In fifteen years as a professional musician, Scott Flynn has played trombone in powerful groups like Pretty Lights and ODESZA. After a phone call from a friend, Scott entered the world of Pretty Lights and began to explore the depth of electronic music. 808’s, synths, and sound design opened him up to another realm beyond organic instrumentation. In this Open Letter, Scott dives into his developing relationship with electronic music, the importance of both instrumentalists and electronic musicians, and the sweet spot of the Venn Diagram where both worlds collide.
Written by Scott Flynn
Now, more than ever, if we want to find something different and exciting, we have to actively listen to others.
We can reach radically new conclusions to problems if we learn to listen to that which may be perceived as the “opposite” side of the spectrum. While this may sound like the introduction to a political discussion, I’m speaking about the future of music creation.
I’m a musician.
More specifically, I play the trombone.
I grew up in a place where I was able to learn an instrument and play in different school ensembles. I played jazz and classical music, and went to college to study music and performance.
Throughout my time at Berklee College of Music, I learned, explored, and shared music with masterful teachers, friends and colleagues. We would geek out to no end about the ability or emotion that certain artists could deliver.
We understood that you could infect and transform someone’s heart and mind with the power of sound. Pursuing the knowledge of how to effect that transformation, of learning that language, is one of the coolest and most satisfying things one can do in life. To this day, I still believe that.
When I was younger, I would take on a “holier than thou” attitude when it came to DJs or popular electronic shows.
Where was the live improvisation?
Where was the interesting or unique chord progression?
Where was the highly skilled musician leaving a pound of flesh and blood on the stage or in the studio, pouring their heart out in real time?
I saw none of that.
Often one, maybe two chords that made up an entire song. I heard predictable, diatonic chords recycled into the same progressions. Or, the song might not have a noticeable structure. It might be sound more like a seven-minute, trancey, minimalistic texture or vamp. Or, everything is loud with little to no dynamics. On the surface, I found it easy to look down upon and dismiss this style all because I “knew better.”
This disregard, of course, was complete nonsense as I came to understand. As I got a bit older, wiser (hopefully), and a bit more open, I realized that these electronic timbres and modes of creating music were undeniably powerful, compelling, beautiful, and complex.
That 808 kick is the shit.
That massive synth bass is making my body vibrate.
That lush, classic synth sound has me bouncing.
That producer’s sound design is one of a kind.
You can’t knock any of this shit. If you do, you are missing out. The emotions and artistry are as real the sounds I grew up studying.
In my roughly 15 years as a professional musician, I’ve seen the rise of popular electronic music as it’s come to dominate the live music world. I dug a lot of the electronic music floating around my circles of musician friends in the early 2000s.
Musicians like Prefuse 73 and Squarepusher were mind-blowing, but I didn't start to see more mainstream electronic type acts until I started working with Pretty Lights in 2013.
Derek Smith, internationally known as ‘Pretty Lights,’ put together a collective of musicians to play as The Pretty Lights Analog Future Band. This was a full five-piece instrumental band of high-level players meant to compliment the Pretty Lights electronic sound. I got the call through my friend, Eric Bloom from Lettuce, who had already been picked to work with Pretty Lights. Eric reached out to a few players and I was available.
Getting to work with Pretty Lights gave me a front row seat to a world that, up to this point, I knew little about. I’d heard about some “DJs” (the term used by instrumentalists like myself who often interchanged ‘’producer’’ and ‘’DJ’’ out of ignorance) doing tours, club shows, and festivals more regularly, but I didn’t experience much of this culture before I started touring with Pretty Lights.
As part of The Analog Future Band, we were playing arena shows with opening acts comprised of one, maybe two people. Our openers used a combination of computers, mixers, and hardware on a table to play their music in front of thousands of people.
They weren’t necessarily ‘’performing’’ in the sense that I, as a horn player, would define. At least, that was my first impression. Different artists would showcase new techniques and unique live elements. Some were more ‘’live’’ and dynamic than others. But most of these artists garnered serious notoriety and substantial crowds.
Before Pretty Lights, I was playing instrumental based music for audiences of a few hundred, maybe a thousand people. All of a sudden, I was performing side by side with electronic musicians in sold-out arenas.
Playing with Pretty Lights marked my first intimate exposure to the true power and popularity of the electronic music world. Since that time, I’ve been learning more about music production, going down the gear rabbit hole of synths and software.
SInce then, I’ve been playing with the electronic duo ODESZA over the past three years. Working with Harrison and Clay of ODESZA has felt like another step deeper into the labyrinth of electronic music. My time with them has served as one of the most educational experiences in music composition, performance, branding, and just about everything that goes into building a truly dynamic “show.”
