About the importance of being a cultural and theoretical glutton.
These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one’s work being commended as ‘unique’, ‘personal’ or ‘inventive’. And yet, as much as it’s in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done – every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.
Context is an essential gauge of originality for sound artist Zeno van den Broek – and the work of visual artists a bigger influence than the output of fellow musicians.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I’m a self-taught artist, musician and composer, my first musical adventure started when I bought a guitar to play metal like Sepultura as a teenager, a long long time ago. I guess the first few months I did try to learn the guitar and to emulate those bands, but quite soon I started figuring out my own way of playing and making music. This also resulted in quitting numerous bands since I was always focused on searching for and developing a new and own sound, while band members were happy to repeat a form they had found and which worked for them.
For me, starting the solo project ‘Machinist’ was a very big step, for the first time being totally free of any (musical) rules and with a fresh focus on uncharted territories. While the first album ‘Mutatus’ was created as a duo, soon after the release I started doing solo performances or in collaboration with other artists.
Because I’m self-taught in the arts, I had to figure out my own voice from my own personal background, not from someone superimposing values and musical ingredients that are known to work. I think finding your own way helps a lot because you have a much broader view on things and can relate various sources and forms of art to create a base to create your own work from. For me, my education in architecture still plays an important role, not so much in relation to architects who design spaces but more in the conceptual approach of creation and the forming of ideas and notions on space. Of course, there have been artists that have influenced me. But more often these are visual artists, which influence me through their concepts and ideas.
When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
I think ‘context’ is the keyword here, as you can only appreciate originality if you know the context the artist has been working from. This also makes it difficult to judge whether or not a work is original, since your own knowledge of context may be less evolved than the knowledge of the person you are judging. Therefore, I don’t value originality that much and I don’t believe in creating an amazing piece of art from a ‘tabula rasa’, as all arts are embedded in history and have their context. So, for me, knowledge and study of what is going on and what has happened in a certain niche is very important. Not to find ways to be ‘original’ but to be able to position my own work in its context.
This, of course, also has its downsides because I’m not often surprised by music or arts anymore, like I was some years ago. The album Black Telephone of Matter by Mika Vainio was such an album: I had never heard something so brutal, uncompromising, full of contrasts and almost anti-musical, it really shook my world! When I look back now I can place the album in its context and, knowing where it came from, it may have lost its initial shock. But I can appreciate it even more.
The work of Emptyset is a more recent discovery for me, it’s funny because I discovered their work while finishing an album (yet unreleased) which has quite some similarities to their sound, the use of white noise, sine waves and architecture (although my work is far less rhythmic). I have to admit, at first I was a bit pissed off about the similarity but later I realized that if you work in a certain niche, here being the relation between sound and space, and you have got your concepts and context right you are bound to end up with some similarities. After reading up on the methods and procedures of Emptyset I found out there are also similarities in treatments of audio and ideas about spatial sound. I guess when concept, goal and method are intertwined, there are certain paths that are hard to avoid.
The two examples of Vainio and Emptyset have in common that they’re both uncompromising and have a distinct own voice. It’s clear they have a solid ground in a musical context and their music relates to others who are active in the same field but they have been able to take one more step, to distill a new and relevant form.
What’s your own definition of originality?
Originality for me is forming your own style in relation to the context you are working in, creating work that conveys this history of what you are coming from while simultaneously taking a step into uncharted areas.
Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
What I appreciate in originality in arts is when an artist develops an interesting body of work forming a unique and own voice. I don’t believe in creating something completely original from a ‘tabula rasa’, I believe the most interesting art comes from a broad base of knowledge and study to what has been created: to know your predecessors and context and to be able to find your own voice or niche in relation to this.
Like Stefan Goldman says in his new book on presets of sound gear: “innovation is always defined by its relationship to a previous state”, I think that’s also true for originality, in the sense that you have to stand on the shoulders of your predecessors to be able to develop your own voice and create new original work.
Originality has become less important to me over time, what I have become to value more is when artists work in an uncompromising way: not diluting their work to make it more accessible and focussing on executing their concept or sound as clear as possible.
