Concept Albums, Influences and the Reinterpretation of Feelings – Pt.1

March 14th 2016  || by  || Add Reply

I like some creators’ concepts a lot, but ironically, I’m not passionate about their music. And those artists’ music that I find exciting for stylistic or other reasons, often have a concept behind them that I can’t associate myself with – or have no concept at all.

This brings up an interesting question about the relationship between concept and taste. Should a piece of art that you find interesting have a concept that you can relate to? Does a concept that greatly interests you guarantee that you will like the art that’s formed around it? I certainly don’t think so. Yet, concepts can make a piece of art much stronger and more timeless. Concept albums ideally sprout from the exploration of feelings or ideas, opinions or facts, and express them through one or another art form. I say ideally, because technically we shouldn’t call an artwork concept-based if the work was retrofitted with a concept after it was created, but in some cases the realization or idea of meaning might actually come during or after the creative process.

Concept vs. Style

So how is it possible that I keep finding myself on either side of this equation but rarely in the intersection of them? I believe that the answer is: evolution of ideas and an organic process to create originality.

I see the “lack of finding work right in the intersection” problem as an opportunity for a natural evolution into new territories, aspiration to create the new, that will belong to that intersection – at least for some. Let’s say you love what an artist says about his/her inspirations, creative process, concepts that their music is expressing, but you don’t care for their music. It happens to me quite often that someone describes their ars poetica or creative process, which makes me excited to hear their music, but when I hear it, the music doesn’t resonate with me at all and I stop listening with disappointment. Artists, like all humans, subconsciously build their previous experiences into their own work; so what do creators do when they get inspired by a concept, feeling or idea but don’t agree with its expression? They create their own version to express it their way! Or create a variation of it. Or (sub)consciously build it into their own concepts. Either way, the result becomes something new. Like a story that gets embellished with lines borrowed from other stories and told differently every time. After a while it becomes a different story, filled with diverse roots and influences. Once you tell your own story (concept) your own way (musical expression), it should become a perfectly matched intersection between feel/idea and musical expression – at least for one listener: you. And when publicly released, the work can continue the process of influencing others by its concept (message) or by its design (music).

Is having a concept a must?

What about great music with no concept whatsoever behind it? As much as I appreciate original compositions and unique sonics (the value or originality in these is actually even measurable to a degree), I don’t think that it’s enough; I just don’t think that a conceptless album is as strong of a piece of art as the same release with a concept can be. After all, music is the most universal language (no, it’s certainly not math!) – but just beautifully speaking that language while having nothing to say isn’t appealing to me. However, once it’s expressing a message (whether abstract or concrete), the mix of that message and its expression can trigger a reaction with our own feelings (memories), which in turn can modify the intended meaning of the concept. It can effect us differently from the way it was meant to – isn’t that the basis of progression, though? Isn’t it beautiful how mutually influential the elements of concept and style can be?

One of my teachers in elementary school said, as the class was analyzing a poem, “What matters is not if you know everything about the circumstances in which the poet wrote this poem and you can analyze what he meant by every line. What matters is what the poem means to you.” So true. If it means something to you, if it effects you, it was worth creating it.

Ironically, I used to say quite often that my life is all about music, composition and sounds. Now 39 years into it I feel that music is “just” a tool, although an extremely powerful one, that we can use to communicate emotions and concepts with. However, those feelings and ideas should exist in us in the first place.

Art forms influencing each other

Another aspect of this theory that fascinates me is the cross-influence between various forms of art and expression. For example, a photograph at an exhibition might have a certain emotional effect on me. This emotion, combined (usually subconsciously) with my own related feelings can result in a new feeling, which then I express (and let my audience experience) – but not necessarily through photography, but music. Or sculpture. Or another expressive form. Thematically there might be no detectable link between the original photograph in the museum and the music track on my album, but the emotional connection (translated by my own experience of those emotions) might be extremely strong. In fact, it can be stronger than just to call it influence – it might be a variation of the same message (but without any relation to the way it was expressed by the original photographer). We could even think of it as my personal musical score to the original photograph – without having an understanding of how the photo made it’s photographer feel in the first place. But without that photo, my expression of it wouldn’t exist either.

Based on this thinking it might be unsurprising that many composers (myself included) are more influenced by other forms of art than other pieces of music. (I’m actually working on an “influence gallery” for this very website.) I believe that influence should be more about a new interpretation of the concept, the feeling, the idea (of another type of work or experience), than the kind of musical expression (style, melody, etc.) that was used to bring it to light and which you might like. Again, a photo or a country song with a strong concept might have a bigger effect on the originality of my work in electronic music, than hearing electronic music with a similar style to mine. In the latter case, I’d be more likely to subconsciously copy elements of expression (melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, performance), as opposed to be thematically influenced by an idea.

Follow the process from top left to bottom right. The shaded grey area represents the listeners. The orange elements on the right represent those listeners who are creators themselves.

Musical concept, feeling, meaning, influence and re-interpretation. The relationship between concept albums, creators and audiences. (click to open large)

So then why do interviewers always ask about our musical influences? Isn’t that just asking about the wrong side (the language, not the story) that you might have grown up with and actually can’t get out of your subconscious? If anything, that kind of influence is actually a narrowing factor in the originality of your expression, rather than an actual influence on your message. When listening to me speaking about my music, wouldn’t you be more interested in what stories, feelings, ideas we might have in common, than what kind of music we both grew up with or enjoy listening to (the “packaging” we both prefer before we unwrap the message)?

You will see another funny thing when you look at the middle area of the diagram on the right. The parts that many producers, writers, etc. focus on the most is technology. While production technology (i.e. recording software, the engineering, the studio) can greatly influence the musical expression (hence the dark blue arrow pointing left, back from production to expression), it is a relatively small part of the overall journey, and this reverse direction (using the technology as an idea-generator and not as a tool to translate one) can even be responsible for a disconnect from the original concept…  just think of those instances when a suddenly found “cool sound” caused your work to deviate from the originally intended feel.

My conclusion – and advice

Understand your own message but do let yourself be influenced by others’ interpretations.
Don’t let technology interfere in impressive but irrelevant ways – experimentation is fantastic as long as it is purposely channeled towards enhancing your initial concept.
Rather, be open to get influenced by experiences, concepts, feelings coming from other forms of art than yours. Unlike those “how to break writer’s block” articles that tell you to listen to more music of your peers, or copy the style of other composers, I suggest that you first figure out what you want to say and focus less on how you want to say it.  A strong concept will inspire the “how”-s automatically.

To be continued…


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