Is your art mostly personal?

This morning, I was reading a review of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s 12 by Geeta Dayal, and I finally understood why I’ve never fully taken to her approach to assessing music (common among music writers looking for a discernable narrative I suppose), despite liking almost all of the music she writes about.

Everything is always heavily informed by external information about the artist and the music gets framed almost explicitly within that context. But it feels to me like it’s skipping over the enormous weight that an artist’s general practice has on the outcome. Sakamoto’s work for decades has often seemed contemplative and melancholy, his current health issues may or may not factor so strongly in the goals of this specific music. In the case of the tracks on 12, the titles are all dates. I have a deep kinship to the idea of recording hundreds of things for days on end, and after a while feeling like maybe these 12 turned out good enough to show others.

I find when I’m doing things, there’s often a lot of influence just by what equipment I happened to switch on that day, or what my posture was like after an hour, etc. I don’t know how deeply my work resonates with others, so maybe I’m too unfocused with my personal state? I find there are always all sorts of ephemera crowding in with heavier emotions at any moment, it becomes a bit of a crapshoot as to which ones will shine through in retrospect and I’m not personally too wrapped in it even if it is all specific to me.

I’d love to hear from everyone here, do you think your personal lives (especially major and specific events) are the primary seeds of what you make (or what makes the art you love great), that your focus on something big in your life is that steady and sustained and overt?


I think it’s mixed for me. There’s some unconscious influence that just “happens” when I’m making things (I think this contributes the most to “my sound”). This unconscious influence usually involves some combination of the equipment/music/workflow I’m drawn to, and is also influenced by past/present significant events, where/how I’m living, how much time I have available to dedicate to work, etc.
Your post makes me think of Joan Brown, who currently has a show up at SFMOMA. She was an avid swimmer, and one time her swimming club was making the crossing to Alcatraz. A huge ship crossed their path when it wasn’t supposed to, and the resulting 13-foot wake nearly drowned her and a number of other swimmers – they had to be rescued by emergency response boats. After that, most of her paintings feature either a huge ship or tumultuous water in some removed way. Her desire to include it so often says something, though i’m not totally sure what.
Certain things have happened to me in my life that keep cropping up as themes in my work, sometimes conscious and sometimes not. At times it’s easier to draw from those experiences because they are so significant, maybe because they remain unprocessed (?) but I wouldn’t say they are directly what compels me to be creative.
Anyway, I probably should have saved that for my therapist.

It makes sense that her summation of the work without apparently considering the general oeuvre of the artist would be frustrating.

RE: the art that I love, I think it’s very possible that the “reason” an artist made it might have little to do with why I’m drawn to it. I guess I don’t think about it much… I’m mostly interested in what the art does to me. Maybe that’s selfish but I think it’s also part of the beauty of sharing art, that it can mean different things to different people. But I digress. Honestly I have no idea.


This resonates with me a lot, like an idea I’ll need to live with for a while.


In light of the supposed Death of the Author (and abandonment of the question of “what the work means,” which was previously the concern of the more sophisticated writer/reviewer), what remains to be discussed largely falls into two categories: the person who made it, and what the work makes the writer feel (the political value of the work is a perennial subject, but I’d argue it’s just a combination of the two categories). The turn inward (for artists and for the public) enables each category even further, but note that neither category actually has anything to do with the work itself. Perhaps this is why you’re not satisfied.

None of this is to deny that personal events can hold meaning for artists (relevant to the work), and that these events may trickle into the work, in ways known by the artist or not. This is normal, and ideally the writing wouldn’t be immune to it, but wouldn’t be beholden to it either. But yeah, it’s really been ages since I’ve gotten anything out of music reviews.

To address the last paragraph, I’d think it should be obvious that, since we’re all trapped in our bodies, we’re all in some way hostage to our private lives and experiences—but also that the best art aspires to (and achieves) more.


Bear with me, I’m just thinking aloud.

I haven’t appeared in too many reviews over the years, but several of the ones I have tended to either dwell on trying to figure out how I made a noise or trying to discern my frame of mind (tough when I’m often mum on specifics). The best, rare ones fell outside of that, and seemed more interested in situating the music as presentation and their thoughts about it, which felt more like where I was coming from.

