Letting Go

I wrote last time about the incredible precision of the control we have in modern music-making. While that's a good thing, this week I thought I would touch on the opposite approach - of having little or no control at all. The push and pull between seemingly opposing practices is a theme I've found throughout a lot of the creative process; art is an enormous beast and there are few principles we can simply slap across everything.

So when is it a good idea to relinquish some of the control we have? I think it's most helpful, and almost a necessity even, in the actual act of creation. Whether you're coming up with a melody, laying down some drums, figuring out a new part to add to an arrangement... This is play time! Grab an instrument or MIDI controller and do something physical rather than trying to click notes into your software. Get away from the grid lines in all these computer programs and let a bit of human groove come in. For those with a theory background, forget about the chord progression for a bit - let it just be sound and feel out your melody within that.

I think the common thread in all this is that you're giving yourself time, space, and permission to explore. You're opening up more possibilities than the ones that are on offer through the tools and the rules. You're connecting with something more primal and emotional, where the best music comes from. And you're putting yourself in a position where you can make mistakes. But they aren't really mistakes, unless you leave them there. They're part of your path to better answers as you figure out what you're making, what you're saying, and how best to share it with the rest of us.

I envy the amazing performers who can create fully-formed ideas on the fly - the jazz soloists, the freestyle rappers, some of the live looping camp. And from my little experience with these things, I know they are skills that can be learned and practiced. As I'm primarily a studio musician though, what gives me the most comfort is knowing that when I improvise, I'm the only one there to hear it. There's no risk too great to take, because I can always try something else after. It still takes a bit of bravery because you will very quickly be confronted by your current limits. But that's letting go - of the control you normally exert, and also of what you believe you can't do.