This month I’ve been teaching music production and composition as part of NYU’s IMPACT program. A participant named Michelle asked me to critique some of her original compositions. I immediately said yes, and then immediately wondered how I was actually going to do it. I always want to evaluate music on its own terms, and to do that, I need to know what the terms are. I barely know Michelle. I’ve heard her play a little classical piano and know that she’s quite good, but beyond that, I don’t know her musical culture or intentions or style. Furthermore, she’s from China, and her English is limited.
I asked Michelle to email me audio files, and also MIDI files if she had them. Then I had an epiphany: I could just remix her MIDIs, and give my critique totally non-verbally.
Michelle sent me three MIDI files that she had created with Cubase, and I imported them into Ableton. The first two pieces sounded like Chinese folk music arranged in a western pop-classical style, with a lot of major pentatonic scales. This is very far away from my native musical territory, and I didn’t want to challenge Michelle’s melodic or harmonic choices. Instead, I decided to start by replacing her instrument sounds with hipper ones. Cubase has reasonably good built-in sounds, but sampled orchestral instruments played via MIDI are always going to sound goofy. Unless your work is going to be performed by humans, it makes more sense to use synths that sound their best in a robotic context.
I took the most liberty with Michelle’s drum patterns, which I replaced with harder, funkier beats. Classical musicians don’t get a lot of exposure to Afrocentric rhythm. Symphonic percussion is mostly a tasteful background element, and the classical tribe tends to treat all drums that way. For the pop idiom, you want a strong beat in the foreground.
Michelle’s third track had more of a jazz-funk vibe, and now we were speaking my language. Once again, I replaced the orchestra sounds with groovy synths. I also replaced the entire complex percussion arrangement with a single sampled breakbeat. Then I dove into the parts to make them more idiomatic. I get the sense that conservatory students in Shanghai aren’t listening to a lot of James Brown. Michelle had written an intricately contrapuntal bassline, which was full of good ideas, but was way too linear and eventful to suit the style. I isolated a few nice hooks and looped them. The track started feeling a lot tighter and funkier, so I did some similar looping and simplification of horn parts. The goal was to keep Michelle’s very hip melodic ideas intact, but to present them in a more economical setting.
My remix chops are well honed through continual practice, and I think I was pretty successful in my interpretations of Michelle’s tracks. She agreed, and indicated her delight at hearing her music in this new light with many exclamation points in her email. That felt good.
Upon reflection, I’m realizing that all of my remixes have been a kind of compositional critique: “This part right here is really fresh, but have you considered putting this kind of beat underneath it? And what if we skip this part, and slow the whole thing down a little? How about we change the chords over here, and put a new ending on?” Usually I’m remixing the work of strangers, so the conversation is indirect, but it’s still taking place inside my head.
The remix technique solves a problem that’s bothered me for my entire music teaching life: how do you evaluate someone else’s creative work? There is no objective standard for judging the quality of music. All evaluation is a statement of taste. But as a teacher, you still want to make judgments. How do you do that when you’re just expressing differences in your arbitrary preferences?
One method for critiquing compositions is to harden your aesthetic whims into a dogmatic set of rules, and then apply them to everyone else. I studied jazz as an undergrad with Andy Jaffe. As far as Andy is concerned, all music aspires to the melodies of Duke Ellington, the rhythms of Horace Silver and the harmonies of John Coltrane. Fair enough, but my own tastes aren’t so tightly defined.
I like the remix idea because it isn’t evaluation at all. It’s a way of entering a conversation about alternative musical choices. If I remix your tune, you might feel like my version is an improvement, that it gets at what you were intending to say better than you knew how to say it. That’s the reaction that Michelle gave me, and it’s naturally the one that I want. Of course, you might also feel like I missed the point of your idea, that my version sounds awful. Fair enough. Neither of us is wrong. The beauty of digital audio is that there doesn’t need to be a last word; music can be rearranged and remixed indefinitely.
Update: a guy on Twitter had a brilliant suggestion: do the remix critique during class, so students can see your process, make suggestions, ask questions. Other people have asked me, “Wouldn’t remixing every single student composition take a lot of time?” Yes, I guess it would, but if you do it during class, that addresses the issue nicely.