Sometimes the best way to learn is by watching others fail.
When we read, view, or listen to a work by a master, a work we admire for its perfection, the craft that went into it is not always apparent on the surface. The master makes the process of creation appear effortless. When we attempt, in our own work, to emulate that seeming effortlessness, we may feel (perhaps because we put so little effort into the work) that we have succeeded. The differences between our clumsy efforts and the work of the master may remain entirely invisible to us. We may think, “I did pretty much the same thing he (Updike, or Picasso, or Prince) did, except for some details.”
How much more painful, yet revealing, to check out works by a few amateurs. The ways in which their technique is inadequate, their clumsy groping palpable, their excesses painful, are likely to be obvious. And again, if we’re honest, we may find ourselves, realizing, “Yeah, I did the same thing he did, except for some details.”
I learned this lesson years ago, in a critique group for writers. I once read, for instance, a detailed outline of a novel in which all of the interesting action was taking place offstage. The plot moved forward as the main characters, who were marooned on a planet, made brilliant guesses about what must be transpiring in orbit thousands of miles overhead. The lesson: Put the action onstage, and keep it there!
This week I’ve been listening to a few amateur electronic music tracks on Broadjam. It’s a great site, if a bit commercial. Founder Roy Elkins laid a membership on me last year (thanks, Roy!), but I drifted away from it. Now I’m back, drawn in by (among other things) the fact that members can upload hi-res mp3s at 192 or 256kbps, and Broadjam will stream them without dropping the bit rate back to 128. SoundCloud stomps on the bit rate, so goodbye, SoundCloud.
So now I’m checking out the new music on Broadjam. The most pervasive flaw I’m hearing is, I suppose, lack of imagination. I might hear what seems to be a great intro, for instance … but it isn’t the intro, it’s the main subject of the piece, and the composer hammers on it again and again and again, never taking it anywhere.
Repeating a two-bar phrase four times does not produce an eight-bar phrase. It produces a two-bar phrase that’s repeated four times. Repetition, while highly regarded in pop music, is basically an awful thing, to be avoided. But random variations aren’t enough. When you change something, the change has to be meaningful. Lazy composers repeat; industrious composers always have more things to say.
Melody? Don’t ask. In most of the electronic tracks I’m hearing, there is no melody, just a rhythm groove. If there’s a high figure, in the melodic register, it’s repeated without variation. Chord progressions are not as rare as melody, but the progressions I’m hearing are pedestrian or disorganized.
Contrary to popular belief, adding a new layer of rhythm groove on top of an existing groove does not make the music more exciting. It just makes it busier (if you’re lucky) or hopelessly cluttered (if you’re not).
Predictable breaks are a constant hazard in bad dance music. The kick drops out for eight bars, and then it comes back in, and that’s supposed to give the music a dramatic lift. But it doesn’t, because we’ve heard the identical strategy employed about a thousand times before.
The point of subjecting myself to this torment is, now I’m listening to my own work-in-progress and thinking, “Is this boring, or what?” I need to become more imaginative. I need to stop relying on stock progressions and repeated phrases. I think I’ve got the melody and intro thing mostly under control, but I need to become daring.
That’s it. Become daring.
Fortunately, I’ve just ordered a dozen classic CDs by Frank Zappa. In a few days I’ll be up to my elbows in daring.