Artistic Individuality and Breaking the Rules



In the spring of 2013 I was honoured to be able to work with Dr. Daniel Brophy on his doctoral thesis. The project he created, called 30 Immolated; 16 Returned, was a musical interpretation of the Marquis De Sade‘s famous work: The 120 Days of Sodom, as well as its infamous film adaptation, Salo. For those of you curious about the project, you can find the entire doctoral thesis (as well as performance clips of the project) here. As a member of 30;16 I was named an Artist in Residence at the University of Alberta for the Spring 2013 term. During this period, I gave a presentation at the university in our research studio on how to retain artistic individuality in multiple musical projects.

The inspiration for this presentation came to me very naturally, as at the time I was working on the 30;16 avant-garde project, playing in both progressive metal and funk bands, involved in many other styles of music in the local scene, and freshly out of my jazz music studies. While I wanted to stay true to the style of music I was playing in any given situation, I also felt a strong drive to be honest with myself as a musician and as an artist. These two desires are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as they may appear (and felt, to me), but the road to understanding how to rectify being a performer with being an artist was an arduous one.

From this struggle came my presentation, and though it is now years old, I feel my views then (with slight modification) are as close as I can approach understanding how to be a diverse artist. I have modified the presentation to accommodate the new format (obviously I am unable to provide live demonstrations of musical concepts the way I was in the original), but believe the main message will be preserved.


I have previously written about Transhumanism and the future of extreme music. In the article, I referenced a TEDx Talk by drummer Jojo Mayer, in which he talked about his musical journey into the world of Drum & Bass and his subsequent “stylistical abstraction” of the genre. His definition, in that talk, of what “art” is affected me deeply:

“Drum computers became a simplified abstraction of a real drummer. So in a way they created a new but genuine expression with a fake — which is kinda like what art is all about.”

A real, but genuine expression with a fake. Is that not what art is all about? What is it that makes art so important to the human experience? If we were to take, for example, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona: would I be able to give a description of it so vivid that you, the reader, would understand its beauty? Its power? The sheer magnitude of its scope, from the minute to the grand? Of course not. The power of art is in the individual experience thereof. I could point out similarities between a different, hypothetical, piece of art familiar to us both and the Sagrada Familia, and you would begin to have an understanding. But this is not the Sagrada Familia. It never will be.

Alternately, I could provide you with images: close-ups of the smallest details; aerial shots that attempt to capture the magnitude of this mighty cathedral; “real” visuals. And yet, though the experience of seeing these photos would give you a better understanding of what the Sagrada Familia is, it would not be the Cathedral. Until you are able to travel to Barcelona and be in the Sagrada Familia, everything that attempts to capture its magnificence is but a fake.

But this “fake” is not devoid of art — it is only that it is not specifically the Sagrada Familia. It is a genuine representative with a fake. I could take pages and pages to describe this Cathedral to you, but you would not be reacting to the Cathedral — rather, you would be reacting to my words; my art. In the text you would have a reaction to my purpose; you would experience art, though your experience would not be the experience which inspired the writing.

This is what I believe art is. There is a purpose, an inspiration – but it is not that inspiration. In the process of its creation, the art takes on a new life and a new form, and the audience experiences not the inspiration but the art as itself, as a whole. This is where I began to understand the distinction between performers and artists. A performer is someone who, for example, is a symphony musician who practices their craft for a lifetime to be able to play music someone else wrote, just as they wrote it. Their concern is not the meaning behind the art, but simply how to perform it for an audience who in turn would experience it as art. The main goal of the performer is to do just that: perform; and perform to such a degree of perfection that the audience is not distracted by the technicality of the performance, but the performance itself – their experience of the art. The performer seeks no personal artistic freedom or voice. The performer is a vehicle for art, and is praised the more efficiently they convey the artist’s expression and the less of the self they maintain.

Art, in my understanding, is not linear. It is even quite unclear. While the artist may feel inspired by a thing and turn their inspiration into art, the art itself is never the “thing” which inspired it; and, often can be unrecognisable. In turn, the audience can experience a piece of art, and from it garner all manner of inspiration, feelings, and thoughts – none of which the artist intended. A person can hear a symphony and be inspired to great action and movement, while another enters into the depths of quiet contemplation; the composer may never have intended for either of these two responses to occur. Yet they are direct responses to the living, breathing art, which has now taken on a life of its own; it has become a thing. The job of the performer is to present the thing as purely as possible. However, as in my case, it is often true the artist and the performer are the same person.


As a performer, I believe it is impossible to not interject some small part of yourself into any given performance. This can be both good or disastrous – imagine the difference between a decent metal guitar player playing a highly distorted solo on top of a thunderous double bass drum riff and chugging rhythms, and the same guitar player and solo on top of a smooth jazz combo. One will sound absolutely appropriate, the other will sound wrong, and quite possibly awful. Why? Because, as a performer, you have an obligation to your audience to convey art as faithfully as possible.

Of course, some art is specifically designed to unsettle, to prod, and if an audience feels uncomfortable after the performance of such art, then the objective was most certainly achieved. But humans live and thrive in systems; we love to categorise. It helps us make sense of the world around us, to mentally prepare ourselves for life. If we go to a “jazz” show, we expect certain expectations to be met. If we go to a metal show, we expect the same. There is a certain amount we are willing to bend outside of our preconceived notions, but very rarely are we able to either experience art with absolutely no expectations and a completely open mind, or to bend ourselves so far outside of our expectations as to appreciate something grossly inappropriate in art. Typically, enjoying noise music is not natural, but comes with repeated exposure, deliberate listening, and a willingness to understand. The average crowd going to see a pop show will not be able to comprehend the experience if the performer spent the entire time creating harsh feedback loops.

