How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disappointing Feedback

Recently, I went for coffee with one of my friends from Birmingham Conservatoire. Over the course of catching up with him, conversation drifted towards his reactions to Tangents. Whilst he thought it was interesting (or, at least, was polite enough to feign interest), the largest piece of criticism he had was about how quickly the musical ideas developed within each improvisation. He wished that we had dwelled upon the ideas for a longer amount of time, exploring each in more nuance. Previously, I had heard a similar comment before, again from a composer from the Conservatoire. Admittedly, I was rather surprised at this feedback, as each track was already rather long. After living with the recording, I had personally felt satisfied with the pace of the tracks, and I would be wrong to admit that I was disappointed by this critique. In addition, the length of the tracks themselves may be a deterrent to listeners. According to the statistics which are provided from bandcamp, most people, when streaming Tangents online, stop listening before 90% of the track has finished, and that roughly one third of all listeners stop listening before 10% of the track has passed. This is particularly evident as the album progresses, with the total play count of the final track only 4% of the first. As I am very much invested in each track, it is disheartening that so few people make it all the way though. However, there are lessons to be learned in this. Given these (seemingly contrary) pieces of feedback, how can I prepare for future recording projects?

It is tempting to argue that whilst it may have felt natural to follow the development of ideas over the course of twenty minutes while performing, it may not feel natural to do so when listening. Thus, a large amount of my audience may simply not have the stamina or the attention span to listen to improvisation for that amount of time. However, there are significant issues with this argument. First, it is important to remember that bandcamp's metrics only measure the listening habits of those who are streaming the album online; there is no information about those who have downloaded the album. Listening through a website is a distinctly different social activity than listening through some other device, and may not reflect how all audience members are experiencing the recording. That being said, twenty minutes may be beyond the threshold for the subset of my audience (and, importantly, my potential audience) who stream the album. Second, extended tracks are not unheard of, particularly from within Western art and ambient traditions. Although my friend has had experience with such long performances, those performances may have different characteristics which allow them to take more time. His complaint was not necessarily with the length of each track, but the rate of change of musical ideas. Therefore, it may be worth slowing down the evolution of my improvised material – at least, to allow it to mature and develop at a rate which may feel more appropriate to audiences familiar with contemporary classical music.

Based on these thoughts, it is worth experimenting with the following: longer ideas, shorter tracks.

Rather than creating vast landscapes with many different features, my next venture into ensemble improvisation may focus on vignettes – crystallised moments of performance that explore the nuance found within musical ideas. Whether or not this approach is successful (however you choose to define it) is somewhat beyond the point. What I feel is most important is that I continually challenge the way that I craft my performances.

As my audience, what are your thoughts? What reactions have you had to the album? Do you have a preference for the rate of change in music – or do you even notice?

The Caveat.

It would be easy (and not entirely unexpected) for me as an artist to ignore elements of feedback which I do not necessarily agree with. At some point, we have to draw the line and perform what  and how we feel compelled to do. Otherwise, we run the risk that our artistic decisions become democratised to the extent that they become insipid. That being said, I vainly like having people listen to me. I want to please people, to make them happy, to make them want to be my audience. Within our attempts to strike a balance between these two motivations, we can find art and, possibly, humanity.

I Sing the Body Electric

In the past month, things have changed dramatically for me as a bass trombonist. After years of talking about it, I broke down and bought a Silent Brass mute not to practise with, but to use in combination with effects pedals. Upon experimenting with a variety of bass pedals borrowed from colleagues, I experienced a sound world completely unlike anything I had encountered before. This new set of equipment forced me to reconsider not only the technical strategies needed to play my trombone, but also my approach towards performance in general. Whilst there are many complexities inherent in this new system, I have an immense feeling of freedom about my playing.

Why should I feel this way? What cognitive baggage has accompanied my prior approaches performance that has prevented me from feeling so empowered?

Upon contemplating these questions, I concluded that acoustic instruments exist within a realm of nuances. Every aspect of the music – even the most microscopic – regularly comes under scrutiny. Training as a classical musician demands an attention to detail which could be considered obsessive. Looking back at my education, I remember many days where I obsessed over making my 'ka' articulation match my 'ta' articulation so my double-tonguing would be even. I remember recording myself on my computer and looking at the resulting waveforms to make sure that my notes decayed evenly. I remember trialling different breathing patterns within a phrase to my friends, just to see which one helped carry the phrase more. These activities were normal amongst my classical colleagues, and it was expected that I used such techniques to fine-tune my ability to perform.

When I put my trombone through effects pedals, however, all of those nuances went out the window. Adding effects allows my performance decisions to shape the resulting music in vastly different ways. Exploration and manipulation of timbre has become a joy, and I surprise myself regularly by the ease at which I can make sounds that bear no relation to the typical 'vocabulary' of a bass trombone. With a few small adjustments, I can sound similar to a trumpet, an electric guitar, an electric bass, an organ, voices, percussion, a synthesiser… the options are seemingly endless. However, I do not believe I should make myself sound exactly like any of those instruments. If I want to use the sound of a distorted guitar in a recording or performance, why spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to use a trombone when I could just use a guitar? What is unique about the sounds available to use is that even though they carry superficial timbral features of other instruments, I still behave idiomatically like a trombone. This results in what is almost an aural uncanny valley, where the normal means of identifying instruments through recordings may be confounded by mixed information.

