Making an album I can’t perform

If you follow me on any social media, you probably know that I released an instrumental album called “Moments” recently. I’ve done (mostly) instrumental albums before, but this one has a tiny distinction that’s important to me: there are no “real” recorded sounds on this album (other than the background noise that fades in and out, which was not recorded by me). Previous instrumentals would always have some guitar or sampled vocals or gritty drum track or something – but not here.

I decided to go this way early on. This project was inspired largely by Leon Chang’s “re:treat,” an excellent instrumental album that Jeff put me onto. “re:treat” is a reimagining of an Animal Crossing soundtrack that weaves samples from the original score into completely new compositions. This happens so seamlessly that I didn’t know about it until I listened to an interview with Leon – despite all these samples and the variety of different moods on the album, the songs are remarkably cohesive. Like a classic video game score, “re:treat” sticks to a limited palette of instruments to tie the songs together and let their individual melodic and rhythmic qualities stand out.

With “re:treat” on repeat, I started thinking about “Moments” as being more about composition than instrumentation – maybe by focusing on just a few electronic instruments, I could explore a way of making music that I hadn’t before. And with video game music on my mind thanks to Chang, I thought about my album as a video game score for everyday life. These ideas were pushing me away from messy analog tracks recorded in my bedroom, but I was reluctant to let go.

I didn’t think about this in the moment, but I wonder if I’ve added guitar to songs that were mostly electronic as a subconscious rebellion against the idea of a computer’s ownership of that song. Every individual instrument track on “Moments” and every individual electronic track I’ve recorded before has been played on a keyboard or drum pad exactly once – come up with the idea, trial and error, get a good take, move on. In many cases, these tracks are extremely simple: just cymbals, or just the low part of a piano melody (it makes mixing easier, but I do it because it’s easier to play). Because of this granular way of building a song, I end up with overall compositions that I could never play through the way they’re presented in the end – a single piano melody might be three separate simple tracks put together. For a long time, I resisted that idea, so I added some analog sounds to reassure myself that there was at least one part I could really play.

But as part of this project, I’ve made peace with the idea that I can’t usually physically play something I created digitally. At work, I draw things on a computer that I couldn’t draw by hand, and I don’t feel bad about it. I’m just being smart and using a tool available to me to do what I need to do. And since I thought of this album loosely as a video game soundtrack, it felt authentic to produce something that sounds very digital in the end. I’m certainly not done recording guitar parts or tapping out beats in front of a microphone, but I do feel free now to discard those things when they don’t serve the purpose of what I want to make.

This is definitely not a thing unique to me – I was puzzled by this (great) video of a Bon Iver concert that features two drummers until I realized that they needed two drummers to approximate the complex, digitally-created rhythms on the album. Countless artists create songs that could only ever exist with a computer’s help. I’ve never listened to a Chiddy Bang beat and thought, “that’s cheating!” I’ve venerated Old Kanye (RIP) for a long time because of his ability to create unique music digitally. At this point, a computer is an instrument.

I don’t think that digitally made music is inherently soulless, as much of the internet would have you believe. I’ve written in the past about a sparkling clean electronic album with emotion to spare, and in making “Moments,” I’ve gained a new appreciation for the way digital composing forces an artist to confront the bones of a song without analog noise to hide behind.

“Moments” was a fun and challenging project with musical directions I want to explore more in the future. Listen on Spotify below:

The album is also available on iTunes, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, etc.

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5 thoughts on “Making an album I can’t perform

  1. Agreed overall, but even if everything was technically playable it wouldn’t mean that you could necessarily do it by yourself. You might need the rest of your band, or an instrument you don’t play yourself, or a vocalist with a different range, etc. I’m pretty sure I saw an interview Lin-Manuel Miranda where he said there are portions of Hamilton he can’t rap. So I don’t really think it matters how it’s made or who (or what) is performing it as long as it makes people happy!

    1. Agreed on that LMM point, especially since I’m usually in the camp that how and why something was made are far less important than the experience of the work itself. I know that this entire post is about a mostly irrational reluctance, but I do think it’s pretty common.

      1. I feel like your experience with creation is different from mine since you write music, which is performed. With writing, the element of “performing” is absent for the most part. And with music… I can play music that someone else wrote, but I can’t write it at all, so for me the writing and the performing are very separate entities and the idea that you should be able to do them both is an alien concept to me.

      2. That’s an interesting way to think about it. I guess part of what I’m working through in this post is the idea that maybe making music should be more like writing – the product is just the product, especially for some random person like me who has no intention of even trying to perform the material. The concern about being able to play it live is purely theoretical, like worrying about reading a piece of writing aloud when you know you’ll never have to.

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