With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
You would think that with the big mass of music being put out continuously, originality would be of more importance to stand out from the crowd. But in practice I don’t see that occurring. The areas where I do expect a lot from in terms of originality are new forms of art, where multiple disciplines overlap such as audio-visual performances and installations. Nowadays, those works are too focused on being “new media” which results in the “new” medium being the message and a rather meaningless artwork, but I do see a lot of potential for exciting forms of art where different media create a meaningful symbiosis.
What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
I love working from a strong and framed concept, which for me works great with installations and visual work but is more difficult to incorporate into a piece of music. In the summer of 2013 I worked on three new sound installations for an exhibition, in which I had conceived a few concepts that provided a solid ground for developing the installations and they turned out pretty good (see Black Squares, Pulse Interval and Four Corners on my website). But about a month later, I decided to start composing for a new record and at first I simply began to create and write the music without setting out a goal or a concept. I ran into quite some problems because for me a nice melody or a great rhythm was meaningless, sure it sounded great and it was pleasing for my ears but – why? What was the significance of this music? For me, the significance of music is not in a great sequence of tones or some mathematical interesting rhythm, it has to be part of a bigger concept and has to relate to something outside the musical language. This is also related to originality since I’m not focused on writing an ‘original’ melody in terms of an unprecedented sequence of notes, which is totally meaningless in my process.
So, I returned to the drawing board, first worked on a concept and started composing from there. The concept for this upcoming album was based on the frustration of creating sound compositions in the computer while being able to create paintings with physical expression and actually working with material. So what I decided on was to put basic building blocks of sound, white noise and sine waves, on cassette tapes and to physically manipulate these tapes by sanding them, heating them, immersing them in various liquids, etc. I ended up with a whole library filled with beautiful residues of sine waves that had been mostly eaten away from the tape and great noise with interesting filters. These new building blocks then formed the construction for the compositions which are also based on decay and physical responses in time and space.
Another aspect of my creative process is the study of various forms of art. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a strategy because it’s not a conscious decision to do so but I’m basically more interested in visual arts and architecture than in music. I guess this helps in attaining a fresh perspective on music and sound, studying how for example a Gerhard Richter or a Luc Tuymans works with photographs and the use of existing images in their paintings give inspiring insights in how certain musical elements can be used and incorporated in a composition.
The idea of originality is closely related to one’s understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself – where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
Most of the time, my process starts with a question about something concerning space, sound, cities, or something else in that realm. After formulating the question as precise as possible I try to find more info on the subject, ranging from scientific publications to art exhibitions, to create a context for the subject. This results in a concept with boundaries and a focus after which I intuitively choose a medium to work with, sometimes a subject results in multiple works of art in multiple media. What I search for is a concept that can be applied to every level and scale, like in the design of a building the concept would have to apply to the screw used to tighten a window to the relation of the entire building in its context. During the process I constantly re-evaluate what I’m creating to the concept. If, in the process, I lose the concept but end up with a pleasing piece of art, most of the time I destroy the work.
The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I’m not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognizing originality than the one currently in place?
I like how the Dutch artist Rob Scholte approached this idea about claiming art: after he was sued for using existing images and logos in his work he created a painting of the copyright symbol, stating that whenever someone would copyright something and thus use the copyright symbol they would also break copyright at the same time because Scholte now owns the symbol. He turned the symbol into a political statement, making people aware of the idea of ‘owning’ images while at the same time the copyright symbol itself is an image.
For the work I create I haven’t given copyright lots of thought because the majority of my work is not duplicable. Images of my paintings can not capture the way light and the position of the viewer interact, my performances play with sound and architecture in a similar irreproducible way and my installations focus on the relation to the surroundings they are placed in and are often location-specific works.
Because I strongly believe the concept and the creation of artwork are intertwined that also leads to the conclusion that artists can claim concepts and ideas. I love immaterial and conceptual work like Sol Lewitt and Anthony McCall so I don’t think an artwork has to be tangible or has to ‘bear the hand of the artist’ to be able to be claimed by the artist, it’s just that the ‘claimable’ form of the work changes, like a piece by LeWitt consists of the concept and the piece of paper describing the rules to execute the drawing, not the actual pigment on a wall.
