Flow + function
“I pick up an instrument and plant a seed. If it doesn’t grow, I move on—pick up a different instrument, plant a different seed. I do this until one starts growing. Then I try to be present and follow the growth.”
Jon Natchez is talking about the method he used to compose OneClock’s seven unique waking tracks, but he’s also describing an improvisational approach that runs through his career as a Grammy award-winning musician.
Natchez grew up on the piano and saxophone, earned a degree from Harvard University in Cultural Studies, Music, & Performance, and is now an accomplished composer and multi-instrumentalist who records and performs with several bands (most regularly The War on Drugs) and composes film scores.
For Natchez, improvisation is more than a way to access a certain flow-state, though he thanks it for that too. It symbolizes a way of being in the world that resists control and invites chance.
Natchez came to compose for OneClock with curiosity about making “functional music,” or music that’s integrated into everyday experience. “Functional music is music with a purpose heard in daily life, rather than music that’s written to be listened to in some kind of sacred space, like a concert hall,” he explains.
Purposeful, yes, but not without experimentation. Functional music shares a lineage with avant-garde movements like musique concrète, electronic music, and ambient music, with Natchez noting how key figures like Erik Satie (who coined the term “furniture music” in the early 20th century) and Brian Eno (whose 1978 Ambient 1: Music for Airports was a genre-defining album) purposefully used convention to break from it.
Many of these artists, as well as Ivan Tcherepnin and Kurt Stallmann, whom Natchez studied with at Harvard, used stochastic (synonymous with random) processes, or what Eno called “Oblique Strategies,” to guide the work. Think of using a set of cards or rolling the I Ching to prompt and question the creative process.
Satie and Eno weren’t writing clock tones, but there was a thread there—a loop between utility, improvisation, and expression—that intrigued Natchez.
On the clock
In addition to working in a genre that resonated with his artistic inclinations, OneClock presented Natchez with one of his favorite challenges: creating within constraint.
The project came with a set science-based sonic strategy for its waking music: that it be gradual in volume and intensity, melodically driven, subtly randomized with each use, natural in tone, and broad in range of frequency. How that sounds, though? That was for him to play with.
“I loved and found the compositional challenge of it fascinating,” he shares. “How do you create a real and organic piece of music that at the same time follows very specific guidelines?”
This wasn’t the first time Natchez was working in response to a predetermined brief—composing film scores requires something similar, with sound working to mirror the emotional tenor of the scene. But this time, the scene was one Natchez knew well.
“I’m used to writing with particular goals in mind, but I’m not a method actor—I don’t try to be the characters in the films I’m scoring. But I’m familiar with waking up. I do that every day. So part of my creative process was to get myself into the frame of mind where you’re on the cusp of waking.”
Where music comes from
The cusp of waking and creative energy are often good bedfellows, as the brain tends to be both generative and uninhibited. Natchez found that even when he wasn’t composing in the morning he was able to simulate this space—and not only because he was the parent of a young child and, as he remarks, “hadn’t slept in years.”
“I used a series of improvisational exercises to get to a non-rational place where I’m not analyzing,” says Natchez. “For me, that’s where music comes from.”
Early in the process Natchez decided each track would feature only one instrument. The music was to have an elegant simplicity, and he knew hearing one instrument at a time would bring both depth and clarity to the user experience—the way rubbing a stone brings out its luster.
When it came time to select the instruments, he was looking for ones whose tones and timbres would be familiar and organic—the intimacy of the human voice, the breathiness of the clarinet—as well as able to carry a melodic and percussive cadence—the narrative flow of the piano, the upbeat inflection of the marimba. He brought in vocalist Dave Hartley of Nightlands (and Natchez’s bandmate from The War on Drugs) and guitarist Michael Bloch of Here We Go Magic as collaborators.
The final seven tracks are unique and diverse, but clearly belong to each other.
“I was surprised to see that the research indicated a need for strong melody,” Natchez shares. “I was expecting something more textural, these clouds of sound, but it was clear that we needed something propulsive, something to really push someone into wakefulness.”
Natchez’s OneClock compositions do push, but they also pull. In daily use, they reach the ear before the mind can really make sense of them. They enter as clouds before becoming fields—like the ground for the seed planting process Natchez was describing. Oblique, generative. The place of improvisation. The place of music. The place of waking.