And this is the challenge of the performer/artist: to understand the audience. The performer need not care about the audience – their duty is simply to perform the music placed in front of them as accurately as they can. The artist need not care about the audience, for theirs is simply to create and release. The world can embrace or dismiss it as they see fit, but the “pure” artist (for lack of a better term) cares not for the reception of their art – they care solely for its existence. But the curious combination of the two, the performer/artist, is both responsible for retaining artistic individuality and transferring the art effectively to the audience. And in some ways is more torn for doing so, for in striving to create art and also convey it truthfully to an audience, they are slaves to both. The artist is a slave to the product, the performer is a slave to technique, but the performer/artist is a slave to the product, to the technique, and to the expression.

So when the performer/artist is reined in to a specific style or genre, a crisis occurs. How can they both properly convey to the audience an art they can understand, recognising the limitations of the audience, and retain true artistic expression? How can one maintain the balance between technique and product? Or technique and expression? And here there is a danger for the artist/performer to ignore the technique and move straight to the art. And yet if they do so, they end up like the metal guitar player in the jazz combo – no knowledge of the paradigm established by the existing form of art, no concessions for its own tropes and beauties, and an abrasive self-indulgence that will alienate the audience and ensure no product gets through to them, simply because the expression was wrong. The audience will not understand the art.

The performer/artist must then learn the tropes. They must avail themselves of the rules of the genre. They must take into account the expectations of the audience. While artists can feel constrained by rules, believing they are simply a more difficult way to obtain the same result (art), learning the rules of any genre will actually bring you to a different plane of understanding. Simply because rules exist in a genre does not mean they are arbitrary or confining. They exist because the art has formed that way; not as an individual piece of music, or a painting, but because the living, moving, expanding mass that is art is broader than any one piece. Examine the lines of genre too closely, and they blur and disappear. Step back, however, and genre becomes obvious, almost rigidly defined. Our human nature, our gravitation toward paradigm, affects us even when we feel at our most individual and relative. But our other nature, our individuality, always sets us apart, even when we feel our most social and orderly.

This duality, this dichotomy, is the line which the performer/artist needs to walk. They must learn the rules of the genre first, remembering the expression to the audience by way of technique is the most effective method to explain the product, the art.


And through this process, an unexpected eventuality reveals itself. Once the rules of the genre, or the art, are understood, breaking them becomes meaningful. To break a rule that did not exist means nothing; on the other hand, challenging a paradigm from within gains the challenge certain power, a truth that otherwise would have been meaningless babble. What may from the outside seem to be arbitrary and chaotic is, from the inside, quite plain – and the audience of the genre will be able to understand the meaning of the challenge, simply because they first understood the rules.

The performer/artist has simply met the audience on their own terms, and then pushed them. So while the performer/artist may be enslaved to many masters in ways the performer or the artist are not, they are also able to convey art to the audience much more effectively than either. Art is communication; without an audience, art is masturbation – pure self indulgence, good for nothing. The push by the performer/artist, truly understanding the art as itself, the art as expression, the art as technique, and the art as a product, can change the audience forever.

And where this push occurs will differ in every situation. In a noise music setting, the audience has already been pushed and changed so far they can understand such an artistic paradigm; in a pop music setting, noise is so far away from its audience’s conception it would be unfathomable. The audience would lack even the basic framework to understand it. But to push from pop music to noise music is not so impossible as it would seem; I would venture to say most readers of the Toilet did not begin their listening journey by being exposed in their musical infancy to harsh noise, but to more accessible, universal art, and have journeyed slowly into different styles.

I have written before on understanding music like language; I think the analogy holds up well here. Imagine different genres like different languages, each with rules and grammar and meaning. If you speak in English to a person who does not understand the language, there will be no communication. But if you speak in Spanish to a person who understands Spanish, you can have a conversation. Now, slowly, you begin to throw in English words into the conversation. Sometimes the other person will understand the meaning of the word simply because of its context; sometimes they will ask you to explain. Slowly they will begin to understand this new language, and eventually it will become as natural to them as their mother tongue. To convey meaning, you cannot scream at an audience in a different language than the one they understand. You must walk the line between the familiar and the unknown, pushing them slowly into a new paradigm.


This is, of course, not to say you should compromise art for performance; quite the contrary. We are fortunate enough to live in a time where no matter the artist’s chosen medium, there will likely be an audience for it. But stagnation is the death of art. In stagnation, progression becomes rote – simple routine. One only has to look at the myriad of “progressive metal” artists to see this to be true. Variety in artistic expression keeps the performer/artist moving forward. To not simply rest in one style, thinking it to be pure, or wild, or accessible enough, but to continue exploring the world of art, to garner new inspirations and new ideas, to learn new rules in order to break them – this is the goal of the performer/artist. To revert to the personal: I thrive on writing an electronic dance tune one day, and a sludge metal tune the next, and to take inspiration from both to continually create new and interesting art. It is the thrill of change, of finding something new, of hearing something familiar but slightly tweaked, that challenges me to explore and understand new forms of art. There is an entire world of experience out there; how could we not take advantage?

(Header image via)

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