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Thursday, 27 March 2014

Making an album, part 3: The tyranny of choice

One of the things I think about during the recording sessions for my album is the question of just how far I should try to push the musical envelope.  By that, I mean: how much time should I devote to experimenting with the sounds?  My songs invariably start out as chords strummed on a guitar or vamped on a piano, but the recording studio is a creative space in which basic ideas can be re-imagined and transformed, given flight by the power of imagination and a degree of technical nous. The limp little caterpillar of your home demo might become a beautiful soaring butterfly once the studio witch doctor has worked his gadget-magic, evoking the software gods of sonic sheen and sparkle.  So why spend time, one might ask, making music that sounds a bit like some other music that folk will have heard a thousand times before?  Perhaps I should set my sights on creating something unique, something so idiosyncratic and personal that only I could have made it?

While it can be tempting to embrace the unusual or the outrĂ© in the belief that one is somehow expanding the boundaries of art, there is often a fine line between the interesting and the frivolous; one man’s bold experimentation might be another man’s self-indulgence.  One of the dangers of pursuing originality for the sake of it is that you may lose sight of the more important pursuit of excellence (I’ll get around to a definition of ‘excellence’ at some point).        

Many years ago, I read a piece about the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.  It focused on his unusual and experimental approach to composition, waxing lyrical about his pioneering ‘twelve-tone’ method (don’t ask) and his use of ‘hexachordal inversional combinatoriality’ (no, really … don’t ask).  Enthused by the article, I fell for the “challenging, revolutionary and experimental, your-life-will-not-be-complete-until-you-have-embraced-this-music” baloney and bought a copy of the composer’s Piano Concerto Op. 42.  I listened to it. Then I 'listened' to it. Then I really concentrated and listened some more.  I tried to convince myself that I was getting into it: "No, wait ... this little section here is quite good. Listen ... I can almost hear a tune trying to break out."

But it was no use.  I enjoy a bit of hexachordal inversional combinatoriality as much as the next man (particularly if it has a good beat and maybe a sexy female vocalist), but I had to give up on Schoenberg’s music.  Not because it was too 'difficult', although it probably was indeed 'challenging, revolutionary, experimental' etc.  I gave up because I thought it was dreadful. 

There are plenty of examples of music disappearing up its own backside in the pursuit of grandiosity or arch quirkiness; by the same token, I’ve heard plenty of stuff that is well constructed and beautifully recorded, but manages to lack any semblance of spark, energy or wit.  I’ve nothing against difficult or challenging music, but I don’t think it should get a critical free pass just because it is difficult or challenging.  Art works best when there is balance between content and form.  By all means try to be a pioneer, but your content must be able to cash the cheque written by the radical aspects of your chosen form. 

But challenging established notions of song-writing is not on my agenda; I’m too set in my ways to be radical. My preference is for well-structured songs that express ideas or emotions or tell an interesting story, but for any musician who is in the mood to push that musical envelope, the opportunities for studio experimentation are probably greater now than they have ever been.  
Before the advent of multi-tracking (i.e. the ability to layer sounds one on top of the other), engineers and musicians had to learn their parts and record them in a single take.  If they messed up, they had to do it again.  If they got a perfect take, but there was perhaps a rogue sound on one of the microphones, they either lived with the imperfection or recorded the entire thing again.  In those days, the role of the producer was to capture a performance, or series of performances, by musicians.  Multi-tracking changed the way that music was recorded, but more importantly, it changed the way that producers and musicians heard and imagined music.  You could argue that The Beatles and the Beach Boys picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Phil Spector and redefined the relationship between music and technology.  Now that we’re in the digital age, it is probably fair to say that the technological leap in the recording process during the last fifty years is equivalent to the difference between travelling on a push bike and travelling on a jumbo jet.

With the range of options available to studio musicians heading somewhere in the direction of the infinite, every decision now competes against a bewildering range of alternatives.  There is no sound that can’t be manipulated, fixed, imagined or executed; an editing task that once might have taken days to execute can now be managed with a few clicks of a mouse.  Recorded instruments can be layered, stacked and treated to an extent that was impossible in the days of analogue tape.  But with an arsenal of gadgetry and some very smart software at your disposal, you can easily end up chasing your tail in the chimerical pursuit of aural nirvana. 

Do you need a perfect valve amp sound for your guitar?  Just run it through this plug-in and there are 150 possible options.  And what if we chopped up that guitar chord, reversed it, arpeggiated it, then used it as a texture underneath the verse piano? Maybe we could make that piano sound like it was recorded in an old abandoned church?  While we’re at it, let’s try messing that vocal up so that it sounds like a cello being attacked by a chainsaw, underwater. 

Ed McArthur at Stealth, my co-producer on this album, is currently working with another artist who has a recorded a song with somewhere around 200 vocal takes and another couple of hundred instrumental tracks. That’s on one song.  They won’t be able to use all that information in the final mix, but they’ve given themselves a hell of a lot of options (and probably some sleepless nights).   
But having a million options isn’t necessarily a good thing, as anyone who has ever tried to exercise restraint in an ‘eat all you want’ Chinese buffet will testify.  On a bad day, that bewilderment of choice can lead to indecision and even inertia.  Just because it’s possible to have 200 instrumental alternatives on a track doesn’t mean that you should do it.    

As the album begins to take some kind of shape (in my head, at least), I find –once again- that I’m gravitating towards material that, to my ear, ticks some of the key boxes to do with construction, melody, depth of feeling and pleasing-on-the-ear chord changes.  I’m quite willing to manipulate sounds and play around with unusual instrumental textures, but the shape of the song, the integrity of the composition, has to remain intact.  I’ve got pretty clear ideas of where I want each of these tracks to go and I’m hopeful that I’ll know when it’s time to experiment and when it’s time to just nail the basic arrangement.       

The astute reader may have spotted by now that this essay is a thinly-veiled attempt to head off at the pass any criticism of my music for being safe, pedestrian and middle-of-the-road.  So, having started this piece by talking about experimentation, the link below will take you to a song -called 'I like your shoes'- that I realised pretty quickly wasn’t going to be messed round with or built up into a many-layered wonder. 

A couple of years ago, I saw a picture that had been taken at a big anti-capitalist demonstration in one of the major European cities.  It featured the striking image of a man, his face obscured behind a balaclava, about to throw a missile at some policemen.  The protestor was dressed in expensive designer gear and it struck me as odd –to say the least- that he was ‘protesting’ against a lifestyle that he appeared to endorse through his expensive choice of label wear.  I wondered if the guy had actually thought the thing through.  Maybe, like others I could name in the political sphere, he was merely operating a policy of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.  Or perhaps he just liked throwing stuff at policemen.  Once the subject matter was established (with the starting point being the focus on the protestor’s expensive trainers) the lyric almost wrote itself.  I wanted to keep it simple, in the spirit of old-style protest songs, the twist being that it’s a protest song about a protest.  It also seemed somehow appropriate for me to blag and then invert Gil Scott-Herron’s line about the revolution not being televised.

There is not much to this recording apart from some double-tracked acoustic guitar and piano, with a little bit of rudimentary percussion.  And yes, if I was true to my word I would have recorded it one take, just me and my battered old acoustic. 

But it’s my party and I’ll overdub if I want to.  


I like your shoes

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