Nothing really

by Dave Maier

Last month in this space I posted the notes to my latest ambient mix, and you may have noticed at that time that in those notes I slagged my own composition “Nothing really” – even in its title! – as being nothing much, and promised to explain later. Here I fulfill that promise.

If you listen to that track as featured in the mix, my judgment may seem a little harsh. The track is on the static side, but that’s hardly a fault in the context: the textures are lovely, and there’s plenty of movement; and at under four minutes it can’t really be said to overstay its welcome. A minor work, perhaps, but as a brief linking interlude it works perfectly well. So what’s the problem?

Well, I’ll tell you. Here’s how I made it: first, I fired up one of my many synthesizers (here a software synth called Aparillo, purchased in a discounted bundle with a bunch of other entirely out of control plug-ins from the same developer on this last Black Friday). Then I selected a particular preset supplied by the developer. Then – after adjusting the routing a bit, so that I would record sound rather than MIDI – I clicked Record on my DAW and pressed a single key on my MIDI controller (G4, maybe), and held that key down for about four minutes. There, finished! I didn’t do any further processing (synths tend to have built-in effects now, so that lush reverb is already there in the preset) or mastering or anything. Nor did I tweak the preset’s parameters in any way. It took about five minutes in total, most of which, again, was spent holding the key down and listening.

My questions here seem at first to be of two distinct kinds: conceptual/ontological and evaluative. What is “Nothing really”? Is it a musical composition, or perhaps a composition of another kind? Who composed it? and what determines the answers to these questions? And are they really distinct from evaluative questions, the main such question obviously being: how good (or bad) is it? Here too, what determines that?

What I am again struck by (the last time being when I considered, in a previous post, the status of another track of mine, which I had not yet determined to be “finished”), is the degree to which the answers to these questions depend on what we decide they are rather than on how the world is independently of us. (We knew this already, in a sense, since one of the things that makes art different from say, science, is this very feature of being not-quite-subjective but also not-quite-objective-either. On the other hand I myself think that’s true of everything – including science too, albeit, well, differently.) One wants to say: I’m the composer, and I get to say what it is! Even evaluations are in a sense up to me rather than to critics or the public. I get to say of a composition of mine, for example, that it’s bad, bad enough to delete, say if – however good it sounds to others – it doesn’t do what I intended it to do, and thus fails.

In this case, though, we have the additional worry that I might not really even count as the composer at all. All I did was hold down one key! Everything interesting in that track is due to the work of others: the developer who made the synth and the sound designer who programmed the preset patch (who might be the same person, I don’t even know). But this is where the evaluative aspect comes in; for what is interesting about (the experience of listening to) “Nothing really” cannot be assumed, as a purely critical matter – or so the natural assumption goes – to determine the track’s ontological status.

It’s surely within my compositional rights, for example, to identify the work with the pitches and durations of what music theorists like to call its “musical material,” subordinating its actual sound in performance – including, even, the instrument on which it is to be played – to a merely contingent aspect of that experience. Here we would clearly have a minimalist composition in the vein of, say, Lamonte Young or maybe Pauline Oliveros: a single extended tone. Or would we? After all, in my performance (the only one there is) that’s not at all what we hear. In fact we hear several pitches, including a recurring two-note figure. Of course I get to say whatever I want about the tones in my composition; I can even produce a written score, with just the one tone, there in black and white. If so, that makes my performance of this work a bit odd, to say the least. If I were interested in pure tone, following (doggedly, even shamelessly derivatively) my minimalist influences, then why did I select that particular synth patch, which obscures rather than manifests its alleged tonal structure? Why not an organ sound, for example, which would sound only the G4 (or whatever) I actually pressed? Yet as a matter of performance, such considerations are supposedly distinct from the constitutive power of my purely compositional choices. We hear them together, but without additional information (as manifested, perhaps, again, in a written score) we have no idea what swings free, conceptually speaking, from what.

Of course such a minimalist composition was in fact never my intent. As a work of ambient music, “Nothing really” is constituted not by the pitches either “performed” (on my controller) or heard (in the mix), but instead by the sounds that make it up (including the pitched ones; this can help distinguish ambient music from things like noise or musique concrète). So maybe we should credit the composition not to me but instead to the fine folks at Sugar Bytes. Now I never said (with my composer’s hat on) that this was ambient music; all I did was include it in a mix of same. Is that enough? (And if so, is it now a better work than the minimalist one would have been, while sounding exactly the same? and does it?)

