Although modern civilization is ostensibly designed to protect us from the harshest ravages of chaos, take a moment and imagine a world without any chaos at all: no chance, no randomness, no luck. How would it look? Probably rather dull - maybe even lifeless. A healthy relationship with the inevitable chaos of systems far beyond our limited control keeps us safe from the arrogance of totalitarian thinking.
It's easy to imagine that you're producing the track you're working on in isolation without any help, being as you are alone in the studio; this tends to align with conventional thinking, and is taken for granted as normal. Now take a step back for a moment and examine your position from a wider scope: would it be possible to produce this track without the incredible amount of work, time, and energy dedicated to designing and building the hardware, software, instruments, and plug-ins you're using? What about the centuries of scientific thought and discovery that made these inventions possible, not to mention the eons of cosmic evolution that led to the existence of our planet and species? Then factor in all the years of your own life experience that will indelibly inform the musical choices you make in the studio.
A screenshot from Ableton Live where random beats are being generated.
I'm a firm believer in free will, but I also believe that freedom of choice, informed by experience, only accounts for a relatively small facet of what's really going on in most situations. In other words, you can only take so much credit for your role in using the tools at hand to express your music.
Am I making a defeatist argument here? Not at all. The larger, inevitable processes of chaos and randomness, when accepted for what they are, can be a great source of creativity and inspiration. Any improvisational musician can attest to the thrill of filtering the chaos of the moment, with its multitude of variables – venue, crowd, other players, tempo, temperature, just to name a few – through their chosen instrument via the skill they’ve honed through years of practice.
I first began exploring the potential of chaos in Ableton Live when a friend tipped me off to the Random MIDI device that comes with the program. What sort of melodies, rhythms, and harmonies could I generate by inviting varying degrees of randomization into the musical systems I designed? Because let's be clear: complete and utter randomness simply isn't musical; it just doesn't qualify with the prerequisites of pattern and harmonic coherence that separate music from noise.
Watch Noah Pred showing you how to randomize your drums and beats in Ableton Live:
Designing your own unique systems to filter the chaos of the universe – as delivered by a random note generator in a piece of human technology – can be fertile ground for fresh ideas. What harmonic relationships, melodic rules, and rhythmic patterns can you devise to harness this chaos to the contours of your own authentic expression? How can you exploit this randomness to create something no one else would come up with? Can you relinquish the illusion of complete control and invite the proverbial ghost into the machine, setting it loose to work its magic on your behalf?
In my new tutorial for AskVideo EAR 106: Harnessing Chaos, I'll show you a number of techniques to incorporate this methodology with your existing workflow in Ableton Live. Chaos wields its unruly influence over all of us, like it or not: if you can't beat it, why not harness it?