Interview: Henrik Schwarz
A German translation of this interview can be found in Groove 154 (May/June 2015)
Dennis DeSantis is a classically trained composer and has released electronic music on labels like Kanzleramt and Third Ear. He also works for the music software company Ableton, where he currently heads the Documentation department. With Making Music – 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers, DeSantis channels his experiences in all of the aforementioned fields into one of the most original music books of recent times. DJ and producer Henrik Schwarz, who just recently walked the tight rope between the worlds of house and classical music himself with his album Instruments, talks to DeSantis about the book and the challenges of electronic music production.
Dennis, I think your book is a wonderful collection of ideas for music producers – no matter if they are just starting out or have been making it for a long time. It seems that you have succeeded in making the book as accessible as possible for non-musicians or beginners. Was this the idea from the beginning?
Thanks very much! Yes, the goal was to make a book that could work for any interested reader, regardless of their level of musical knowledge. I do assume some level of technical knowledge: The book works better if you basically know your way around a DAW [Digital Audio Workstation, ed.] or a similar music-making environment, but I didn’t want lack of musical training to be a damper in any way.
The book ist aimed at producers of electronic music but not at users of a certain DAW. Why not?
The ideas in the book aren’t really directly about technology, but are instead about using technology to achieve musical results. The details of the technology are not important in this context. I could imagine a similar book aimed at users of particular tools, but this would read much more like a manual. You would be back to talking about which buttons to push and which knobs to turn, which is an entirely different kind of focus than what I was aiming for here. This is not to say that I don’t think technology learning is important. I absolutely do, and part of my day job is writing the documentation for Ableton’s products. But this book was an attempt in a very different direction.
Why is the booking being published by Ableton?
I had originally planned to do this as a project entirely outside of my work at Ableton, and imagined that I would send the book around to the publishers who normally deal with music technology topics. But I mentioned the book to Gerhard Behles [Ableton’s CEO, ed.] one day and he immediately suggested that Ableton publish it. I was initially really skeptical of this idea; I figured that there was a lot to learn about book publishing and that we wouldn’t be able to do this with the same level of attention that we put to Live and Push. But it has been great for the book. Having a name like Ableton behind it meant that it got a lot of very early attention; probably much more than it would have with a conventional publisher. And it actually makes a lot of sense for Ableton as a company. Our overarching goal is to help people make music. Technology is only one aspect of this. Education is the next logical step, and this is our first big move in that direction.
“I find the world of electronic music to be so much richer than what I see happening in the world of classical music.”
You have studied composition. Many aspects of electronic music seem banal compared to what one usually considers as compositions. What is your view on this?
I very much disagree. I find the world of electronic music to be so much richer — both musically and culturally — than what I see happening in the world of classical music. As a composer, I started to realize that I was really not interested in having to translate my musical ideas into things that human beings had to interpret. I wanted specific sounds, played in precise ways, and I wanted there to be definitive, predictable results. Machines do exactly what I tell them, every time. I’m responsible for 100% of the results of my musical ideas, and this is actually a much more comfortable way for me to work. It’s also exponentially faster. I don’t have to convert musical ideas into notation and then wait for a rehearsal process and then wait again for a performance which may or not be an accurate reflection of the musical ideas. Additionally, I got tired of writing for the same instruments, over and over again. Things are better in contemporary music, which was my particular corner of that space, where people are willing to experiment with new sound ideas and unusual ways of playing. But in the end, there really is no comparison between the range of sonic possibilities offered by acoustic instruments and that offered by electronics. Beyond the musical issues, I began to have really serious problems with the culture of traditional concert music. At least in America, it is still a landscape dominated by people who are wealthy, overwhelmingly white and with essentially interchangeable educations and cultural backgrounds. This is equally true of composers, performers, and audiences. Some of my closest friends live and thrive in the world of concert music, and they’re genuinely passionate about making that music. But, at least for the foreseeable future, my interests have moved on.
In what way does your background make it easier for you to produce electronic music? And in what way does it make it more difficult?
I guess the most obvious benefit is that I can turn ideas in my head into something audible in very little time. Knowing how to turn rhythmic, melodic and harmonic ideas into sound quickly keeps me in the creative flow, and I absolutely credit my education with helping me refine those skills. The most obvious drawback is that I sometimes still find myself fighting against the impulse to do something “wrong”. This is the most common thing you hear non-trained musicians say that they fear about training: That it will box them into thinking about rules. And there is some truth to that concern. But in general, I think the pros outweigh the cons, at least for me. I’m very thankful for the training I have, even though I’m applying it in ways that my teachers might not have expected.
