Embracing limitations: The aftermath of John Cage

Zen chime, vibraphone, and little xylophone. My limitations in creating the piece.

Once John Cage’s 4’33” was considered a legitimate piece of music, the world of sound exploded.  If intentional silence was music, so too was its antithesis;  sound in any form should be just as valid.  Without this work, modern electronic musicians wouldn’t feel as free to navigate the depths of their craft and embrace the unexplored for inclusion within their pieces.  Nor would school children everywhere in the 80’s be as uninhibited about playing scales on Casio SK1s after burping into its sampler.  What?  Tell me you didn’t do that.

So, the landscape was blown wide open by Cage’s work, but he also left all of us asking, or at least me, a fundamental question.  What’s the point?  If anything is acceptable, it gives the illusion that the frontier has all been charted.  If there’s no new ground to break, no new areas to explore, what’s the point in trying?

I’ve found a sort of comfort by reimposing limitations upon myself and working within those confines.  The clichés of “thinking outside the box” or “pushing the envelope” do not ring true for me.  I see the box and envelope as having been nonexistent for decades.  Instead, I will create a few simple rules and see how creative I can be within that structure.  I don’t claim to be successful, but my goal is to see how interesting I can make something beyond those limitations.  If I have everything at my disposal, it’s overwhelming to know what to include and what to leave out.  This was part of the basis for “Micycle,” a track using nothing but sounds from my bicycle, and I think it’s very important for an artist to consider when writing when faced with having too many options.

Delia Derbyshire, best known for the electronic version of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme, but an amazing talent outside of that piece as well and a seminal figure in the development of electronic music, seems to agree, according to an interview posted on her site:

“I’m dead keen on limiting resources … You need to have discipline in order to be truly creative. If you’re just given total freedom to do anything you like… You’ve got to impose some discipline on either the form you’re going to use or the sounds you’re going to use.”

In that same spirit, “Vibraxylozen” uses just 10 samples I recorded from 3 instruments playing a total of 2 notes. Samples are available as a free download here in case anyone wants to poke around with them a bit.  The samples were loaded into my generative sequencer patch created in Max/MSP which creates its own new patterns.  Those patterns were then edited within Logic, and arranged against new sampler instruments created using the original 10 samples.  The result is a chimey piece of tinkly trance, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

Vibraxylozen by sineqube