‘Your Sound’, I guess, is your voice if you’re a painter, or a singer or a songwriter or a composer, and you find it or you don’t. Sometimes it takes quite a while to find your voice - see Picasso. If you do find your voice, once in a rare blue moon you will find yourself thinking (but hopefully never uttering) ‘That’s me - no-one else could do that’. Once you have your voice, or your sound, it’s not your job to define it. That’s the job for the listeners. Don’t worry yourself with that. If you believe that you have found your sound/voice and want to find possibly like minded collaborators simply list your heroes (and maybe anti heroes). The vast majority of established artists found their voices emulating their heroes.
I define my sound as Tropical-Industrial. It’s helpfully vague, because it doesn’t specify any particular instrumentation or process, but it does tell you something about the atmosphere I wish to create. I’ve made music with a rock band, and ambient-ish electronic music, and both can honestly be described as Tropical-Industrial.
Hard relate. I went through a phase a long time ago where my approach to finding “originality” was to entirely abandon harmony and rhythm. Made hours and hours of textural soundscapes and harsh noise. I enjoyed some of it; most of it I would never want to hear again. Through that period I learned about working for the needs of the music rather than out of a desire to be original, and I also learned that I really, really like harmony and rhythm. They are wonderful, enormous sandboxes.
I work with ideas and ‘types’ of sounds/approaches* that I come back to often, so I feel like that is more or less as close to a particular sound as I’m going to get. That used to bother me but I’m becoming more relaxed about it. Like you say, I struggle with it too, but I guess that’s part and parcel of being an artist in whatever medium.
Beyond that, I think what I’m trying to get across with most of my music is the dialogue between human and technology. Everything I’ve done in the past few years has involved setting up some kind of performance scenario with a synth, tape machine, whatever, and hitting ‘go’. Then intervening when it feels appropriate. I dig the idea of having limited control over my equipment, and trying to constrain it within a particular bubble depending on the live or studio situation. I found out by accident that I get really excited by that, so I’m chasing it!
*free improv, drone, musique concréte inspired techniques, using junk equipment, feedback systems
EDIT - What I find really challenging is working out what equipment I need to achieve my ideas. I generally don’t care about gear, so it’s more about what can deliver a particular interaction for me, rather than any specific sonic qualities. Of course there are exceptions.
I specifically try not to.
When I first came to music, I sometimes managed to enter the process with a strong sense of what I wanted to accomplish and would (more or less) get there quickly. In those instances, I almost uniformly liked what I had made in those sessions a lot less than when I yielded to a more time consuming, exploratory, and (honestly) distracted form of composition. So long as I chased the feeling of surprise and excitement in that process, I felt that my output had meaningful relation to each other in sound (sonic and emotional).
Today, I still try to follow that, but it is often at the direct cost of productivity and efficient time management. It’s still the only way I know how to make stuff that sounds like me, and the rest seems to take care of itself.
I am not sure that I am qualified to comment directly on how to define one’s sound – musical exploration through modular synths is more in the hobby phase for me. I do, however, struggle with this question more broadly and instantiate it in my work in scientific research: How do I orient my focus for proposing research projects and do those projects align with my internal picture of how I view myself in the larger community of researchers?
I do not have any satisfying answer to those questions from my own original philosophy, but a fragment that Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Ethics of Ambiguity – in saving one from having to read Being and Nothingness – has stuck with me, “… man, that being whose being is not to be, that subjectivity which realizes itself only as a presence in the world, that engaged freedom…” What de Beauvoir proceeds to build from there is an argument that I think is that once one conceives of a rigid formulation of one’s place within a discourse (artistic or otherwise) then you lose the ability to act freely in it. I don’t think that is to say that one should never return to the exploration of a particular modality or aesthetic framework for musical expression, but I would say rather that one’s sound should be a consistently open, playful, and self-referential inquiry whose output does not ossify and become a dead question but lays a dynamic surface for it to be asked again.
All of that is probably useless in trying to get at the heart of your concern, but that idea of the question that you asked to start being the lack – the absence of definition of “sound” or “scientific oeuvre” – that drives my investigations forward makes the tension that it tends to create on a day-to-day basis a bit easier to handle.
