The techniques and working methodology required when making music are applicable to all creative practices. By that measure, Head of Documentation at Ableton and ‘Making Music’ author Dennis DeSantis has created, if not the elixir to a music wonderland, then an essential musical tool.
Dennis’ examination of existentialist mantras of ‘goal-less exploration’ and ‘write drunk edit sober’ combine to create a coherent guide to creative strategy. So whether fighting through a hazy, creative funk, or focussed on “the whole funk and nothing but the funk,” take off those headphones for a few minutes and let Dennis tell you more.
Q) How important do you think is it to have a model of ‘workflow’?
I think mental models are important only insofar as they help you get work done. I know people who can’t really function without a written plan of their project or their day, with things like color-coded to-do lists. I know others who couldn’t function with those things, and seemingly balance their whole projects and/or lives in their heads.
What’s important about workflow is that it’s personal, and that you find the one that maximizes your own productivity and happiness. It’s also important that you’re constantly reassessing, refining, and optimizing this personal workflow. It could always be better.
Each artist has to decide for themselves where “style” gives way to “repetition,” and also whether or not it even matters.
Q) One of the problems you identified in the ‘Avoidance List’ chapter is producing work that may be repetitive i.e. sounding similar to previous work. Where do you think the line in the sand is between creating a ‘style’ – exploring a particular space and just being creatively monotonous? [And can you cite any examples of artists who manage to navigate this space well?]
All of my answers to these questions are starting to feel like cop-outs but, again, I think this is totally personal. There is no line in the sand. Each artist has to decide for themselves where “style” gives way to “repetition,” and also whether or not it even matters. Some artists are probably perfectly happy making the same thing over and over again, and if this satisfies their creative desires, who’s to say they’re wrong? I actually find it hard to think of well-known artists who don’t navigate this space well. I find this is more of a problem for emerging or new artists, where they’ve gotten themselves into a repetition rut only because they don’t yet have the musical or technical know-how to push against and expand their own creative boundaries.
Q) What’s the value of listening to music that you hate?
It’s important to remember that no matter how bad you think something is, how little it resonates with you personally, it’s likely that someone out there absolutely loves it. What I find interesting is trying to figure out why; what is it in this music that works so well for someone else? Is there anything in this music that you can extract or repurpose for your own work? I’m not suggesting that you try to make art that satisfies the same people who love the thing you hate, but rather that there might be some aspect of that other music that’s usable in your own context.
The examples I cite in my book—opera and country—are not actually genres I hate, but are genres which I expect are outside of the normal listening experience of many electronic producers. But there are incredible things happening in that music. Opera, for example, sustains drama and musical coherence over massive amounts of time. Country music (especially the stuff from big-budget Nashville studios) has incredible production values; it just sounds huge. Whether you like this music or not, there’s something to learn from it, and this is true for everything.
Q) ‘Write drunk edit sober’ – can you elaborate a bit on that philosophy?
To clarify: it’s not about substance abuse. It’s about separating the acts of creation and editing into unrestrained and disciplined thinking, respectively. The idea is that you generate lots of material in a kind of reckless, uncontrolled way, without stopping to judge it. Just make more and more, keeping everything you make, no matter how sloppy or ugly or weird. Then you switch gears, put on your disciplined editor’s hat, and do the tedious work of throwing out all of the garbage, keeping the stuff that’s worth keeping, and organizing what makes the cut into something that works.
I advocate these as separate processes. Trying to edit while writing forces both mindsets to compromise. You end up making less than you could, eliminating the possibility of happy accidents. And you end up being less careful with your editing, potentially holding on to material that should have been cut.
Q) You touch on the subject of ‘Goal-less exploration’: creating without any intended specific outcome. Do you have any stories of where you started a piece of work from that stand point?
Actually, I think almost everything I make comes from this process. I rarely sit down with the goal of making a killer track (and if I do, it’s usually wasted work; I end up with junk). My best music has come out of unfocused experimentation—trying out a new synth, or experimenting with some kind of processing chain that I haven’t tried out before, or just noodling around with a simple sound until I land on a chord progression that’s worth keeping.
I think it’s healthy to strive for some kind of perfect ideal, as long as you maintain the understanding that it’s unattainable and that the best you can do is narrow the gap between your aspirations and your actual output.
Q) Perfectionism in creativity – a limiting force or necessary evil?
I guess both. Or neither. Again, it’s personal. There are probably artists who are willing to settle for less than the best, and they may make amazing things anyway. I guess this is called natural talent. For the rest of us, I think it’s healthy to strive for some kind of perfect ideal, as long as you maintain the understanding that it’s unattainable and that the best you can do is narrow the gap between your aspirations and your actual output.
What I think is probably unhealthy is the kind of narcissism that allows some artists to aim for perfection and then think they’ve actually achieved it. That isn’t possible. If there was a perfect piece of art, why would anyone need to make any more?
Abandoning projects in the middle is a surefire recipe for continuing to abandon future projects. Electronic producers tend to have folders and folders full of half-finished music, and I find this a tragedy.
Q) The book ends with ‘Fail better’ a mantra that has become ubiquitous with Start-up culture. How can we best facilitate ‘creative mishaps’ as a natural part of the process to become better creatives?
I’m not thinking so much about creative mishaps as I am about practicing finishing. If you recognize that what you’re making is going to be a failure, I advocate getting to the end anyway, so you can feel what it feels like to finish. The hope is that you’ll fail less next time, but that you’ll also get to experience finishing. The only way to get better at finishing songs is to finish songs.
Abandoning projects in the middle is a surefire recipe for continuing to abandon future projects. Electronic producers tend to have folders and folders full of half-finished music, and I find this a tragedy. There are surely great ideas in there, and fear of failure (or success) is what’s keeping those things unfinished. It takes mental energy to leave tasks uncompleted; you know they’re there, even if you don’t look at them. I encourage everyone to get stuff done—even if it’s awful—so you can clear the mental air and move on to the next thing with a fresh creative mind.
Making Music. 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers, a book by Dennis DeSantis, is available via Ableton