Michelangelo felt he was releasing his statues from uncut blocks of marble. Well we approach our music in a similar spirit. If we sense there’s beauty lurking in one of our hour-long recording sessions, we relentlessly carve problems away until what’s left is a magic singing finished piece.
First we listen to it with stopwatches and note where it’s noisy or uninteresting. (If it’s one, usually it’s the other. When we’re musically clumsy, we make playing noises. When we’re hot we’re hot, when we’re not we’re not.)
Then we work through the file in 20 second chunks, deleting problems as we go, doing it backwards so as we take stuff out our noted times stay relevant.
It’s a painstaking exhausting process. We agonize over where exactly in each track to make every single editing cut. Do we do it after that sound, or over there where the ring’s tailing off, or maybe in that silence might be good? The possibilities are infinite. Back and forth, back and forth. Do, undo, redo, do, undo, redo…
Microfades can remove the pop which often happens when we make a cut, but the transition between the clips on either side of it must also be artistically just right or the edit will still stand out as an artifact, will disturb the flow of the music.
Right from when we start rough carving one of our raw files, when we’re chucking only stuff that’s obviously no good, we none the less attack each cut as though it were our last. We strive to make even these initial edits invisible, since at that point there’s no knowing if they might turn out to be in a section we’ll want to have as part of our finished piece.
Slow, slower, slowest…. to go through a couple minutes of file takes hours. But mining for magic, fast doesn’t work. Besides it’s our time and we don’t pay a penny for it.
The process feels endless. Once we’ve edited our way through to the beginning, we start again; we listen, take notes, and do another round of deleting. And then again, and again.
For each file it’s at least 4 cycles before everything unacceptable is gone.
Sections with problems like pops, finger noises, and hiss are not the only things to be eliminated. Since what we’re carving is all strictly improvised, there’re stretches which though technically acceptable are boring and fail to make the cut musically.
These are the trickier and more interesting decisions. The noises are obviously noises and we know one way or another we must make them disappear. But deciding what doesn’t fit musically, what gets in the way rather than makes the piece magic, that’s mysterious.
What we make sure to keep are those times we’re inspired and catch fire. The times when seated across from each other, relaxed and open, listening attentively to each other’s sound, suddenly it gets easy, we’re in synch, power pours through us, the world drifts away, the magic thickens.
Strung together music played during these blissed out periods forms the body of the finished piece.
Sometimes a section that’s good enough to keep is cluttered up with instrumental lines which obscure rather than add to the music.
But since every instrument is recorded on a separate track, by silencing the superfluous tracks it’s usually possible to “thin” the section down to its artistically essential core.
This was very important when we were editing the earlier tracks of Work In Progress. At that point we were blown away by at long last being able to overdub, and often piled on extra tracks just because we could.
But by Bowus-Quartus we’d gotten over our initial excitement about overdubbing, and so thinning became less important for the remainder of the CD.
In fact we decided having too many tracks was to be avoided as a form of materialism.
Next we must find the spot where the piece wants to start, and the spot where it wants to end. Most often we can use music from near the actual begining or final minutes of the recording session, but occasionally we have no choice but to construct the start or ending by moving and combining music from elsewhere in the file. When this happens we get very nervous, still so far after enough suffering we’ve always managed to come up with something natural sounding.
Note that though we do our carving with computers, every riff, every time stopping moment of our music has actually been played on our instruments we’ve built from wood, high carbon steel and gut. None of our sounds are sampled or synthesized. We use computers only to cut out fat, to take out hiss and playing noises, to liberate the finished piece from the raw uncut file.
Creating by subtracting is how we approach many things in our life. Writing one of these pages, an essay, or a letter, our first drafts tend to be huge, and then we ruthlessly cut out words which are redundant or unnecessary. As our cooking gets more delicious, it gets simpler.