Dub Stroganoff

The kitchen is a place where creativity often is necessary to solve problems of making the best possible meal of the ingredients available. Need is the mother of invention. There’s a lot to learn from that process. Too bad we spend so much time living in abundance.

Beef Stroganoff is a dish of Russian origin. It’s got its own entry on Wikipedia. There are different recipes. One of the famous is based on beef, onion, tomato and cream. Since beef was expensive in Sweden, people here exchanged the beef for a cheaper ingredient, falukorv – ”falu sausage” – a Swedish speciality, although in the lower price section. The resulting dish was pretty good and as a result the idea spread.

Meats aside, I think the principle is interesting as a creative technique. Keep the recipe of something established, but change the main ingredient and see what happens.

There’s a lot I’m fascinated by in Jamaican dub music. Dub is the result of a remix process in which the producer runs the separate instrument stems into a mixer, and by clever usage of the mixing board as well as outboard effects (spring reverb, tape-echo, phaser and filters) comes out with a new version – a dub plate of the original song.

The main ingredient in Jamaican dub is reggae music. Reggae is not what I do, so for a long time I’ve daydreamed about doing my own stroganoff version of dub. Feeding the mixer with other kinds of music. Folk, slow house and lazy beats.

For some reason, I never get around to it despite having all the equipment. Dub stroganoff remains a brilliant idea in theory. I’m not sure, but I believe abundance has something to do with my failure of putting it into practice.

Three tools in creative work

Taste, interest and intuition are powerful tools in creative work. They drive our decision-making as we create. Of course, there might be more tools, if I can think of any more I might return to this.

When I think about it, taste might be the compass that takes us home. Interest is the wanderlust, that make us leave the usual path and head out into new terrain. Intuition, well, it might be the feeling that something great is just around the corner if we just put in that extra effort.

Taste is a kind of reflex. It can be a great strength, but it can also make us repeat ourselves. I remember listening to Rick Rubin talking to Brian Eno, who told the story of a period when he was tired of his own taste. 

The importance of getting lost is a recurring thought that I might have written about before. There are a lot of ways to get lost on purpose. Abitrary constraints such as not being allowed to use your favourite tools could be one strategy. 

A creative prompt could be another. And as a guitar player I have the opportunity of tuning my strings to an alternate tuning. When no position or grip on the fretboard sounds like home, you have no choice but to try to find your way back. Trying out strange chords and slowly finding parts that fit together.

I think this is taste at work. Presented with this sonic mess, we start trying to get it homely again. Finding something to play that sounds neat and tidy, comprehensible – music that makes sense.

Interest and exploration might be the reflex that comes before the retuning. A kind of restlessness with the same old. A desire to challenge our routines, our current skill-set, a longing and a realization that there’s got to be more than this.

And last intuition. What about it? Maybe we can see it as some kind of trust? Having a hunch and trusting the process. Accepting that we can’t control or know everything, but finding the courage to go out on a limb, to try something new – because it might work!

And when it doesn’t. We’ll try again, in some other way.

Bigger art with a smaller palette?

Winsor & Newton aquarelles are available in 79 different single-pigment colours. That’s a lot more than a normal aquarell box can hold. In my aquarelle-beginners book it’s recommended you start with no more than five.

After all, aquarelles can be dilluted and blended in thin layers. And just a few colours will allow for a multitude of hues. 

Painting with audio is no different. There’s an infinite amount of instruments, effect pedals, outboard gear, and plug-ins available to take your sounds and songs in any direction. But if you settle with a limited palette there’s a lot to be won. 

Less time wasted on deciding what to use, increased skills on your selected tools and last but not least a distinct, idiosyncratic sound that comes from your particular combination of sounds. Allowing a collection of songs to share a mood, tone, flavour – giving your EP or album a sound all its own.

Seth Godin had a blog-post on this some years ago called Leave stones unturned. Because infinity of choice is a trap.

The right tool for the job

Maslow, the psychologist with the pyramid of needs, is attributed the expression that goes something like this: If all you’ve got is a hammer, it’s tempting to treat everything you see as a nail. It’s a thought I carry with me, but I actually just googled to find it was Maslow, or maybe not only.

Good thing, because I just learnt that it’s called the Law of the instrument. A cognitive bias, that apparently limits our vision and creativity. We do things that are tried and true. We rely on what we know and fail to see possibilities and chances to innovate.

Continue reading

License to suck

AI is coming. We’ve all heard it. Depending on your knowledge your view of it may be more or less vague. Machine learning. Deep machine learning. There are many buzzwords for sure and a lot of people using them wrong or half-wrong. I better watch my tongue.

AI is seeping into music too. I think there was some artificial popstar from Japan or Korea a few years back. But AI is available for us all. Google Magenta is a series of free AI-powered tools for music making that can be used with Ableton Live. Helping your beats groove like your favourite drummer or continuing on the melody you’ve only written half of.

I’m sure the tools can be great and could take me in interesting directions. Still, I haven’t used them. Maybe that could be a challenge?

