The Fragility of Flow

Roadblocks, the muse, and an unexpected descent into lunacy

My professional career has generally been one of removing obstacles to the creativity of others. I’m sure it was my theatre training that taught me to hide the nuts and bolts in the interest of creating a captivating illusion…and from day one in the recording studio I have always been intent on making the necessary technology as invisible to the artist in process (and audience at home) as possible. Nothing makes me feel less creative than discussing wire, sample rates, dither, or converters… as necessary as those considerations are to making good recordings. Good art seems to flourish when its creation is unencumbered and effortless. And in my experience nothing is more destructive to the ephemeral muse than an unwanted technical interruption.

Normally I have my own creative process sorted out and streamlined, but recently one of the speakers in my writing room gave up the ghost. Or at least became haunted. The treble came and went randomly, kicking me out of whatever moment I was trying to sustain (or arrive at in the first place). It was one of a few occasions in my life when I thought another me would be useful (moving the Hammond is also one of those occasions). When I can’t hear what I’m doing, I can’t make music. And, quite simply, I go crazy when I can’t make music.

Composing music in a computer is fine. Great, even. The flexibility of sounds and textures at my (literal) fingertips is endless (at the moment we won’t get into the question of why my music has a limited palette… that’ll be for another blog). But the music really isn’t IN the computer. The music happens when it comes out of the speakers; when the various drivers move the air in the room around and my ears say “yes!” or “dude, time for a walk.” So when a speaker starts to have opinions about when it will and won’t play… I can’t get at my art. Well, worse than that, really. I can start to get there and then get unceremoniously kicked off the path, like being awakened each time you fall asleep. There is no arrival at the immersive sense of “flow” and I can’t get my thoughts out. It’s genuinely uncomfortable. People whose instruments move air via vibrating strings or twisted up metal tubes (looking at you, Oster) don’t have this problem.

At these moments the technical me shows up to solve the problem. Internet research leads to sourcing, ordering, and installing suspect components. Great. But it doesn’t work. This goes on for longer than I care to admit. My tension/stress level goes up. The hairline visibly moves. Buying stock in Ben and Jerry’s becomes a serious consideration. No flow means no good me. Loss of access to my art means making art for others is harder… which is a bad place to be when all I really want is to help people breathe easier and fall with complete trust into every piece of music I work on.

I spoke with Larry, my new imaginary boss, and we decided that I could buy a new set of speakers. More internet research led us to discover how spoiled I am by my monitoring situation in the control room (a different room specifically set up for critical listening, which means not full of keyboards). Heated discussions ensued. I almost fired him and vice-versa. We tried to keep six feet apart which proved difficult. At the end of it all we settled on a two part solution with a third part. We bumped elbows and felt good about our efforts.

In January we installed part one, a pair of KEF LS50 “meta” monitors, on the stands amongst the keyboards. We listened to some music and were impressed. But that’s not the test. The test is the choices the speakers lead me to make when making sounds and setting levels in the process of composing. Late at night at the end of the month I fired up the whole system and made some music for the first time in a month. It felt good and I got lost in it almost immediately. The gear vanished, I arrived, Larry seemed satisfied and the air moved.

The next morning I took the piece into the control room and listened there as a mastering engineer, and, amazingly, there was nothing I wanted to change. I felt a wave of relief wash over me… and slowly the trust in the availability of my creative work is coming back. New pieces are arriving, I am forgetting about the technical and focusing on the musical, and I’ve not heard from Larry in a few days.

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