Saturday, 9 April 2011

We want to be completely original... exactly like the locust (an exposition on originality).

Sorry about not writing much for this blog recently, but I've been a) not inspired b) had some essays n all that to do for uni and c) this post has required a lot of thought and several re writes - never try and write something like this when you're pissed).

Disclaimer, this post is probably tl;dr

I've been in a few bands and I've hung around a few as well and I've heard the sentiment "we want to be completely original...   exactly like (insert artist name here)" both implied and said outright.

So I want to discuss originality, what it is and how to be original.

Original (adj.)
1. Preceding all other in time; first
      a. Not derived from something else; fresh and unusual: an original play, not an adaptation.
      b. Showing a marked departure from previous practice; new: a truly original approach.
3. Productive of new things or new ideas; inventive: an original mind. 

(taken from thefreedictionary and only showing the relevant definitions).

Now lets apply this definition to music and work out what premises we can use to determine originality and hopefully go on to help us producers be original.  The first premise (based on 1) is that something original is new or something different from what has happened before.  

From the dictionary definition (based on 2a and 2b) something original can be be influenced by what has happened before but it changes the original paradigm into something different. 

Ok now for a potential criticism of this theory of originality: the absolutist "there is nothing original, everything has been done before" argument.  I've heard it a few times before and I believe that it's flawed argument - there may only be 12 notes in the western octave but given the fact you can repeat notes; there is no fixed number for notes in a phrase and not even mentioning the possible different rhythms and backing chords and harmonies there are pretty much an infinite number of potential combinations.

Now that's before we take timbre into account - with sampling, synthesis and processing we can potentially use any "real" sound (any type of vibration that can be made using vibrations in physical objects) and also sounds that cannot be made by physical phenomena.

I believe that within the confines of these two musical parameters we have an incomprehensibly large playground of musical possibility.

So why do a lot of artists (who want to carve out their own creative space) find it hard to escape the shadows of their influences?  It's because of the mentality "we want to be completely original, exactly like the locust."

Here's a possible explanation (one which I feel applies to my tunes much more than I would like to admit).  As an artist you hear something that is just different.  So you listen to it on repeat and try to work out what it is that makes it so unique - what exactly it is sonically that makes it SO different from the billions of other pieces you've heard before.  Now here is the dangerous part, you fall so in love with that small piece of the potential creative sonic canvas at your disposal, that you just want to propagate that sound which leads to a music making mentality similar to that of a tribute band.

Now I want to make a distinction between taking influence and being derivative.  When you are being derivative you end up constantly comparing your work to the artist/sound that you are copying and you limit your sonic pallet.  You start using the same chord sequences, similar riffs, similar harmonies and you try to exactly copy the timbres used.  When you take influence you listen to an artist/sound and go "I like what he's done here, now how can I incorporate that into my sound?"

You become derivative when you become so concerned with replicating the sound of X that you forget to put your own twist on the vibe of X.  So for example I find photek's early work really inspiring in terms of the complex breakbeat driven rhythms and how the tunes morph over time but retain the same groove and vibe.  I have written tunes which emulate his breakbeat programing style and I've written tunes which are influence by his breakbeat programing.  I know which set of tunes turned out better both as pieces of music and in terms of being creative. 

At this stage I'm sure you're all thinking "that's great, but how do I be original?" and the answer that question is: I can't tell you how to be original.  I think originality is you experience things (music, life etc), then you process it in your mind and then you express yourself in creative output (a song, a painting etc).

So I guess part of they key is to get inspired: go live a little - even go outside of your bedroom/studio/house and do something else than just staring at your DAW waiting for inspiration to come to you.  As Jack London once said "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club" so start sharpening your club.

Being aware of your own creative process is important too, so that you can determine whether you're being creative or derivative.  This requires looking at your tunes in an objective way that requires discipline (so for example I'm writing a tune with very loose drums, is this because it's good for the creative direction of the tune or because I want to sound like Burial?).

I might write some more on this subject later on, my next post will be about processing breaks (and I'll include some free breaks (royalty free blah, blah, blah) that I've been recording for my devised project for uni (I love creative music tech, I get to make an EP instead of doing a dissertation).

Lastly in case some of you guys don't know the Locust: prepare to be blown away