Asking the Right Question
2015 and 2016 were banner years for my expansion into new styles of music. Most memorably, I learned an important life lesson from Electronic Dance Music (EDM). “EDM?”, you say… Yep, EDM. It was EDM that forced me to reevaluate my long-held, (and totally untrue) belief that great work was accomplished by answering the question “how” – for example, “HOW did Jimi Hendrix kick so much ass?” or “How does a F#!*@#g envelope filter work?!” If you’ve ever tried to grasp the concept of an envelope filter then you won’t think I’m being dramatic… I’ve learned some interesting things – specifically, that “how” was the wrong questions. “Why” is a better question – and the one I should be asking.
Mute the “how”, Turn up the “why”. This is my new mantra and I say it to myself nowadays when I’m stuck in a creative rut. I was taught as a child to always start a new endeavor by asking myself how it was going to be accomplished. In 2015, circumstances would pit this feeble notion against the brutal power of music – and I, the student, would learn how feeble that notion was. Let me tell you how it happened…
I got a sweet Nord Lead 2 synthesizer and I decided to take a crack at making some EDM tracks – just for fun (I thought it would be easy). The first thing I did was research how EDM works – how did that cool shit that Armen Van Buuren does actually happen? I read my Ableton manual (how does Beat Repeat work?), surfed youtube, made some pads and a cool bass patch and got to work… frankensteining a bunch of 8-bar loops into my very own EDM track.
When I was done, I was like “OMG – this is crap!”. I repeated this process dozens of times. Each time was the same. Each track was a steaming pile of crap. As time passed and I struggled to understand why I wasn’t getting anywhere, I realized that I had answered only the “how” and not the “why”. I was bummed out. It was a dark time.
I’m laughing as I write this because I had a classic case of what I’ll call the “Frankenstein Syndrome.” That is a shame-inducing psychological condition that creative artists develop when they find themselves trapped by their own intellects and out of touch with their true, supernatural source of creativity. I had the Frankenstein Syndrome bad. Rather than sleep, I had restless dreams where I’d repeatedly be MIDI mapping a knob in Ableton – it was bad mojo. I had learned the techniques and developed a vast set of technical skills. I knew my gear end-to-end (and I have pro gear). But, there was no electricity, no satisfaction – the music was not “musical”. This was because I was asking “how.” I should have been asking “why”.
The Wandering Path… Again…
There’s more to my story than discouragement, though. My Frankenstein Syndrome was just a necessary step on my path to enlightenment. My intellect was literally exhausted trying to get my lifeless corpse (to continue the Frankenstein metaphor) to have a beating heart. Since EDM can be setup to run on autopilot (using 8-bar loops, quantizing and tempo-sync) that is a very common approach. In fact many of the tools for modern music production incentivize artists to let their computers do ALL the heaving compositional lifting.
I intuited (falsely) that EDM was formulaic and so, I thought it would be easy to compose and create. And the kind of EDM that is static and lifeless IS easy – its just not the least bit electrifying or satisfying (think 24 Hour Fitness). My discouragement turned to enlightenment when my intellect finally collapsed under the weight of the unsolvable problem. Slowly, my unstructured creative intuition took over. How became why. It was a very important moment for me.
What is “Why”?
“Why” comes from a creative source – the intellect isn’t involved. There’s no middle man. “Why” is a direct channel for creativity to manifest itself in reality. It wouldn’t surprise me if most artists occasionally say to themselves “stop what you’re doing! Why are you doing anything at all?!”
The “why” should and MUST be answered first. “Why am I using a distortion pedal?”… “Why am I playing this solo or fill?”… Answering these kinds of fundamental questions helped me to establish a direct connection with my original, authentic, ultimate source of my creativity. Prior to asking why, I was asking how and as a result I was always just talking to my intellect about technique. That conversation wasn’t getting me anywhere. Thus, my EDM tracks were a hot mess.
“Forget All That and Just Wail”
So, I crawled back to Ableton with hope in my heart. Mute the “how”, turn up the “why”. Next, I made my devices expressive (it turns out that’s what mod wheels are for!). I started seeing a totally different outcome from my EDM tracks – sourcing all my creative ideas from the why was breathing life into my music. By changing the way I was thinking, I connected with a creative source that made it much easier to make better music.
Finally, I’ll conclude with an aside – the technical aspects of how stuff works is really important. I don’t mean to diminish the value of practicing or studying music at all. Before I could expressively bend a guitar string I needed to figure out HOW and then practice it, technically and practically. This article is a reflection and explaination of a creative catharsis that I went through.
Discipline is still an really important artistic step, though. As Charlie Parker said “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”