THE ETHICS OF OVERDUBS
Written by: Alex Ferris
I’ve always preferred live music made by a group of people to tracked music. In the truest sense a recording is no more music than a photograph of a person is a person. Still, there are many photographs (mostly of absent or deceased people and animals) I find myself treasuring. A recording of music is similar to that. Essentially it is a photograph of a deceased moment in time.
My musical life has been spent working collaboratively in bands and the skill I most value is the ability to listen and spontaneously respond to the contributions and stimuli of others. The dissolution of the drama of selfhood is not only a spiritual goal, but a musical one.
Still, there are periods in life when one is on ones own, when
collaborators have not manifest, and I, compelled and obliged by my
nature to organize sounds, end up making tracked music anyway. Silence
is very nearly impossible for me, it exists, when it occurs, in
relation to the sounds that precede and follow upon it. Leave me alone
in a room with instruments and a recording device and I’ll start
tracking. It is a flawed process, but, to me, a flawed process is
preferable to no process at all (as my grandmother used to say:
"there's no point in making the perfect the enemy of the good"). I've
ended up making hours of non-simultaneous music.
In the first place, the relationship to time is a strange one. The same time is also different time and different times become one time. Spontaneity is not spontaneous.
In the second place, different parts generated by the same mind create a unanimity of concept that couldn’t exist in a collective context. The suspension of self required for collective improvisation, that allows ones ideas to pulled in different contextual directions, can’t exist under these circumstances. Where collective music anchors itself around several centers of gravity, music from a single mind can have only one.
Some would consider this a consummation to be wished. Those who love Mozart, Bach, or any other music directed or composed by a single person have come to expect this in what they hear. Raised in a society of hierarchies we anticipate this and are often made uncomfortable by its absence.
Making music in highly individuated circumstances is more a compositional process than a performing one. There are illusions of coherence built into this sort of music that can’t exist in collective improvisation. I think of this music as studies, proposals for something that may or may not ever happen. The ideas I explore and the aspects of them I uncover may prove valuable in a future (collective) situation.
Despite the implicit drawbacks of this methodology, it is essential that I pursue it. I have never heard perfect music anyway. Besides my personal compulsion to make noise, there is the practical matter of learning to use the instruments and the necessary process of subjecting them to use in order to find their strengths and weaknesses.
My conundrum, when working on my own, is how best to bring my experience and disposition to bear on a situation which is essentially contrary to my skills and aesthetics. In response to this I have adopted a group of methodologies.
I tend to work as improvisationally as possible. Since time isn’t time in the linear sense, this takes a different form from the way I’d improvise in a live / collaborative situation. I don’t think up the parts in advance. I add them as if I were playing the music for the first or second time. Occasionally I do rehearse before recording, but generally not. I generally chose instruments and their tunings as I go and write each part as I play it. Aside from cleaning up beginnings and endings (which are necessarily sloppy), I don’t edit what I’ve played. Once a part has been played it remains part of the piece. I don’t use the same instrument twice in a single piece. I usually use whole pieces rather than shortening them and I never add to their duration. I don’t loop anything, every note is a played note in the ‘real’ time of it’s own track.
Compositional ideas evolve rather than get implemented. The only preconception I bring to a given piece is a general elemental one, i.e., a time signature, a pedal point, a tone row. These may derive from spontaneous inspiration or analytical thought. Every piece is an experiment, a meditation on a musical idea or a class of musical ideas. Some experiments are more fruitful than others. The least successful tend to disintegrate because the subject of the initial meditation lacks unity.
The "now is not now" predicament of this method has fostered the use of ostinati (tonal or rhythmic) and my interest in playing a particular basic part (my concentration on it) has determined the length of the piece. Ostinati (particularly in uneven time signatures) tend to make time more cyclical and static, which makes playing in non-linear time more realistic to me. Each repetition presents a Rashomon-like view of the ingredients and structure of the musical cell. ("Difference inhabits repetition" -Gilles Deleuze) In the absence of a collective perspective, this provides a substitute diversity of perceptions of the germ of the piece. Another aspect of ostinati is that they tend to subvert the distinction between melody and accompaniment, the hierarchy of parts that tends to make some more equal than others.
Sonorities evolve as well. I tend not to have an expectation of what the finished piece will sound like (when I do the expectation is wrong). Many of the instruments I have build have come out of the desire for a particular sound, unavailable on my existing instruments, in the course of recording.
I have no specific goals in making music. Only the process of hearing
and playing. I have very little sense of authorship. I think of the
pieces I produce as "what came out" at the time and under the
circumstances. At the same time I have a strong (yankee, perhaps) work
ethic that obliges me (for my own mental / spiritual well-being) to
produce and I have realized after half a century on earth that it
behooves me to produce sound rather than something I have less interest
in. I am frequently surprized by the results of the work I do. Often I
end up making music I wouldn’t have thought I was interested in.
"I, as the composer, have no idea how the piece will sound in
performance. And why should I? Our "Great Musical Heritage" is not in
the immutable grooves of the thousands of gramaphone records
transmitting to us the great voices of the past. It is the enrichment
of something primitive that we all carry around inside us: our living
response to present experience."
"Ethics, which is to say, a typology of immanent modes of existence,
replaces morality, which always refers existence to transcendent
values. Morality is the judgement of God, the system of judgement. But
Ethics overthrows the system of judgement. The opposition of values
(Good-Evil) is supplanted by the qualitative difference of modes of
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