When I first started with ODESZA, I was unsure of how the show would come together. Pretty Lights had formed an entire band to enhance their electronic sound, but ODESZA boasted just two guys and a couple of horn players.
As I started to work more with ODESZA, I realized how fastidiously they strived to create the best show possible. Every detail, song, transition, and rise and fall was carefully curated. With the recent addition of a six-piece drum line, the show felt more like a musical theater performance then it did a concert.
If you’ve followed popular music in the past few years, then you know how successful the ODESZA show has been. They’re arguably one of the most popular electronic groups in the world. Meticulously keyed into the dynamics of what makes a good show, they've created an unparalleled escape into their sonic universe.
As I started to get more familiar with ODESZA’s music, I witnessed the same attention to detail in the studio that they bring to the stage. All of their sounds are high quality, pristine, unique and sonically compelling. The arrangements are dramatic and exciting. Harrison and Clay are extremely good at what they do.
All of this has gotten me thinking about where music is going, where I’ve come from within the industry, and how that experience will influence my creative path.
This is where the good old Venn diagram comes in.
From my perspective, the main aspects missing from electronic live performances are spontaneous, acoustic elements. These elements to help stimulate a more visceral connection between the artist and the audience.
I’ve seen many producers with only Roland SPDs on stage, and to me, that just doesn’t cut it. Even adding one drummer can take the whole show to another level.
Of course, these feelings stem from my own experiences amidst live performances. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going up there and playing in the way that you feel best represents your artistry.
If you produce good music, the people will respond.
In the same way that many electronic musicians lack instrumental elements, many instrumentalists do not take advantage of electronic sounds or tools. Instrumental musicians would benefit from a stronger sense of “show” development, and a greater use of electronic tools and timbres.
Granted, not every instrumental musician is going to use synths or implement the awesome power of MIDI into their live performances, and that’s fine. Each musician experiments differently with sound.
As I have explored sound alongside the power of synths and MIDI, I saw more clearly the crossroads of a potential musical renaissance: where everything electronic meets the purely instrumental.
That’s the Venn diagram I’m talking about.
I want to be in the place where old school, soulful, human spontaneity meets the powerful capability of machines and MIDI.
The more dynamic, instrumental elements an electronic producer can incorporate into their show, the more undeniably exciting that the show becomes. To the diehard instrumentalists, you cannot deny the raw and exciting power that electronic instruments have brought to mainstream music.
Massive, subby synth basses, huge 808 kicks, lush analog pads, ‘’wah wah’’ dubstep sounds, ambient music and so much more, can pack a powerful punch.
When compared to the capability of electronic music, my little brass tube known as a ‘’trombone,’’ at times, can feel like a tool made of sticks. On the other hand, a trombone can connect with listeners in a raw, vulnerable way that electronic sounds can’t touch.
Since touring with groups like ODESZA and Pretty Lights, I’ve become compelled and excited by the potential of electronic sounds combined with the awesome power of MIDI. I can have my drummer put triggers on all of his drums, then have those triggers play either a sequence of notes or perhaps a random set of notes that harmonically complement another part of the song.
While my drummer is doing that, I can turn knobs on the synth module he’s playing, change the pitches, the filter, the envelope, or hundreds of other settings, all live and in the moment. Within defined parameters, I can build something that’s planned out while still incorporating live, spontaneous elements. The sky’s the limit.
For me, that’s where the future is, the renaissance.
Harness instruments to make these amazing, electronic sounds happen more dynamically, more spontaneously, with more improvisation. And the producers that have toiled on the computer to make beautiful electronic sounds should integrate more live instrumentation.
Every musician who either plays an instrument or composes their own music should be thoroughly versed in digital music production.
Likewise, all producers and electronic musicians should train themselves in an instrument or at the very least, musical theory. The synergy of organic and electronic elements has the potential to enhance live music in the most exhilarating way.
The artists who straddle this line, even slightly, often rest at the top of their field. Herbie Hancock was notoriously avid about using new electronic instruments in his performances. Bob Dylan was one of the first musicians of his era that embraced electric guitar, something that was seen as blasphemous by his “folk” contemporaries.
Kendrick Lamar has famously used jazz musicians on his records, while also employing some of the most iconic electronic sounds. This Venn diagram feels new to me, but this concept has already been exploited by great artists of the past century.
At the end of the day, some instrumentalists are still going to turn their noses up at computer producers, and some electronic musicians will refuse to incorporate live instrumentals.
But the more these worlds actively move towards each other, the more both worlds will benefit.
The center of that Venn diagram, that’s where the action lies.
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