How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
I believe it’s important to work with limitation of tools and gear to maintain a focus on the idea and concept. You often hear and see works of art that have lost all necessity because they are the result of an artist working with a new tool, resulting in an expression of a medium but without content. Works that have been created with less fancy gear but where the artist has fully mastered the gear results in a better expression or execution of the concept and in which the unique voice of the artist is not surpassed by the voice of the medium. Focussing too much on the medium will result without a doubt in interchangeable works, in our time it’s impossible to be unique with a certain piece of gear since almost all tools are in a more accessible price range, compared to former times where a synth would cost the same as a small house.
The work of Alvin Lucier is a great example of creating highly relevant and unique work with minimal means: compositions written for the limited tools of just a sine wave generator and a clarinet to research and express the notion of interference and movement of sound waves are still very relevant today, while we have the tools to go way beyond these simple means of performance.
I do think there are technological developments that can help an artist move on into new uncharted territories, new forms of interfaces for musicians can liberate them from the limitations of our all-present western music system which also form the basis for most DAWs. Recently, I have started working with Lemur on the iPad to control Ableton and while I have just taken baby steps in creating my own patches I can envision so many possibilities to create very personal customized tools to create music and sound. Elements like the use of physical phenomena in the interfaces can lead to the computer becoming more of an instrument. What is great about instruments is that you can find ways to work with them that they aren’t intended for and thus creating your own voice and a relationship with the instrument. This personalization of the tool, being an iPad app or a piece of wood with strings on it, is vital for being able to go beyond the mere technological execution of an idea and the forming and expression of an own voice in what you are creating.
In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
Expanding from stereo to quadraphonic systems has been a way for me to create more freedom in working with sound: being able to generate more complex fields of interference and to position sounds in space has resulted in new sounds and new compositions for live performances. Recently, I have been able to work with the amazing 4D-sound system during a week-long ‘Hack Lab’ on ADE consisting of masterclasses and performances on the system. The 4D-sound system enables artists to create environments and volumes of sound in space, giving an extremely immersive experience of sound and space. For me it was a very interesting system to work with because in architecture you are used to create and draw spaces in a 3D environment but working with sound you are mostly bound to ‘left’ and ‘right’. The 4D system makes it possible to sculpt sounds as three dimensional volumes, to position these volumes in space and to make choreographies in time and space. Unfortunately, our working time with the system was very limited so I haven’t been able to fully grasp the possibilities the system opens up. And while the system has so much amazing potential one thing I did notice is that it is very easy to find novelty sounds and to get lost in using the new features of the system which sound fresh and exiting at first but sound childish as the novelty wears off. I think it does take quite some time to work with a new and expanding system like this to be able to distinguish what new features are truly innovations and which are novelties. Again: I think it’s important to master the tools you are working with, not constantly broadening the possibilities of your tools but to focus, personalize and to deepen your knowledge.
The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
I do think a lot of the elements I have pointed out before can work both as obstacles and as helpful notions and I do think this interaction between these two factors are part of what makes being an artist interesting and challenging. For example, studying the history of your predecessors and keeping in touch with what’s going on around you can be simultaneously very inspirational but can also create obstacles because it can give the idea that everything has been done, that others are so much more successful than you, etc. You have to be aware of this, consciously opening up to the world when you need it but also take time to isolate yourself and to focus on your work. Especially when you are a starting artist or a student, I think it’s important to be like a cultural and theoretical glutton and to immerse yourself into as many forms and expressions of art as possible. I’m often surprised that when I talk to art students I have to conclude they are clueless to what is actually happening in the real world of the artists they are studying and envisioning to become, in my opinion its essential to be able to differentiate and to compare the various sources of ideas, works and theories to be able to find your own voice.
Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven’t been able to realize for technical or financial reasons?
Well, I would love to be able to work with the 4D-sound system I mentioned earlier, for what I have experienced with it so far it seems to be a system that would expand the possibilities of exploring the spatiality of sound in ways other systems can’t and thus give many possibilities and tools to enrich my work.
Besides that, I think it’s time for me to get into programming, learn how to customize and create Max patches for example, to be able to personalize my interfaces and processors even more. Of course, there is always the bigger atelier I would love to be able to rent and the awesome modular synth I’d love to be able to buy but I think my biggest limit is just having 24 hours per day, since my work is not that relying on technology and more on the formation of new concepts and ideas.