This isn't to say that nuances in timbre, articulation, delay, and so on do not exist when I use effects pedals. Rather, they become overshadowed by sonic variables of a much larger magnitude. These new variables have been thrilling to explore, and have provided the cognitive friction to spur on my creative output. To be honest, I'm starting to consider my trombone as more of a wind-powered synthesiser than a brass instrument. Why not?

The results of this exploration can be heard on my forthcoming album of improvised duets and trios with drummer Andy Edwards and electric bassist Steve Lawson, both fascinating and deeply inspiring musicians. Keep checking the website for further updates on this exciting project!


Creativity Through Restriction

A few weeks ago, I came across the following statement:

To which, I replied:

…encouraging the following dialogue:

Although it was certainly a challenge, I found that forcing myself to pare down my writing during my doctorate resulted in several outcomes. First, it became quickly apparent if I had clearly thought through the ideas I was writing down. Waffling about tangential subjects that only skirted the edges of what I actually needed to say was rather counterproductive, and forced me to question if I actually knew what I needed to say at all. Second, my understanding of the nuances of the English language improved dramatically. Capturing the essence of my message in clear, concise prose often took a lot more energy and creativity to do than to talk around the subject. Thus comes one of the key characteristics often attributed to creativity: the ability to approach a problem or puzzle in an unique way, to tease it out from a radically different approach than has been taken before. For me, the puzzle was to continually find more concise methods of expressing myself, resulting in me becoming occasionally rather maniacally brutal to sections that I had spent weeks or months preparing in the process. The use of constraint as a foil in writing is not new, ranging from poets fitting phrases into specific metres to Ernest Vincent Wright's novel Gadsby, famously written without a single letter 'e'.

At the beginning of last week, I spoke at Leeds College of Music's International Festival for Artistic Innovation, a week-long series of presentations, rehearsals, and performances exploring what 'innovation' may encompass within music. Within the same session as my paper was a presentation given by Mark Slater and Adam Martin about Nightports, a compositional project based upon the following manifesto:

Arrive. Move. Shift. Change. Depart.

Nightports inhabit the crossroads between song and dark electronica. A shifting, transient world of intense pulses and intimate lines. All sounds emerge from one voice, one body and pass through transformations, distortions, translations to produce a music of extremes. Delicate, powerful, fragmenting, flickering.

In their presentation, Slater and Martin described how the entire compositional and production process was governed by the rule that all of the sounds used had to have their origins in the singer, Emily Lynn. This restriction forced them to make practical and aesthetic decisions in the construction of the final recording. For example, in order for the original set of recordings fit within the genre of electronica, they had to possess appropriate musical elements that would characterise it as such. Thus, to create the palette of sounds familiar to electronica, the original vocal material had to be transformed, stretched, and distorted. The resulting sounds then impacted the process of arranging and producing the final recording. Slater and Martin's presentation illustrated a variety of these puzzles brought about by their manifesto, and allowed them to describe the ways that they had to find creative solutions to them.

These unrelated incidents made me reconsider how context affects artistic development. Which encourages creative thought more: freedom or restriction? Choosing one of an unlimited number of possible solutions to a problem may not necessarily demonstrate a high level of decision-making, as there is not anything to prevent someone from being guided simply by personal preference or ease of execution. However, as less solutions become available due to whatever restrictions are put in place, the more someone will have to critically weigh their options. This does not necessarily mean that they will have to compromise and choose a path that is not ideal. Rather, they may devise new solutions that allow them to abide by the restricting criteria yet still achieve whatever it is that they want to achieve.

Contemplating this issue in generic terms of 'problems' and 'solutions' is one thing: what about in other musical contexts? To a certain extent, any kind of musical performance – particularly acoustic performance – carries a host of restrictions brought about by the instrument itself. The application of extended techniques and electronics can certainly broaden my sonic palette, and inventing new ways of getting sound out of instruments is certainly an ongoing creative challenge. Even beyond simply creating sounds, however, improvisation may also relate to this issue. Years before having discretely considered the benefits of restriction for creative thought, I applied this concept toward working with improvising ensembles of students. I found that simply telling a group to improvise on their instruments and respond to each others' sounds resulted in rather dull and uninspired performances (not to mention unimpressed students). Given the opportunity to play anything at all, these young musicians either stayed completely within their comfort zone or didn't take the task seriously. However, this changed once the ensemble had a rule they had to abide by. These could range from instructions such as 'You cannot play any note longer than a second' and 'You cannot play above pianissimo' to 'You can only play using three pitches' or 'Every note must be lower than the previous'. Although simple, these rules provided foils which the students could wrestle with, posing a problem that needed a solution. Thus, the young musicians needed to strike a balance: to follow the technical restriction whilst still attempting to satisfy their innate urge to create an interesting and meaningful musical performance.

What do you think? Which encourages creative thought more: freedom or restriction?