“Hey, Rudi, that was pretty good, huh? Do you think that was the new sound?”
“No, that was a song about finding the new sound.
Let the sound define you and vice versa.
Creators creating creations creating creators. I think this is very evident in improv/freejazz and generative music.
Generative music does not remove the human from the equation…you are playing god/manipulator, the ultimate random chaotic source.
Genres are fun to play with and incorporate but not to define a stylistic direction.
Absorb and channel everything mundane and meaningful, cool and uncool, repulsive and tantalising. Reflect the originality of your environment, Reflect the originality of your culture, Reflect the originality of your Spirit.
Furthering your expression is furthering the ultimate expression Nature.
And on a political note(in regards to electronic music)…death to 12TET and furthering the capitalistic agenda which I view is becoming exponentially prevalent in this scene.
My sound comes from the gear I use and within. I find having a plan or trying to do something specific will lead to sounding non authentic. When you get in the zone and follow your instincts and don’t think, just act, that’s where “your” unique personal sound comes from.
I have been making music pretty much all my life, and seriously started recording and thinking of my stuff as viable (not commercially, but worthy of listening to) in about 2003. But stylistically I didn’t really have a focus for more than an album (and sometimes not even that long). I had my personal take on various styles – to quote
…but still felt like my music was all over the place.
. . .
For 2016, I chose a new name to release music under, and decided I was going to record one song per week. I started to add small hardware synths and toys to the music. Time for a fresh start! …but it was still all over the place in style.
I got into modular late that year, and it was a revelation. I went even more experimental and exploratory. Over the next few months, I found a love for LPGs, FM, wavefolding, and wavetables – and decided that would guide my gear choices. I also had a new tendency to compose/improv differently when almost every part was monophonic, and felt like I had a style emerging with that.
As I listened to my own music more at work, I realized that some of the music I was making was more fun to make than to listen to, but some was actually really enjoyable for me – and decided to avoid working in some styles to focus on others. That meant abandoning rhythm-first music, which was weird to me since I had been a taiko drummer for a while and was into hand percussion too, loved drum programming and twisty odd time signatures. But listening told me the music I was making now was better when I didn’t do that! So following those rules I set for myself, I felt like I had found “my sound.”
The center of gravity shifts over time, more than I would have expected. I’m getting close to releasing my second album as Starthief, and it’s a dark drone/industrial almost-techno hybrid, and that came about almost coincidentally while playing with some modulation. It’s nothing at all like what I was making when I felt I’d found my sound, but it’s still my sound.
I also struggle with this. I love so many different styles of music, instruments and production techniques, and I can’t decide for one particular style or genre. I can do something for a while but then something else, be it an album I listen to, be it new gear etc. comes along and grabs all my attention. I’m hugely influenced by the artists I love. Some say it’s a bad thing, if you try to sound like somebody else, but if I find something I really love listening to, I want to create something similar myself. Be it just for the sake of listening to it. Or because I’m curious how to achieve a certain sound or style. I want to learn how to do it.
So one day listening to Hip hop, I want to buy vinyl and chop samples, next time I listen to autechre and want to get into max/msp and be experimental and challenging and the other day listening to Beatles or Radiohead, I wanna grab my guitar and write songs… I can’t stick to techno, rock, hip hop etc. cause everything is interesting to produce.
Sometimes I think that might be a strength, but most of the time I’m struggling with it, cause I think I have to find my own signature sound. On the other hand, even the greatest artists had their role models and tried to imitate them. And by doing things “wrong” or different they resulted in creating their own thing. Nonetheless I think would be easier to find my sound, if I won’t change my general style and genre all the time. The only things that I feel are my “own” thing, are my melodies. They are quite recognizable in whatever I do.
Yes I find after becoming more hardware centric, the combination of pieces(and humans)you choose as well as the processes + interconnections involved can leads to unique results juxtaposing aesthetic tastes of all involved and often in a way that surprises all involved(including the machines). Record everything.
Abstract electronic destruction, porch techno rumblings, crooked no-wave techno freaks & squeaks, squawking electro-skronk, etc
I don’t know why I like this so much… it’s giving me images of rocking chairs, industrial rhythms and straw hats…
Your vision of industrial rocking chair hats strikes me as accurate.