Even now our analytical problems are just beginning. Before we credit the developer and/or the sound designer with the composition, we should note the following facts. First, there’s no reason to believe that either person intended that the synthesizer be used in the way I did. Unmodified synth preset sounds are indeed sometimes intended for use by musicians, as for example in hard-to-program synths like the Yamaha DX7 or other FM synthesizers: one grabs a bass or bell or piano sound and plays. This particular preset, though, I take it, is not like that (we find it in a folder called “Ambience”), and is most likely intended, as are many preset patches, simply to give an example of what the synth is capable of. When you study it and get how it works, you’re supposed to start over and program your own patches. Or possibly I am to use the patch as is, but merely as a sonic backdrop to whatever I decide to put in the foreground. In any case I’m surely not supposed to do what I actually did!

Similarly, these alleged composers did not determine the actual pitches we hear in “Nothing really” – the preset designer determined which pitches we hear relative to the keys pressed, but that’s all. Nor did they determine the piece’s length. It’s not even clear that there is such a thing as “the piece’s length”: since I intended from the start to use it in this mix, I recorded just as much as I thought I needed, and mixed in what seemed to me to be an appropriate amount. The designers didn’t even fully determine (despite the utter lack of modification I made to the patch) the sounds we hear. In mixing in what I did, I omitted the attack and release portions of the keypress; we hear only the sustain.

So how long is “Nothing really,” and which sounds in fact make it up? Again, it doesn’t exist separately from the mix I used it in. I mean, a soundfile does (not even called the same thing, if that matters), but as I mentioned, I recorded only as much as I thought I’d use for the mix. As far as I’m concerned, the attack and release parts of the sound are irrelevant to it, given its use in the mix. So does that mean that the beginning and end of the piece (as opposed to the soundfile) necessarily include (i.e. as part of the intended experience) the end of the previous track and the beginning of the subsequent one, played simultaneously with the beginning and end, respectively, of this one? What if I use it again in other mixes, or as part of a larger composition of my own, or rerecord it in a lower register (say G3 this time)? It may still suffer from its derivative nature, but that, again, is a critical problem, not (primarily) an ontological one.

Putting the latter questions aside, then, let’s put on our critical hat back on. What exactly is the nature of my transgression (for surely there is one)? It can’t simply be that my composition is derivative or otherwise uninspired, for that seems like something one should be able to tell by listening. It’s also not that severe a fault, in most cases. Indeed, it’s possible to see entire eras or genres of art as merely riding on the aesthetic coattails of the few geniuses among us. (For a taste of some of the various reflections in this vein provoked by Igor Stravinksy’s comment that “Good composers borrow; great composers steal,” Google that quotation and follow the links.)

That I am not an artistic genius I freely admit; and of course I’ve told you what I did. It may be that my transgression is best seen ultimately as a moral one. It’s not, let’s note, that I’ve done anything illegal. Compare in this context the case in which one ambient musician already known for his somewhat dodgy “appropriative” (my word) style released a record in 1999 which turned out to be a slightly slowed down version of another, much more talented musician’s entire album of four years earlier, leading the former’s record label to withdraw the tainted release once the deception came to light. One commenter notes that it is “still not clear if this was an error, a prank, or an act of pure evil.” In my case, it is entirely clear that as a legal matter, even if I had not come clean, and even if I had offered the track for sale without offering royalties of any kind to anyone at Sugar Bytes, I am entitled to do so by my purchase of the synthesizer in question, which grants legal license to all the sounds therein provided for whatever use, including commercial.

Still, I want to account for my sense that the fault in “Nothing really” goes beyond its aesthetically derivative status. As I’ve noted, the track is perfectly enjoyable – unless perhaps one has oneself listened already to that Aparillo preset and wondered what to do with it. In such a case the track is completely ruined: it’s just that same preset, with nothing changed! The moral issue, if that’s what it is, seems to me to be the night-and-day difference between the two experiences (knowing and not knowing). In contrast, our enjoyment of Robin Trower’s guitar playing, on such records as Bridge of Sighs (1974), is only somewhat dimmed, or so I claim, by hearing only afterward the Hendrix tracks which the former guitarist, recording just a few years after Jimi’s untimely death, just about cites by chapter and verse.

I may not have an ethical obligation to be original, and as we’ve seen, I may use the sounds I purchased any way I like. But in using them the way I did, I risk (as I claim even as faithful an homager as Robin Trower did not) ruining a listener’s experience of the very real aesthetic virtues of the sounds one hears at that part of the mix. After hearing the “original,” one can only say of “Nothing really”: that’s a nice preset; maybe someone should do something with it.

And yet, I of all people know this, and it still sounds fine to me. But if that’s not it, then what is it?