On Commitment, part 4: Why aren’t you out mowing the lawn?

Backyard Hair Cut

Creative Commons License photo credit: seantoyer

In the last post here, I mentioned an interview by a producer/engineer named Scott Solter, and while I was looking it over again, checking it to make sure I had the ideas right, something else caught my eye and subsequently became lodged in my mind. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, probably because it relates directly to both the creative project I’m immersed in right now, and also to a theme I’ve touched on in these pages before: namely, the idea of commitment.

It turns out that this notion is also rather important for Mr. Solter, and in the interview (it’s really more of an introduction to his work and the ideas that inform it, in sixteen short and somewhat oblique chapters) he describes what it means for him. I no longer have the article at hand, being on the road just now – I’m writing this on a train from Berlin to Amsterdam – but here’s what I can recall, and a few things it’s led me to think about…

The interviewer is inquiring about his (Scott’s) recording methodology, on a practical level, whether he prefers to use tape or computers, that sort of thing. With most people working in the audio field, that kind of question will usually lead to discussions of the merits of analog frequency response versus those of rapid, non-linear editing, or the positive effects of tube or tape saturation versus the amazing creative potential of digital signal processing, or the warmth and dimension of analog summing versus the flexibility and accuracy of mixing in-the-box.

If you choose not to decide…

Not so with Mr. Solter (although I imagine he has opinions on all the above, or at least is not unfamiliar with the arguments). For him, the central issue is one of commitment. The problem with working in the all-digital, non-destructive, we-can-always-change-this-plugin-later mode so common in audio production at this point (hint: it’s very much the mode I tend to work in) is that it’s all too easy to defer decisions, to end up not making real creative choices in the moment when we’re creating, which is probably when we should be making them.

To put this in more concrete terms, he illustrates the point with the example of recording a bass part for a track: “If you don’t know what the bass is supposed to sound like, why are you tracking the bass right now? Why aren’t you outside mowing the lawn?”

Being in an audio-industry magazine, the interview was intended for an audience that is more familiar with the technical background, so I’ll embellish a little with my own interpretation and response to this simple but, to me, deceptively powerful idea…

If we’re recording the bass through a real amplifier, microphones, a good signal chain and onto tape, then we’re making critical decisions about how all of that is going to affect the sound we end up with, and we’re making them now, not later – now, when we’re recording the track, when we’re feeling what we want the track to make a listener feel later on. Those decisions are basically permanent, unless we want to re-record the whole thing later.

If we’re tracking direct to hard disk, through a non-destructive virtual signal chain that might very well include plugins that ‘mimic’ the more concrete example above, the problem is not so much that it won’t sound the same or as good – it won’t sound exactly the same, but it might sound very close, and whether it’s better or worse is a matter of taste and opinion – but that we’re hedging our bets. We’re not committed to what we’re doing, the plugins we’re using, the sound we’re working with – and therefore we don’t need to be as deliberate about our choices, since we can always change them later.

The seductions of possibility

And that’s the crux of the matter: in a digital world, we can always change things later, so we don’t need to be as involved with them in the present; we don’t need, in other words, to be really present, and as a result we often aren’t – we’ve got twenty other ideas spinning around in our heads, a riot of possibilities that we can entertain simultaneously without committing to any of them. The way we happen to leave it now is always open to change later on, an option we don’t have if we’ve committed things to tape.

While this is undoubtedly an exhilerating state of mind, and can be quite addictive, I don’t think it’s necessarily very conducive to creative focus, or to the kind of intensity and conviction that comes from that very commitment to what we’re doing – whether it’s tracking the bass or mowing the lawn – which our digital lives are, I think, distracting us from. Being really present and making real choices requires that we reject, at least to some extent, the possibility of changing everything later. Otherwise we may as well be mowing the lawn (not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

Hang on a minute, what if I really don’t know?

I do take issue with one aspect of Solter’s admittedly pithy soundbite, and that’s the issue of ‘knowing what the bass is supposed to sound like’.  In reality, we often can’t know that kind of thing until we’re in the moment; certainly my own creative process, with its focus on improvisation and experimentation, makes it impossible to know this kind of thing in advance. I’m not even sure if there’s going to be a bass part, or anything else for that matter. So perhaps it’s not so much whether we ‘know what the bass is supposed to sound like’, so much as whether we’re ready to make a real, lasting choice about that, based on how we’re feeling it now, and stick to it.

In other words, we don’t need to know exactly where our work will take us today, but we need to be present enough to make genuine decisions along the way, and the very fact that we can always change those decisions later can be a real impediment to that. Solter’s point, I think, is that deliberately choosing to work in a way that limits or eliminates that possibility can actually help keep us focused on the matter at hand.

Personally, I’m reluctant to throw out the baby with the bathwater by rejecting the amazing and infinite possibility of creating in the digital realm. I’m very attached to that anything-is-possible creative space, but I do recognize that hedging my creative bets might well be holding me back from full involvement. However, I think that just by raising the issue and keeping it in mind, finding other ways to let it inform our creative lives, we can get back some of that focus, that commitment and presence.

Get back to where you once belonged

Certainly, that’s my goal with the Sound Fascination series… By insisting on a finish-it-in-one-sitting process, and trying to keep within the about-an-hour time frame, after which publication is immediate, I think it’s possible to make those genuine, committed creative choices, within the realm of the more flexible and anything’s-possible world of digital music.

Moreover, the very ability to be so rapid and fluid, to go from idea-spark to finished product and release into the world in such a quick way, is made possible by that same world of digital possibility, and it’s obviously not limited to the musical realm. To me, it makes the process more like a gesture than a project, and therefore if anything more direct, more present, more committed.

Well, that’s what I’m going with anyway. It strikes me that, as with so many things, this approach to creativity makes a pretty good approach to life in general.While I have some trouble with the melodrama of the old ‘live each day like it’s your last’ cliche (yes, despite what I wrote about it here), I do think that it’s not a bad idea to try to make every decision as if you won’t get a chance to change it later on.

What about you? Does your creative process live in the ‘real’ / analog realm, or the digital/virtual one? Or a hybrid of both? How do you think this distinction informs your work? Do you think it enhances or limits your sense of involvement, presence or commitment? Can you think of ways to bring more of these things into your process?