Here’s an example of porch techno track: http://immigrantbreastnest.com/track/manchurs-balance
n.b. I borrowed the term “porch techno” from a band called Quavers.
I used “tropical-industrial” once to describe my own music as well!
Though I only sound like that sometimes…
I just make noises that I like listening to. That’s as close to a definition of what my sound is as I personally get.
If others want to give it some sort of definition then that’s fine.
Although… I have been thinking about this in a way from a tags on Bandcamp viewpoint. If I don’t tag (and hence define) my stuff in some way it may be less likely to be found by someone browsing genres of interest. At the moment I don’t bother, but thinking I might try adding a few relevant tags just to see if it makes a difference to the “random” listens I get, opposed to through forum embeds etc.
I don’t see “sound” as either an idea within myself, or as an attribute of equipment. Rather, it’s a third structure that emerges between the two and retrospectively determines both. That is, one creates within a sound. Equipment is as it is, only within a sound. Sound is not something of which one conceives or even enacts, but a prior (transcendental) condition for conceiving or enactment as such.
Third structures like “sound” aren’t mere artifacts, such as rhythms or recordings. They are ontological. They determine how everything shows up: even causality and time can be only as they are within a sound, and then only to the extent one has opened oneself to it.
Take, for instance, a guitarist improvising with a delay pedal. The “function” of the delay pedal is delay: one plays a note, and hears the same note a little bit later. As a system to be apprehended rationally from an objective distance, that’s all there is: the function. Delay. Indeed, not so interesting.
However, suppose one abandons such thinking and instead allows oneself to be open to the sound. In other words, to what is actually happening when one plays with the pedal. Such allowance is none other than an initiation, and such an openness is none other than listening. Listening as such initiating oneself to be placed within the sound: not thinking it in an objective sense where one wishes to master or control it, but thinking within it, which is to say freeing it, letting it come into its own.
Indeed, through this primordial and initiatory openness called listening, the fingers start doing their thing and repetitive patterns begin to emerge. With such patterns, let’s say a loop of five eighth-notes, a delay of three notes becomes also an advance of two; that is, time and causality readily flow backwards within the sound in which one has allowed oneself to enter.
But this reversal of time is simply the beginning, in a process where one has let a simple “function” give way to a rather complex and profound “functioning”. As intensity develops, and even shorter patterns emerge, time stops altogether: there are simply these notes, sounding with or against these other notes in a relationship that is fundamentally acausal and atemporal. [And from whence came these notes? Is it the “I”, the guitar, the pedal (which in this case is excessively stupid)? ]
Perhaps, this stopping of time achieves no less than what Castaneda termed “stopping the world” – that is, an initiatory abandonment of self and worldly preconception, an ecstatic release that frees one “to the perceptual solicitations of a world outside the description we have learned to call reality.” It is in this ultimate sense of a “world outside” – that is also what is most near, that the emergent “third structure” known as sound reveals its fundamentally ontological character; as much through what it conceals as through what it reveals, it determines the “I” and “delay pedal” as such – the “functioning”, not the “function”.
And yet, in the clear light of reason, in our attempts to realize “the sound inside our head” based on an absolute mastery over any musical situation, where instruments like the delay pedal are “just tools”, just means to preconceived ends – sound collapses once again, the ontological space of the “functioning” collapses back into “function.” [See, time hasn’t reversed or stopped at all, I can defeat the “functioning” by playing this single note, and then, it will come out again some time after.]
Indeed, the rational person will object, doesn’t this focus on repetitive patterns actually restrict one’s freedom, after all one should be able to play anything! But freedom is not “freedom of choice”. It is not being able to choose between a hundred varieties of cereal or fifty kinds of toothpaste. In the modal categories of the possible, the necessary and so on, one has only described a situation where everything can be produced and yet nothing ever is. Nothing is ever brought forth; nothing ever freed to come into its own. Indeed, it is only within the horizon of sound, where function has given way to functioning – a functioning that conceals as much as illuminates – that the “I” and the gear both experience freedom as such.
