Art and LiteratureCulture

Music of the Everyday

Electronic dance music (EDM) certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste. All too often, producers of contemporary pop submerge artists’ raw talent in a sea of synthesized bleeps and burbles. The subculture is eccentric, to say the least. And there’s something painfully banal about the fact that pressing the “play” key on a MacBook constitutes an EDM “performance.”

But though I never would’ve believed it a few years ago, there’s a profound beauty and complexity underpinning the genre. Quality EDM production requires effective interlacing of instrumentation, an awareness of music theory and songwriting structure, and a distinct sense of auditory novelty. That’s a high bar for anyone to meet. Fortunately, though, this is a genre that’s quite accessible to amateurs.

After catching the criminally underappreciated flick We Are Your Friends on HBO, I’ve been experimenting with EDM production for just over a year now. The barriers to entry were comparatively low—I shelled out for a $200 software program and a pair of decent headphones, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with those tools. After a few free online video lessons through, I was off and running. I won’t pretend I’m any good at it, but I enjoy the process immensely: I’ve played around with virtual pianos and drum kits, composed soundtracks for the fiction I’ve written over the years, and even circulated a few tunes on SoundCloud and Spotify. I’m sure I’ll never see a penny from this venture, but frankly that’s never been my goal.

Since starting this journey, I’ve found EDM production to be a distinctly cathartic experience. My day job is all about working with words; most of my waking hours are spent shuffling sentences, parsing research questions, and making strategic recommendations. Accordingly, I find it incredibly therapeutic to build a song from scratch and flex a different set of mental muscles, concentrating on what sounds good rather than on what reads smoothly. (Perhaps there’s some neurological overlap between the skills involved, but the tasks feel quite different.)

On a deeper level, though, taking up EDM production has enabled me to value the gift of existence in a whole new way. The building blocks of EDM aren’t just notes, but sounds: anything a microphone can capture can be incorporated into a given composition. And it’s the more unconventional sounds that make for truly memorable songs. The drumming of raindrops on a roof, the tinkling of wind chimes in the breeze, the throaty growl of an accelerating engineall these and more can be woven into a unique sonic tapestry. Everything that lives and moves has its own distinct musicality.

I often think of an apocryphal story of the life of Christ drawn from Islamic folklore. As Jesus and His disciples were walking along a dusty road, they glimpsed the carcass of a stray dog lying beside the path. “What a stench,” muttered one disciple. “What a ghastly sight,” said another. Behind them, the other apostles murmured similar sentiments. But Jesus stopped, paused for a moment, and then said warmly, “What fine white teeth he had!” In other words, there’s always something beautiful to be seen and praised in even the most unpleasant, unremarkable events.  The parable is a potent reminder of the hidden moments of wonder unfolding around us, whether or not we have the eyes to see them (or, in my case, the ears to hear them). What seem like bland, forgettable experiences are still gifts in their own way.

I’ll never be the next Skrillex or Tiësto (nor do I have any desire to be). But through my EDM dabbling I’ve learned to see the world through different eyes, picking up flickers of hitherto-unglimpsed beauty in even the most mundane events. And to me, that realization is worth more than any monetary returns.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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