Yeah, wow. I’ve had a tab open with this thread ever since I was first tagged and it keeps getting more and more difficult for me to formulate a response. I feel that @stripes said it all so well, and so to start, I want to echo her sentiments. The two of us do speak about this stuff with each other and we’re indeed looking forward to sharing these conversations in a more public way at some point.
But yeah, for me, making music is an intangible thing. It’s a magical act. There’s ritual involved to align the mind, align the spirit (and more recently, align the body, which I neglected for years as a guitarist and consequently experience chronic muscle and tendon pain).
But before the ritual is embodied, there’s the conceptual part. This sometimes happens piecemeal over the course of days or weeks or months. This tends to be the theory part. I might ask myself, how can I transpose keys on this thing? And if I did, how would it sound? How can I design a system to support my weaknesses? Harmonically, I tend to gravitate toward the tonic and just stay there. Hang out in the center because it’s so nice and safe and just sounds good there. It’s where I’ve always felt the most comfortable.
You see, I went to music school, and while I was able to graduate with honors, I left pretty much broken in one way or another. It wasn’t the theory that broke me, it was trying to do something that felt very unnatural to me and doing it in a very forceful way as if my life depended on it. Not taking the time to internalize the lessons, to allow my ear to grow, to meet myself where I was at and value authentic expression above all else.
I entered school confident in my ability to connect with other musicians in the moment, and left feeling inferior because of my lack of jazz. My inability to really hear and express within moving harmony with key changes as freely as I could over a drone.
Eventually, I embraced my strengths and upon discovering modular, I found a way to play to all of them. I suspect I’m preaching to choir here, but the approach many of us employ with modular is something that allows the user to create their own world.* Conduct their own orchestra. And that was liberating. It was a process built on exploration. Because I knew very little about it from the start. I just started patching with the intention to see what would happen. It was this realignment that saved my musical creativity. I didn’t have an identity to hold together as I felt I had with the guitar. I just had my ear and my knowledge (theory) and my ability to pay attention and get swept up by the beauty when it would appear.
*I just want to note that this process can be done entirely inside of Ableton Live, for example. @matthewdavid is someone who does this beautifully. Having the ‘training’ from working with modular has informed a more generative approach of using Ableton and it’s wild that I can basically build the same processes to create music.
So my first modular experiments were built conceptually through theory. I chose sets of notes that I knew would work nicely together from my years of experience improvising on guitar. It’s just what naturally happened when I asked myself, how do I make this sound nice? These were sets of notes I could hear. It was my harmonic comfort zone. I chose rhythms that felt good to me from years of internalizing things like the Ghana Bell Pattern in all its polyrhythmic perspectives. And it worked. It was like magic. Once those initial theoretical seeds were planted, I tended to the garden, allowing it to grow. This was the domain of the ear. Of listening. Of expanding my awareness through the practice of receptivity. And through that enters inspiration which turns the whole thing into play.
And this is the process that I’ve explored ever since. I use theory to build the composition and use intuition to guide the performance. For me, they’re two sides of the same coin. Both hemispheres come together in the holistic product.
I played a lot this year with a performance patch that’s been a work in progress for more than a year. The theory aspects have already been worked out. When performing with it, it’s mostly a matter of entering into the ritual to play with the muse. I’m not in my theory mind, I’m just listening and reacting and remaining open for inspiration. It’s where the emotional translation that @rbeny spoke of comes in.
Speaking of @rbeny, he had mentioned paying attention to compositional structure. That’s a good one. I tend to often allow compositional structure form through intuition as I’m improvising, but I’m beginning to become more aware of the value of analyzing the structure of pieces that I like. Not to directly make something like it, but to just understand it so that it comes out naturally when I’m in the zone.
So to directly answer the OP, it’s theory and jamming. As for the actual theoretical processes I use, I won’t lay it down as if it were a formula. But if you watch my Lightbath Zone videos where I explain my approach, and listen to the musical pieces, and maybe even transcribe some of them, all the while training your ear, you’ll get it. It’s not unique and it’s really quite simple in design. @stripes spoke to that a bit, we’re using a lot of the same scales, but the differences come from having developed unique relationships with the sound, with the tones, the combinations of pitches; with our own unique emotional responses to it all over a period of time. For some, like me, a pretty long period of time. What seems like a huge amount of hours to be spending with what is often less than 7 notes.
I’ve been a music teacher for two decades and I love working with students on theory. But not for the sake of nerding out on all the possibilities and getting all complex, because it can go too far. It can paralyze the creative flow. But for some people, myself included, learning the theory is like getting the map in The Legend of Zelda. It’s just easier to then hear and catalog what’s going on. But you can’t stare at the map all day and call that exploring. You need to get out there and just reference the map as needed. It’s the synergy of the ear and brain that works for me and I love exploring this approach with others.
I like to keep it simple, because for the most part, the basics are all that’s needed. And that’s where I got lost in college. I now see the importance of embodying the basics, the addition/subtraction and multiplication/division zones (an analogy I used last week with a student who is beginning theory) and then get to making music! Keep the balance and save the algebra (and beyond) once the ear has caught up to those first few dimensions. And I’m still solidifying my basics and learning to embody the theory that my brain thinks it understands.
Alright, thanks for your attention on this. I hope this contributes something meaningful to the thread. I know I don’t really tend to share a lot here on Lines (outside of technical questions/issues), so I just want to be clear that I appreciate the community and the devices and works that drew it all together in the first place.