My girlfriend is a composition student at Oberlin, a conservatory that very much encourages musical experimentation. She can be seen blowing into bottles in this video, among a crowd of students abusing their instruments in the name of “trans-idiomatic” improvised music.
Her compositions vary widely, but she once lamented to me that she constantly worries about them all sounding the same. I was intrigued by this, because among electronic musicians (and pop musicians of all genres), you hear talk of “finding a style” and sticking with it, at least for a time.
The Beatles are a perfect example of this. With The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night, and all of the music they composed from 1963-1966 was essentially in the same style. With Revolver, they changed it up a bit, with intricate compositions like Eleanor Rigby, and gentler songs like Here, There, and Everywhere. With Sgt. Peppers they grew more psychedelic, ramping it up even more with Magical Mystery Tour. Studying Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi only pushed their creativity further (possibly to a breaking point?).
Anyway, the point is that their style at any given time was consistent, even though tracks from their later years are completely different from their original sound.
Electronic musicians nowadays, unlike the Beatles, define themselves from the beginning by their style, usually deliberately. Someone will say, “I like dubstep but I wish it weren’t so loud” and a musical project is formed. We become known by our style. It’s one of our best marketing tools. People can say, “Oh, you like this artist? You’ll probably like this one too.” It doesn’t work nearly as well when you have to say, “Oh, you like this artist? You check check out this other one too, but only listen to what he did between 2007 and 2009.”
There is only one real problem I see with working within a set style — you’re giving yourself limits. They can discourage experimentation, by challenging your creativity. But challenging your creativity is both good and bad. It challenges you to work within your limits, which means modifying all of the experiments that don’t fit “your style” so they do fit. Some things you probably won’t ever release. Just remember that the things you don’t release — your failed experiments — help you get better, and get closer to what you’re trying to do.
What is style?
A style can be as broad as you want it to be. Chromeo, for example, has defined a pretty narrow niche to work in, but they’ve been wildly successful in doing so. Justice has an equally small niche, but in an entirely different genre. Amon Tobin, on the other hand, has defined his style through concepts — such as sampling — which allows him to go in all sorts of directions. It’s essentially based on the same idea — the fusion and distortion of real-world sounds in an electronic context — but he can put it together with minimalism, dubstep, and ambient. And it all sounds like Amon Tobin.
A style doesn’t have to be very confining. Perhaps the best definition for style is “how you like to work.” We can think of it as an approach to sound, rather than a resulting sound.
Defining your style
Ideally, you would just make music that you feel. All of your music would come from inside of you, after all of your outside influences have been mixed up in your head. But if it were that easy, you wouldn’t be reading this article.
You can define your style by the resulting sound you want, but as I said above, it’s better to start from the source — figure out the approach you want to take to electronic music, and the music will naturally come from that. Figure out what you want your music to represent. If electronic music is just a lens to view reality with, you might want to ground a lot of your work in sampling. Sampling is an amazing way to work, because the sounds you go out and record will inspire music inside of you with very little effort.
If, on the other hand, you think of electronic music as an escape from the real world, an entirely separate universe that has nothing to do with your existence on earth, then your sound will come out spacey and grounded in synthesis, like Monolake. If you love the technology as much as you love the music, messing with synthesizers in the deepest way possible will inspire your music. Your music will not focus on the overall composition, but the discrete sounds that make it up. Minimalism might be a large influence, because it allows you to focus on specific sounds. And if creating those sounds is what makes you feel like a badass scientist, you will want to highlight them.
If you believe electronic music is simply an extension of previous musical traditions, you’ll probably be building on the work people have done in the past. This could mean sampling old jazz records and putting beats over them, like Nujabes.
It could also mean creating a kind of throwback band like Chromeo, who believes that if the ’80s were so awesome, why not keep doing that?
Instead of (or in addition to) taking your inspiration from other musicians, take it from things you experience in your life outside of music. If you like the idea of traditional culture — and the way it manifests itself so differently in different countries — then get your hands on recordings of traditional instruments (like the Qin!) and work with them.
Okay but what is the point of all of this?
The point is that you shouldn’t define your style by how your music sounds, and you shouldn’t worry — like so many people, myself included — about having compositions and experiments in such disparate musical genres. Instead, find a project. Tell yourself, “I’m going to make an album completely inspired by the sounds of my city,” and then go a-sampling. Or, “I’m going to make this entire album using Operator and nothing else.” Or, “Every track on this album is going to be influenced by a different body of water.” Or, “The pad synths on every chorus on this album are going to look like Hebrew characters in the MIDI piano roll.”
These kinds of ideas exist at a much deeper emotional level than how the music sounds. Choose an experiment meaningful for you, and a style will evolve on its own.
And this is only one approach. Your style could be, to the contrary of everything I’ve said, completely aesthetically influenced. You may just want to make dubstep. That’s okay. Go make your dubstep. But do something interesting with it, will you?