to “think outside the box”, we should try to change the shape of the box. Maybe then, the box might become more habitable.

“My best moment is when — before I’m starting — I don’t know what I’m going to do…because when you know what you’re going to do, you start thinking, and by thinking, you reduce the chances of something greater than your thoughts.”  — Vangelis