Your book offers several different kinds of strategies to solve problems while making music. Can you describe these and the structure of the book?
The book is structured into two separate sets of three. One one axis, the strategies are about psychology, philosophy or music theory. On the other axis are what I see as the three stages of the creation process: beginning, progressing and finishing, and these are the three main divisions in the book. Beyond this, the strategies are loosely grouped based on what type of musical parameter they address. Topics about rhythm, for example, tend to be near each other.
The book has a very analytical structure. You state a concrete problem and then offer a solution to the problem. This works very well, but what might get lost with this approach is the magic that is connected with making music. So what do you do when the magic is missing?
I think this book is designed for exactly that point: When the magic is missing. I wrote it to offer ideas, thought starters or solutions for when you are stuck. But if things are working, you should follow that as far as it will take you and keep making music. If you’re in a flow, the last thing I hope you would do is reach for this book.
Many of today’s DAWs suggest to their user that you can make music with just a few clicks of a mouse. And it is great that so many people have a go at making music by themselves. On the other hand this leads to a flood of interchangeable music. How can a producer find his or hew own sound?
Listening to lots and lots of different music. I think “own sound” is really a misnomer. Everything we do is some kind of remix of our experiences. But if we make sure that those influences are broad and deep, our personal voice will be that much richer and more varied. Interchangeable music is the result of producers only listening to interchangeable music. If you spend all of your listening time engaged with music that sounds exactly alike, there’s almost no chance that you’ll be able to make something different. I don’t blame the technology for this at all, although it’s easy to understand why people do. The problem is not the tools, but a lack of vision for how to use them to achieve rich musical results that are a synthesis of disparate influences.
“The problem is not the tools, but a lack of vision for how to use them.”
I have a feeling, that maybe 20 years ago many musicians who had learned an instrument were purposely breaking with traditional song structures using music technology, while today there seem to be a lot of electronic producers who move towards song structures and harmony. Do you observe this as well?
I think that’s true, particularly in the more commercial electronic genres. But it makes sense. Commercial music is based on formulas that have proven to work over time. You find the same song structures in pop, commercial electronic and even commercial country music. Listener expectations are met at the right times and no boundaries are pushed into the realm of the uncomfortable. It’s understandable. There’s comfort in similarity, and many listeners engage with music to be comfortable.
What are the biggest differences for you between making electronic music and other forms of music?
For me, making electronic music means making music without compromise. Also, I’m just better at making electronic music than I have been at other kinds of music. With a few exceptions, most of my concert music wasn’t really very good. What I do miss, however, is playing in bands. I spent a number of years as a gigging drummer, and that yielded some really nice musical experiences, especially when it was in improvisational contexts or when I was playing with great players who elevated my own playing. I’d love to be able to find a way to do that again, but time and space constraints make it basically impossible right now. I live in an apartment in New York where setting up drums would really not be possible.
In a way your book provides music theory for people who don’t know much about it and who make a lot of decisions intiutively. Some people who make electronic music are even opposed to classic music theory, because they find it limiting. Do you want to reach those dogmatists as well?
Those are the people I want to reach the most. My goal is to explain just enough music theory to make it feel approachable, safe and non-threatening. I wanted to write the absolute bare minimum necessary to convey what I see as the essentials. This meant stripping away a lot of stuff and to a conservatory-trained musician, the theory chapters in this book might seem too spartan. But I think there’s a lot of mystery around even fundamental music theory concepts and I don’t think it needs to be so alien and scary.
The book made me think of Brian Eno’s and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies deck of cards. Have you used them yourself and were they an inspiration for oyur book?
Of course, Oblique Strategies was absolutely an inspiration. But my goal was to do the opposite. I wanted direct strategies, without mystery. My book is certainly less of an artwork than Oblique Strategies, but I wanted something that was, above all else, practical.
Which problems do you face most often when making music?
This book is basically an autobiography of my own relationship to the music making process. The problems I wrote about are actually the problems I have.
For readers of your book, do you have suggestions for further literature?
Everything. The manuals for your gear. Liner notes for old soul records. Blogs. Biographies. The more, and the more varied, the better. Read voraciously, and read like you listen: to lots and lots of different kinds of things.
Do you find it easier to make music now that you’ve finished the book?
To be honest, I don’t know yet. I devoted all of my creative time and energy to writing the book, and barely made any music while I was working on it. Now that the book is out, I hope to get back to music again.
An excerpt from the book can be read on the Making Music microsite.