The State of my Method

without-following-the-recipeMy last post about my Daily Song Project was over a year ago. I’ve become one of those bloggers. The kind that doesn’t keep up, that promises that they’ll try to blog more regularly…

Wait, no I haven’t. Such statements smack if disingenuity, when I see them on other blogs.

I’ll simply say: I haven’t had much to say. Not much meta-commentary to make that hasn’t fit within the songs themselves, the ones I still make every day—or in the comments about them I leave on Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, and Patreon.

Plus, life has been full of changes, and waxing poetic online has not been a priority. Moving, my day-job, enrolling in a Master’s program in Music, planning a career change, doing my daily songs, travelling to DC/Baltimore every month to co-lead circlesinging—these things have taken priority.

But today I steal a few minutes to write. Today’s song has given me something to discuss, and events from this past month have given me a context for it. Plus, it’s been so long since I’ve given you an update; you may be wondering how things are going, or whether they’re still going at all.

Daily Song Project—Status

The great news is, my daily practice of improvising is continuing. I’ve been at it 1.65 years now. Of course I’ve plateaued, in terms of how much I think I’m learning and improving every day. But I am learning; every so often a month comes along where I feel like I’ve broken through a new blind spot or limitation, and once in a while a song comes out of it that I’m quite proud of.

(Not today! But that’s a subject for the next subheading…)

The not-so-great news is, I’ve fallen short of the consistency of my first year. From late-August 2014 to late-August 2015, I did 255 improvised songs, just under 5/week.

(And for the first-year song-cycle, what I finish I made! I really should have blogged about the milestone, at the time. I had something to say, something to celebrate. Ah well, missed opportunities.)

Since then, there have been a couple of months where I’ve missed almost the entire month. And even on good months, when I haven’t been sick or moving or attending to family matters, I’ve been doing closer to 15-16 per month, rather than the 21 I did in Year One.

But you know what they say. “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything.” That I haven’t been as diligent as possible, as consistent as I want to be, is not reason to throw in the towel.

Just. Keep. Singing.

The Madness to my Methods

Improvising with a looping device, the way I do it, is a subset of the practice of “Vocal Improvisation,” and in my case it’s a proxy for Circlesinging. I use Loopy HD, and it makes it easy to do things in a certain way—a way that happens to work well for the way I think.

My methods are not “mine,” really, except insofar as they are my takes on methods pioneered by Bobby McFerrin and described marvelous well by Rhiannon and Roger Treece. Get their books. Really. What I do is entirely derivative, and the following description of it woefully incomplete.

Nonetheless:

I build my palette. (Or, if you prefer a cooking metaphor to a painting one, I grow my ingredients.) A “motor” part or parts, not too attention-grabbing, to set context for the rest of the music. Often a “motif” part or parts, often interlocking or dancing with the motor(s) in ways that allow them to co-exist passably well. Sometimes—and this is somewhat new—a longer lyrical part or parts, contrasting in character to set it apart from the other sounds in the mix. A bass part to anchor the tonal and rhythmic context. Vocal percussion, for no other reason than I want to hear it in the song.

Palette built, I begin to apply pigment to canvas. (Or, I get cooking.) Which ingredients to start with? What order to present them? What to sing on top, so as to take the listener on something of a journey? What arranging devices to use, such as “the breakdown” or “the big reveal,” to punctuate the listening experience and give it an organized structure? And most of that time singing, singing, singing to bring the story forward and, as it approaches the end, how to end it?

And there are formulae for this as well—”design principles,” if you will, or “recipes.” I don’t think I’ve got them as neatly codified, but I’m starting to have a grasp.

Which brings me, briefly, to today’s song. I liked the ingredients that I grew; nothing astounding, but they were pretty tasty, by my aesthetic standards. No better or worse than what I did yesterday, or the day before. And then, when it was time to cook up a 3-to-5-minute sound event …fearing that the formulae I’m starting to grasp might calcify into an uncreativity, I threw out the recipe book, and also tried some things with my singing that I’m not yet very good at.

The result? I just. Don’t. Like. It.

Compositional, Improvisational

And that’s okay. I went to my “place of suck,” checked it out for a bit, and learning what doesn’t work has value, too. I have the impulse to go back to the same palette and see about painting something new with it; the ingredients seem worthy. But I won’t, I don’t think. The exercise would have value only to my ego, I think.

But it brings me to the context within which this unfortunate sound-event was created. You might read my description of my methods and conclude “that sounds an awful lot like composing—perhaps a bit more swiftly than usual, perhaps quite a bit more makeshift—rather than like improvising.”

And I might be inclined to agree with you, to a degree. There may be a spectrum, a continuum between the two—or, they may be axes in a 2D graph, or interact in more complex ways. Either way, composition is my comfort zone, and improvisation has served as a key that has re-opened my ability to make up music.

But what would it be like for my approach to be more improvisational in its fundamental nature? What is that mindset? How does it work?

This was on my mind as I cooked up today’s song. What does it mean to react to the music that you find in the room—or, in my case, to the music that I find day after day and grow as ingredients for that day’s creation? How do I take this process that has perhaps become staid, using a tool that slavishly repeats exactly what you sing to it, and make of it an improvisation?

Yay hooray, something more I have yet to understand. Something more to learn.

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One comment on “The State of my Method
  1. david joyce says:

    Thank you, Ahmado! I appreciate your honesty, clarity, and the “intimacy” in the the sharing of your process.

    You accurately discussed and shared the ins and outs of the inner and outer process of such work. Thanks again 🙂

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