Sometimes one track of eight will be the blue that offsets all the previous yellow, rather than a turn towards a certain meaning, even if the aim is to make something affecting.


I often get a conceptual idea, make like one track, and then quickly abandon the idea because it doesn’t end up resonating with me. It’ll feel cold, analytical, and like I’m trying too hard.

If I just sit down, play and respond to the sound based on intuition, I find I’m more satisfied. These tracks end up feeling more “emotional” and personal to me. Listening back, months later, I can hear/feel that time a bit more.

I’m not sure if this answers your question, but I think I like working from a place of expression, and music seems to free whatever is going on below the surface/happening at the time, so yeah, it’s mostly personal.

Music reviews are weird. I stopped saying things are good or bad a while ago, as it’s really just about personal resonance and connection. Some things meet me at the right time, and others don’t.


This is a great topic.

For me, the more I channel personal topics when making music, the more satisfied I am with the final product. Music is a transport for a lot of people and when a piece of music takes me back to a happy moment from my childhood, for example, the more I will enjoy that piece. Now, the interesting question is whether someone other than me can recognize a change in the quantity of my music or the emotional character in it when I channel something personal in making a track. It’s hard to say whether the music actually sounds better or whether the nostalgia or memory makes me like it more. Ultimately though, the albums I make are usually cathartic exercises where I care very little about the audience actually listening to it.


It’s personal in the sense that I create out of the circumstances which I’m given. If there’s broken equipment, I try still to use it for what it does, until I can get it repaired. The same goes if I don’t understand a process fully, I work within the smaller domain of the things I do understand, not worrying that I’m mastering anything or using it to greatest efficiency. Is the art about these things, no, but it comes from them.

At the same time, there would be no art if I didn’t wish to transcend these circumstances, or the circumstances of life more generally. I would fail Nietzsche’s test. Art, as manifest desire, allows me to open a little door to another world, an impossible world, still one that must exist, or demands to exist. Through art I can create that world, or at least a door that opens out into it.

My hope is that that door works for others, that through it they find their own way of escape, as Success or failure in art seems to have everything to do with that door, and nothing to do with communicating any specific message, even less to do with any ‘I’… the door is ‘Yours’…

So it seems to be a paradox, that I must affirm the world in order to leave it behind, but these are actually two different (temporal) dimensions, the world out of which I create is the past, the world opening out from creation is ‘a’ future, But it is not the future, in which an action may take place. It is a movement towards the other, the Other future.

And it is the same paradox— though the work begins with that which is absolutely specific and personal, for the work to be successful it has to leave the personal behind, because the artist creates what each recipient can make to be about themselves and their own journeys beyond this world.

As for personal details in interviews. I am wary of saying anything more than is already in the music. I would talk about gear and process, to distract the interviewer and reader, to get them away from those areas. When something is named it’s already betrayed the personal. I think of Schaeffer’s idea of cutting off the attack portion of a recorded sound, so the listener no longer recognizes the event that produced the sound, and as a result can really hear the sound as if for the first time. Refusal to name what a work means or is about, even for myself, is the same strategy. Then the door has a chance at working for others besides myself.


To me, Geeta’s review speaks to her own personal feelings about mortality more than Sakamoto’s, and her own personal feelings around Sakamoto dying rather than Sakamoto’s own feelings. She uses words like “sorrow”, “somber”, “uncertainty about the future”, “pain”, etc. To me, I hear Sakamoto meditatively reflecting on his life, on mortality and his impending death, ruminating on his place and mark on the world, thinking about the transience and impermanance of all things. Mono no aware. Where she sees pain and sorrow, I see deep-seated reflection. I can actually imagine him being quite happy, or at least still in his heart. This disconnect is something I’ve encountered with my own music, where people ask to hear my music, and then when I reluctantly play it for them, they comment that it’s “so sad” or “dark” which is very interesting because I’ll be playing a track that I feel is an expression of the intense beauty of the universe and about my insignificant yet meaningful place within it. I’ll never correct the listener, if they feel it’s sad or dark, then it is, to them. I’ll get frustrated that I appeared to have failed at expressing myself properly, but this might not be the case either.

