Sunday, September 16, 2007

Artistic Veering

I veer and skate between many nodes of attraction. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. I don't believe it's anything special. Nor do I believe that any artist, myself included, is required to work in only one artform or medium. I work in a lot of different media, and I move between them at need. Not always at will, mind you, but rather as opportunity presents itself.

The worst part of the creative life is finding enough free time in which to get everything done that I want to work on. As disgustingly prolific and productive as I am, the list of projects To Be Done is always large and looming. I'll never have enough time to get them all done. Organizational and management tasks are often set aside in order to work on a project. Piles of work buildd up, then eventually I have to spend a day doing nothing but sorting and file-management.

I like being asked to work, to present or do a piece. It helps me focus. I like commissions and requests; they get me going, and help me build momentum on a given project, and finish it. Commissions also give me an excuse to budget the time in which to work. Otherwise, the daily requirements of running a household, doing errands, meeting people, can completely eat up the day, and keep me from getting anything creative done. Every day that I don't get something creative done feels like a distraction or a waste. I am never spending enough effort on the business aspects of art-making; I'm probably a better businessperson than I think I am, yet I often feel like it's harder to connect my artwork with its audience than it was to make it.

After too long a gap, I was at the recording studio in Chicago this past week, and got a lot of music and DVD work done. This time out in the studio I mostly played keyboards, various new softsynths (software synthesizers). Softsynths are getting so powerful these days we barely use the old hardware synths at all. We recorded and finished a new ambient piece the first night. The afternoon of the second day, we reviewed solo piano tracks that I had recorded a year ago, choosing which to work on this week, and which would sound good with which video project. We picked a ten-minute piano improv to work on, and I tracked three more keyboard (softsynth) layers. That evening, we mixed both tracks, and were done by midnight, with over twenty minutes of finished new music. There's also a third piece, a shorter piano piece I improvised last year, which only needs equalization and mixing, and it's done.

This music, which is designed in part to accompany my video and photographic work, is not rock & roll. It doesn't propel, it doesn't drive, it's not loud and exciting and energizing. It's very cool, instead of hot. It moves slowly, it goes places, but it takes a long time to get there. It doesn't pound an idea into your head with hammers, in fact it lets you discover the journey for yourself. You can ignore if you want to. One option on the DVDs is to play them silently, as Ambient TV, or a slowly-changing art gallery within the frame of your widescreen monitor. It's ambient music. Apparently anti-dramatic, it still contains narrative and reflection, but without romantic bombast or overt pulse.

Ambient music, the way I play it, never moves slowly enough. Constantly we say to ourselves during mixing, It's still moving too fast, it's still too dense, take out more. I return again and again to St.-Exupery's comment that Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. we use the Better Button a lot, which means we keep deleting things we had previously added in, to find the right balance of breath and pause, of gesture and silence. (Your Delete key on your standard keyboard is your Better Button, because taking things out usually makes it better.)

I thought, too, when I was tracking the keyboard synth parts, that in neither of these new pieces is there a strong tonal center. It's not "tonal" music. It doesn't contain strong cadences, it doesn't have tension-and-release in the same way tonal music sets up with its constant II-V-I chord pattern. This ambient music is modal, or multi-tonal. It spends a lot of time avoiding the tonal center, only touching on it lightly before moving away. This gives the music a sensation of floating, of hovering, without landing except gently. The implied tonal center is touched on lightly, then a great deal of time is spent avoiding it. The chords I chose to use are thick, often enharmonic clusters within the scale. You can think of them as moving 9th chords, or suspended 6ths and 4ths. The overall effect is of slowly-moving clouds that imply a center but are too full and thick to be blatant about it. I love music that is thick and sensuous like this. Harmonically lush, melodically simple.

Somewhere in all this is grace, and gracefulness. I'm back in Wisconsin now, and spent most of the day quietly. I chased the deer away from the flowerbed once. I'm watching the afternoon shadows made by the woods play on the lawn as I write. I've done some cleaning and organizing. I will listen again to what I recorded these past few days, but later. Now I'm veering off in another direction, to do something else for the rest of the afternoon.

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