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design music tech

Week 07

On being a creative person trapped inside a technical person’s brain

No I’m not going to start doing a weekly post (although I like the idea), and yes I’ve missed the first six weeks anyway but I felt like posting something random and can’t think of a better blog post title right now.

Yes, blog post. I don’t accept that a blog post can be referred to simply as ‘a blog’, especially given that a blog is a container for many blog posts. This is one hill I am prepared to die on if indeed blogs themselves don’t die first.

I’m currently listening to Microhumans by Ali Wade, for about the seventh time since I bought a copy on Bandcamp the other day. You can find it here and also embedded here:

I first came across Ali Wade when Tom and I saw a live show at Cafe OTO in Dalston (that’s in London).

Side note: Having just Googled that event to find the link, I’m now coming to terms with the fact that that was apparently back in twenty fifteen! My guess had been 2017. Where the hell does time go? Well, apparently we can only regard *imaginary* time as a direction like the other three dimensions, so maybe this explains it.

Anyway as you will have seen if you visited that link, Anthony Child (AKA Surgeon, whom I originally discovered via his track Magnese in Jeff Mills’ Live at the Liquid Room mix, back in 1996, and subsequently went to see DJ many times back when I lived near Birmingham, and generally is someone I hold in high regard) was doing, that night, a live improvised performance with a Buchla Easel, alongside Ali Wade who provided generative projections on a large screen. The whole thing was totally amazing, and the night was only dampened by the following two facts:

  1. That at the end of the show I felt compelled to get up and go and slightly-drunkenly shake Anthony’s hand, and tell him how great he was only to realise mid-sentence it wasn’t the end of a techno night in 1998, and what was I doing? And that he most likely just wanted to be left alone to pack up his kit and get home, so I started to apologise then ended it awkwardly.
  2. That I then had to get a £70-odd cab to Stansted in order to be at a meeting at 8am the following morning in an airport meeting room having slept for about 4 hours in a Travelodge. A meeting that culminated in an ultimately failed business venture that ate up much of the intervening time between now and then and, perhaps, provides a more plausible explanation than the imaginary time thing.

Anyway, following that night I have been following Ali on Twitter since and this is how I heard about his new album. Also Tony posted that Cafe OTO set to his SoundCloud here. If you don’t like that sort of thing then then there’s probably no convincing you otherwise. It is kind of niche.

Anyway. So, yes, Microhumans has got me thinking about my own endeavours to find a creative voice that I am happy with.

To provide some context, I’ve been dabbling (well no, that undersells it) but anyway I have been dabbling with making my own music for a few years now. Well… I actually started back in 1995 using a Roland keyboard hooked up to an Atari ST in the music dept at school but it has not been a sustained effort for all of those 25 years. It is something I have dipped back into over the years but I’m doing a lot more recently.

Why? Because I have this constant need to create something, and music is something I am still as obsessed with as when I was a teenager.

When the web came along the thing I was excited to create was web stuff, and it still is (that’s my career) but it has tended towards the technical side of things for me. In the early days of the web a web designer did everything: designed and built it. In all honesty there’s wasn’t much good design a lot of the time – things went straight into build. Java applet water ripple effect, marquee text, job done. Often ugly, if quaintly naïve.

But then I got inspired by people like (the late) Hillman Curtis and The Designers Republic™. I love the elegant simplicity of amazing design, and how it makes you feel. So design was what inspired me. I got a lot better. I learned about typography and book layout principles and the value of white space and grids and pace and consistency and so on. I got a job in London in a proper web design studio (that became a digital ad agency) and learned a shitload. I designed stuff for high profile names and brands. I got promoted and briefed junior designers, and critiqued their work. I became a Creative Lead at an award-winning agency.

But I was never in my mind as good as those (as I saw them) proper designers. The ones who didn’t come from a coding background, but instead had done graphic design courses or cool-sounding typography courses in Italy. The ones who used Macs long before OS X came out, when I was still playing Quake II on my self-built gaming PC.

Of course I was good at my job because they wanted ‘a me’, i.e. someone who could bridge the technical-creative gap well and make stuff that was slick to use, performed really well and looked great too. Yes, the Flash era.

