Objectively Seeking Reason for Subjective Detail
Updated: Feb 24
We can all pretty much agree that music and art in general, from the listener or viewer's standpoint is "subjective" by nature. How each detail is perceived, and then how the piece is perceived as a whole, is at the mercy of the summation of our individual experiences, thought patterns, observation skills, appreciation efforts, our feelings and our mood at the given point in time of the experience, how we can relate to the piece (or not), and a trillion other variables, most of which are not even tangible let alone quantifiable.
And how about for the Creator? How does one so objectively decide on a theme, a pattern, a chord, a color, a line... or anything concrete, in a process that draws its inspiration from a subjective world? But even with all of these variables, at some point in the process, every artist has to bravely decide - THIS is the direction in which I want to go, THIS is what the piece is about... and the most feared of all decisions - THIS is my final presentation.
In my opinion, this sort of "crossroads" is an inevitable part of the process of creating, and in my experience, the importance of these decisions seems to intensify as the piece matures - as you start to really "chisel away at the sculpture". The more refined the piece becomes, the more "important" these decisions seem to become. They don't always have to be difficult decisions, and in a lot of cases I find myself making them almost subconsciously, and very quickly. But sometimes, finding good reason for a single decision can be very challenging. I like to embrace these challenges as an opportunity to "learn" the piece better.
Being faced with making a decision about a detail, however small, can be downright scary. But again, I believe that it is an inevitable part of the process of creation. If we are to "finish", at some point in time those broad brush strokes must be defined and refined with purpose. To deeply know our piece we must seek reason, on some level, each time we face the crossroads of adding or subtracting detail, and ask ourselves "why".
"Without seeking reason for our details, we won't deeply know our piece. And if we don't deeply know our piece, how can we expect anyone else to come to know and appreciate it?"
There is one particular example of one of these challenging decisions that always comes to mind for me. It came while producing a record in 2011 with Kg & the Storytellers as we "dubbed in" a violin part at a certain section of a song titled "Walking Around". The violinist improvised a beautiful melody comprised of long, sustained single notes with subtle vibrato that was an eerie counter melody to the other instrumentation that made up the composition. In the moment of performance, the take seemed "perfect". It fit the mood of the song, it complemented the other instrumentation in harmonic structure, tone & texture and even stood out to present itself as a focal point in the given section of the song.
But upon listening back more "critically", we noticed that the violin was somewhat consistently "out-of- tune", appearing mostly "flat" for the duration of the melody and even sharp on some notes. Our initial reaction was to "correct" the out-of-tune notes with the use of auto-tune. We did so, and agreed that things actually sounded worse. Our next thought, which is all-so-common, was to ask the violinist to play "it" again... because after all - if it wasn't "right" after being pitch-corrected, then it couldn't possibly be OK being "out of tune". So we tried, but it didn't work. "It" had left the building. Having been performed as an improvisation, different notes were now being played with a different feel, and the performer was even in a different spot in the room in relation to the microphone and so tone and texture in the context of the production had changed. That "feeling" never came back. But how could this be? We witnessed the "perfect" take already. We all heard it and felt it. Was it possible that something so objectively "wrong" could be so subjectively "right"? After the session was over, we had a long conversation about it but arrived at no satisfying conclusion.
It wasn't until a later date (maybe even lying in bed that night) after I kept on trying the objective and asking myself - does it really have to be perfectly in tune? If so, why? Perhaps this is just a fear based contemplation as a side-effect of the current perpetuated status of music production; where virtually everything has to be "on beat" and "in tune"? And if so, why do we care? We all knew that this particular production was about "moving" people by capturing emotion & vibe. That was our priority. But is that a good enough reason to leave it "as played"? That reason still did not feel complete enough for my satisfaction & we considered cutting it all together. It wasn't until I asked myself "what is the context of the song?" That it hit me. Taking a look at the lyrical content - this was an introspective song - and the particular line that lead into the violin section contained the answer - "I wish I had the strength to say - i'm gonna stand up and rise above". It wasn't quite victorious or glorious as the music subtly suggests. In fact it was rather sad - about the feeling of coming up short in life, despite knowing deep down the answer. And it was justly so - as the violin came up short - as it struggled to "rise" to reach the notes - it gracefully painted a picture of the story. It was musical, emotional, and contextually proper. I shared this perspective with the songwriter, and he asked me to play it again for him. By the end of the playback we were both "sold" on the decision.
AN OBJECTIVE MINDSET
An objective mindset, if embraced, can help us dig deeper into better knowing our creation or presentation. It by nature separates our emotions from our work. Think of yourself as having the ability to turn on your "scientist" brain at any given point for the sake of problem solving. Because you can!
To this day, I still feel confident about the decision to leave the violin in and "out of tune". That was a subjective decision that could only be reached by using an objective mindset. It will be forever vulnerable to the subjectivity of individual perspective, and even to our own. But the important part was that we made the decision, we moved on and we never looked back. Most importantly we based the decision on a musical, emotional moment that could only be properly judged by deeply examining the intention of the art at hand.