I think part of the problem is that we sometimes have a tendency to think of feelings and emotions reductively, in primary colors - happy, sad, angry, excited, outraged, peaceful, etc. We have so much trouble dealing with complex feelings that have no particular name, or inchoate feelings that even the feeler is sorting through in real-time as a piece is performed and may not be aware he has. These are the sorts of things music can communicate, poetry can communicate, but plain-spoken words have trouble with. Geeta barely reviews the album at all, for that matter; it appears to me like this is really an oblique sort of personal essay from her reflecting on a meaningful artist in her life, in the guise of an album review. In her defense, it must be exceedingly hard to review an album like this. Myself, I’d be tempted to write a poem instead of a review, or post a picture of my backyard in the dead of night, or share nothing at all.


I am not so deep into psychology myself but aren’t we all the sum of our past actions/emotions/feelings/experiences. None of us lives in a complete isolation and we are bound to be changed by thing outside of our mind, but everything goes through our own filter, and since we all have different experience on things, the filter is unique on everyone of us.

That being said, I think art is always personal, but there is a topic to be made about the intentions of art that you produce. For example, you can make highly political art, that serves a purpose, that comes from your unique view of things, but the intention is to reach out to other peoples views too, Depending on how thing be in certain time, it can be taken in many different ways. There is always a point to be made about the intentions of a group, is the art made by one person or many, and what makes your art your’s. As the OP posted, the instruments for example in musical context are usually made by other people, and they offer a certain journey of expression.

I have been dabbling in the (stupid) idea of tabula rasa -art, how can you make your head so clear, that you are expressing pure hidden “person” in you. I don’t think that is possible ever, but the idea has taken me to think about deep meditation before artmaking, or to be blackout drunk, pick your poison. I have also experienced that when you are in deep improvisation session with the instrument of your choice, the micro decisions you make are so fast, that you as in your person, is kind of not in control. Of course then we can say that we just express our line of musics tradition, the thing we have learned, and the mood we are in, and that is connected to the outside, so once again we are in the starting point.

This has been a bit of a ramble, but all in all, we are all connected (not in a hippy-way but in a realist way) and the “personal” is always unique, but not a tabula rasa in any way. intentions of why / how / when lead the art in different ways, and for last i would like to say, we are not so different from each others after all.


Someone on another forum recently brought up the “johari window

The website talks about using feedback to maximize the top left quadrant (known to both self and others) but I’m often interested in simply remembering that such a coordinate system might exist as a reference, something to keep in mind regarding creative process and presenation.


my art is certainly personal. i make it on my own terms, on my own time, almost entirely via my own means (like money and gathered resources over time).

I accept that my work exists in multiple, overlapping contexts, and those provide a listener language (whether I like the language or not) to begin relating to the work they encounter.

I expect that any audience is bringing to my work their own experiences and language, that these may effect their experience with the work so strongly as to be prejudicial (“i love synthesizer music”/“i hate field recordings”/“here’s another white guy with gear”). I hope what the audience brings allows them to begin a kind of relationship with my work, a shared space for experience with myself and other listeners/participants.

@wheelersounds johari window is a great framework to understand this, even if it is not at all where I started with this kind of understanding. how were we supposed to catch each other up on six years in a few minutes last night?

I’ve thought about this a lot and for a long time and through a number of different modalities and contexts.


my stuff is definitely personal, for better or worse :wink:

in the studio i just let the tracks flow out, be it from the equipment or my mind. whatever catches my ear that day is where the personal aspect comes in.

emotions, mood, thoughts, all change minute by minute and the thing that you might find relevant in one moment will be irrelevant the next. thus the personal.

i really like self indulgent pieces from other artists. give me the 30 minute ambient wank, i’m here for it


Because music comes naturally to me, it is deeply personal. I don’t have to force things. Certain “core” element is always there, regardless on how hard I try to remove that. Hard to explain, but I thought I give it a try.


Very personal for me, too, and I don’t see how or why it should be any different. Personal stories is probably why we listen to music.
Probably that’s why I don’t connect much with music that is too abstract, or too intellectual, or built entirely on sound design.


My art is partly personal, partly happy accidents, partly coincidence, partly feedback based on interactions with others, partly badly copying others.

It is hard to write about music as a music critic does, and whoever said that the usual vocabulary of emotion is limited was spot on.