Privately, while I was very happy with the work I was putting out (some really great sites), I never felt comfortable being the guy doing original concepts, designing the logo, coming up with the visual identity and so on. I could do it but my attempts usually felt too mathematical and safe. I’m happy drawing isometrically… using a ruler but never freehand.

I like logic and a grid, but sometimes you need to just be free. I suppose this restriction lends itself to certain types of design but not to all.

At the heart of it all I think that I think in a technical way. I’m good with tech. I don’t generally find computers difficult. It all just seems very logical. I have the patience and thoroughness to trace a complicated problem back to its source and solve it. Other people, I note, often have a hard time figuring out how to connect to the WiFi, or whatever, but they are probably better people in other more important ways.

So I play to my strengths and I have been in well-paid jobs building complicated things for high profile companies and organisations. And it pays the bills. And it’s satisfying. And I’m good at it. But behind all of this is still the desire to create. And ideally create something not so commercial and disposable, but instead for creativity’s sake. That’s not really changed since making my first homepage on my Freeserve webspace. The Freeserve account that came on a CD-ROM from Dixons.

Despite being outwardly technical (and being labelled, sometimes to my quiet dismay, as a tech guy) I do not find technology in and of itself very interesting. It’s a set of tools. If it’s not working I will try fix it because broken tools are at best annoying. But I really want technology to be this invisible backstage presence, not the focus of anything.

So I come back to this conundrum of what I can do in my life to create something expressive and of worth. I have concluded that while I’m adept enough at design to do decent web design work I’m never going to be a graphic artist. And that no longer excites me like it did (although I still love other people’s work).

Then for a while in the mid 2000’s it was photography that I was going to do. Until I met a professional photographer and was, ironically, put off doing it professionally. Rachael is of course brilliant and was always inspirational, but seeing the realities of what it involved day to day changed my mind about choosing that career path.

I need a thing. So it’s still music, then.

Over the past few years I’ve amassed a collection of hardware music gear that helps (to my ears) create a more organic sound than what I was getting using just a computer. I want noise and imperfection due to crackly guitar pedals and overdriven mixer channels, rather than by consciously adding them with some plugin (though I have nothing at all against anyone who does that stuff well with software).

What I’ve been doing since building this new setup is, with hindsight, learning how to use – and getting over the initial novelty of working with – the equipment. I’ve done some decent tunes some of which were picked up and released by Anode Records, which was amazingly encouraging. In an environment where it’s very hard to get any honest feedback from anyone, getting at least the nod that you’re in the right ballpark is priceless. I’m pretty proud of a lot of those tracks but they are not there yet.

Since then, and this year, I’m working on some new stuff. However this time I’m going to amass a collection of material and mull it over and (I hope) probably never release most of it except for only the very best stuff once I have had time to be more objective about it.

To this end I’m using a new and anonymous identity for more ‘ambient’ music and I’ll also do some more dance floor stuff under the firstperson name.

So, to get to my point, it was on listening to Microhumans (long pre-amble over) that I realised I still have some way to go with this. Like great design, Ali’s music has a simplicity and elegance to it that shines a harsh light on my own efforts. A lot the music I have done tends too much towards being too busy even though all along I’m aiming for simplicity and elegance. I suppose, as with good design, it appears effortless when it’s done well – but in fact a lot of hidden work has surely gone into it.

This is famously the case with the creative process in general, so it is something I must keep in mind on those days when I get disheartened having finished a track I’ve been working on for days only to realise it sounds uncomfortable or too fussy.

This all reminds me of that modern-art-hater’s comment ‘I could have done that’, when looking at a Rothko. Well, no, you didn’t and also you couldn’t. But you could possibly make a rubbish emulation of it.

I’m not trying to emulate anyone else’s music but of course I am inspired by it. Earlier I was musing on whether I should again play here to my strengths. Perhaps rather than fighting against my natural tendency towards logic and technical thinking there is a way of building some interesting music around how my mind naturally tends to work. For example this could be using Max/MSP, and turning my coding skills towards making sounds. I have some ideas about machine learning that could be interesting there.

However I like the physical process of jacking things into each other and turning knobs, and that noise that comes out of the Volca Keys or the Juno chorus. I already spend too long at the computer so the thought of more coding (which is a big part of my job) puts me off the software approach… although yes there are control interfaces, and, gosh, maybe modular synths are an option although that is becoming a cliché…

Anyway, onward.

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