Life=good! DAW’s=bad?

Life imitates art. Process over result. Form follows function. Words of wisdom, Lloyd, words of wisdom.

I’d like to continue the discussion of what I call “writing from the top down,” not to make a pedantic plea of paternal purism, but rather to maybe try to get my own head around how to avoid the urge to corrupt the process of composing. We incur the corrupt process by overusing and relying too heavily upon the use of  software tools to record, layer, process and mix our music.

When we write from the bottom up, we start with a sound, usually these days a beat, groove or a loop, add a couple of things, then keep going until we have built up enough to have something to listen to. But really haven’t we been listening all along, judging, making hundreds of decisions in fifteen minutes about sound, placement, blend, tempo, key, texture? Each layered track presents a new sound to compare with what you’ve already put down. As soon as you plop the new track in, the whole piece changes–what’s “under” it sounds different, and the new track takes on a new role. Then you add another track and the previous one disappears into the soup as you focus on the ever changing sound of your piece.

Once we’re done tracking we have a whole screen full of sound, each decision along the way exists within the many layers and interlocking parts of your tracks. We’ve built a foundation to set music on, floated a lot of ideas on top of it until we like one, then gone over it with the red light on until full.

Now the “creativity” continues, either by mixing right away, varying the volumes of parts, adding effects, or going back to cut and paste and edit what’s already there. We use tools with presets that someone else designed. Maybe some things are repeated, some are cut out all together. Sometimes we’re even forced to compensate for bad decisions made back in the lower levels by tweaking things to fit, all to make things “sound better.” Maybe we want to vary the orchestration in a few sections–so we have to “thin it out” or “break it down.” I would argue that at this point we are utilizing a creatively subtractive process, and that decisions we’ve already made and sounds already on tape are by their very existence guiding and influencing and perhaps even inhibiting our choices. Plus, once something’s recorded it’s damn easy to get used to it after listening back 35 times. Why do you think you like the color of your living room paint job?

Writing from the top down is a much different process, and the result is way different. It’s really hard to do on a computer with a linear track view DAW, easier on software such as Abelton Live. It’s the only way write when you write onto score paper. Does anyone actually compose the accompaniment first?  (don’t answer that question!)

When you start with a simple idea, like a short melody or phrase, and take it from there, everything flows from that phrase. Your intent is clear and your choices have to be honest. The process is creatively additive, you build your bottom support as you need it, as you move through the piece the needs for support and the overall texture can change radically. By design, not by necessity.

Top down writing involves a psychic shift, employs an economy of means, and is a functional, motivic, melodic and orchestrationally honest way to conceive music. It doesn’t have to be on paper, but the original intent and idea of the piece, whether it’s a quick jazz tune or a large score, has to exist in your mind first–before it hits the score or the ‘puter. It requires vision, foresight, orchestrational skill, knowledge of intent and development, and it also requires knowing when not to write something, before you write, playback, evaluate, and affect the course of the entire piece. This way of writing music looks more like the Calder mobile hanging from the ceiling than the nice strong table below it.

We write our life stories from the bottom up–the process of living layers lots of things on top of each other; we drag many things around with us which from time to time have to be edited; then we reach in, pull out other items and celebrate them. Living in a usually linear time line gives us good reason to attract layers. In the realm of music,  improvisors and composers can predict the future. But the DAW of life is linear, and (for the most part) in real time, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t see around the corner. Maybe it’s a house of cards, each part precariously supports the part above it and rests on top of what’s beneath, maybe it has a really strong foundation and lots of cool tracks that fit together nicely.

Next I’ll give some really good examples of top down writing in the jazz world.

About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
This entry was posted in Jazz Composition and Analysis, Theory and Harmony and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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