Skill, in the hard light of rationality, is taken as an end in itself because it can be quantified in terms of virtuosic “possibilities”, again as according to the rational and modal schema, as the sum total of the power res cogitans has over res extensa. Yet within sound, skill is only insofar as it conceals, in that it enables one to not think anymore about various aspects of one’s playing such that one can be open to what is unfolding, such that one can initiate oneself into the sound. When properly habituated, skills simply vanish from mind; they present a completely opposite image to that of a disembodied controlling power.
Placing oneself within sound is in fact dwelling within that sound, and dwelling – the “within”, is only in and through depth. In depth one never “sees” anything in its totality but only in and through movement within it, a movement which itself has the essential characteristic of openness and receptivity, but in ways that conceal as much as they reveal. Neither map nor televised image can truly capture what it is to experience a landscape in its depth, to experience the rapid shifts of terrain underneath one’s feet, the veiling and unveiling of clouds and their mists, the vast and immovable mountain ranges far off into the distance, the sudden illumination of a lightning flash across the vast expanse of the sky, the echoing of thunder through the canyons. That which is near is only made near by holding that which is far at a distance. The familiar mountain ranges being that which one has habituated through skill. That which is brought forth, that to which we listen – is only so by that which is veiled. That which is freed only is so by that which we have held out as no longer possible for us.
Sound as such, as third structure, operates fundamentally and ontologically in how it determines the “I” and the “equipment” – yet there is a fragility and an ephemerality hidden in the fact its determinations are retrospective. There are two, seemingly contradictory senses of time: on the one hand sound emerges from the “I” and the “equipment”; on the other, sound retrospectively determines what is even meant by “I” and “equipment”.
This contradiction can be resolved by recognizing that as an emergent whole, sound never fully transcends its parts. In this, parts don’t refer merely to the “I” and “equipment”; rather everything, every little gesture, every timbre, every note – nothing is ever in itself conditioned fully by sound. There’s always the possibility that at any moment something else will emerge: often as the result of a simple curiosity (“what does this do?”), or that sound will simply vanish, as apparition with its own retrospective determination that annihilates that which has come before, in the mode of the “it never was.” While ontological, sound in no sense can be interpreted as being; it is always caught up more primordially in the perpetual unfolding of becoming.
Openness to sound that we call “listening” is also openness to its disappearance or its changing into something else. Its radical contingency - that it is always at the same time not-itself. That sound is as it is only because it can become something else. If one may speak of sound’s beauty or poignancy, one does so only with intimations of sadness (that things will soon pass), but hopefully also the humble joy of having been given a rare gift, and having responded accordingly.
Thankfully this is not otherwise, because it is only in and through its radical contingency that sound wants to be recorded. That we want to share that which has come not from calculation or design, not from some idea or “expression” we want to impose upon the world – but something we have merely helped cultivate, helped bring along, something for which its time is passing, something already becoming something else. We share both with humble joy and sadness but with no illusions that we have preserved sound for eternity – even its recordings and circulations are caught up in other sounds, other retrospective determinations that reach no finality in their perpetual unfolding.
You have a real talent for putting into words things I can only make shadow puppets about. Thank you!
Definitely something I think about a lot, as I’m sure everyone does. I still haven’t arrived at something I would consider to be mine, as I oftentimes feel like I’m doing a lot of borrowing from other artists in terms of sounds I like.
As with anything, I think it’s something that takes time moreso than a deliberate effort. Simply by being you, with all of your past experiences and all the music that you’ve absorbed throughout your entire life, you are starting from a very different place than any other person. Ultimately I feel that every artist is in some way derivative of others, and we’re all just constantly building off of each other.
What I find the most puzzling as an artist is once I feel as though I’ve arrived at “my sound,” am I just supposed to keep creating music that way? I feel as though listeners and consumers of music expect artists to stay in their box or category - I’m guilty of occasionally expecting this of artists myself. What if one day I decide to make a retro synthwave album? Am I alienating listeners who expect something else? Does that matter? I would say no, but it’s certainly something worth thinking about, and I think we’d all be lying if we said we do this music thing PURELY for ourselves and not because we also enjoy the prospect of some external artistic validation from others.