Anyway, for me the promise/threat of AI raises the question of humanity. What’s human in our music, what is important? What makes it feel real? I don’t intend to enter into any discussion if acoustic or finger-played instruments are more human than programmed, or let’s say quantized midi.

Maybe it is the human esthetic decision making that is important? Because no matter if I program my notes or play them in my choices will reflect my taste, my experience of the music that I’ve heard.

There’s this quote by Brian Eno:

“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.”

Well, what if we think about the human body as a medium for music? Its imperfections can now be avoided. We have auto-tune, we can correct mistakes, quantize and move notes in time.

Will this make pitchy vocal takes more desirable? I think we might already be there. AI can also emulate ”perfect imperfection” – perfectly lazy grooves slightly behind the beat etc, even with random mistakes thrown in for extra human-ness.

How do we compete? Do we need to? What is important? What do we want our music to be? Communication? Are we fine with the music equivalent of the AI-powered talk-bots we are getting at call centers?

I find asking myself these questions more interesting than any special answer. But lately I’ve had a growing feeling of my ”crapness” being allowed. There’s no best. There’s just different. Also when it comes to music equipment. I’m feeling less ashamed of my technical limitations on my instruments. I’m not the world’s best singer, guitarist – but neither am I the world’s best friend, dad or partner. I’m not even the worst. I’m half-crap in my own unique way. In music, as well as in life.

Maybe we’re not loved in spite of our shortcomings, but because of them.

Ice Cube – how low can you go?

Disquiet Junto is a weekly challenge initiated by Marc Weidenbaum. It’s a great concept. Every week there’s an assignment (very) open to interpretation. It’s up to you to decide how much time to devote to it. Whenever I join in, which isn’t as often as I would like to, it’s with the idea of getting something done quickly. Not being embarassed. What I’ve found is that freed from the pressure of doing something great I often come up with something interesting (at least for me). I get to learn something by being reckless and experimental.

For this week’s Junto – Disquiet Junto Project 0471: Phase Transition – the task was this: Please record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it.

I recorded. I repitched and resampled. Chopped and arranged a little sequence. I also added a Granular Delay. It’s nothing special. Still it’s interesting to see how much sonic information there can be in just ice and glass.

This was the first Junto of the year, so I wanted to join in. On the other hand, I also see that all these extra assignments can be a way throw myself off course and step away from the “real” work I intended to do. Because yes, there are lots of half-finished projects lying around here.

The value of primitive tools

As written before I’m devoting January to learning my Arturia Microbrute. It’s a small cheap synth. Compared to what’s out there it can in many regards be seen as primitive. Crude, rude and well … a brute. It doesn’t automatically make sounds that come out as lush, ambient, lovely and beautiful. It forces me to work. To find ways around its constraints.

The good thing with doing this work I believe is that there will be more Me in the music. For a year or two I’ve lusted after an analog polysynth, especially the Korg Minilogue XD. Pricewise, it’s absolutely affordable. But so far I’ve withstood the impulse. Partly because I’m fearing that in my hands it will end up a preset-machine for pads. Making all the lovely lush atmospheres that never fail to impress me.

Exploring the Microbrute has already taught me a few things. Understanding how it works in itself, but more importantly understanding how it could work for me. I’m beginning to see how I could fuse simple Berlin School step sequences with my acoustic singer-songwriter music and maybe arriving at something that I could find interesting. Transposing a step sequence up and down to fit different chords also leads to interesting “mistakes” and forces my melody-composing (which I always do singing) to handle or include notes foreign to the scale etc. This might force or ignite new solutions that I wouldn’t come up with if I had a tool capable of everything. Which I suppose I have in my digital audio workstation, Ableton Live.

An acoustic instrument, like a guitar, is actually really primitive. Tensioned strings vibrating over a resonant body. And still building a great one is infinitely complex. Getting good at playing takes work. And yet it allows for so many different expressions and styles.

I also think there’s great value in staying with one tool. Digging deeper to let it reveal itself. I have often run around with my shovel and put it in the ground for a single-take. Trying a technique only once, only to forget it. This of course resonates with the popular/famous Bruce Lee-quote:

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

So, it feels good to stay with this crude little synth. I probably need to come up with a list of challenges to explore it in a few different directions.

PS. In the last few days I have only made small voice-memos on my phone for my Jamuary entries. And yesterday only one with acoustic guitar. Sometimes you have to put your family before your synth. 😉

Chop wood, carry water

I stumbled upon this sentence the other day. Apparently it’s a famous old Zen-saying. “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” And I take it as advice to focus on the process, not the results. If we just focus on our running and our breathing – the finish line will come.

It’s a piece of advice I’ve seen in many forms. Focus on on the verb, not the noun. Just do the work.

Another saying I remind myself of is “work gets done in the time available”. It’s all the time we’ve got, so if anything is to be achieved that’s what we need to use. I’ve often wished for myself to have more time for my creative endeavours, but it has often shown that once given days of free time I’m often not in the mood/position to make use of it.

I find it comforting to know that in creative work/art/ five minutes on fire can outdo weeks. So for 2021 I need to make the most of the “loose minutes” that can be found every hour. A quick strum, a few jotted words.