Sometimes I feel like I’m searching for a sound that doesn’t seem to exist. I can hear it clearly in my mind, but I’ve never heard it realised in any particular piece of music. Over the years there have been various things that have come close but as I zero in on them they seem to vanish, replaced by something that doesn’t fulfil the criteria.
I have been told on many occasions, and it’s occasionally a theory I subscribe too, that electronic music should represent a forward-looking and quite futurist mindset where pure sound and tone should always be pushed, never allowed to stand still. I like that but I’ve never been sure that it is a particularly realistic thing to aim for. One of the problems in reducing music down to its basic parts is that no matter how pure they are, they don’t tend to represent what music means to us. It’s akin to rock, where I’ve often suspected there are many people who will take the technical proficiency of a particular guitarist over the ability of the music to actually move us, to matter on an emotional level.
One of the things I’ve been wondering about is whether sound – or sound design – matters quite as much as some people tell me it does. Techno is a good case study for this sort of thing. Does spending hundreds of hours tirelessly working on an individual sound really matter? Would that time be better spent learning the art of song writing? Do people actually care if the kick drum has been built out of three or four different sources and layered into a single tone? There is no doubt that certain sounds do have an emotional effect on us. The bark and snarl of a bassy 303 is one of those things that just hits me in the gut. I’ve heard that trick repeated in countless tunes, though, and it has begun to reach the point where I’m not sure I ever want to hear a 303 – or one of its many clones – ever again.
Now, some might say that is the perfect example of why sound design is of paramount importance. It’s difficult to argue when you’ve just listened to the 15th record in an evening where the little silver box squawks into life and niggles its way into your ear. But I’m not sure it is the actual sound that is the problem. The vast majority of records that utilise that 303 do so in exactly the same way. It seems to be a failure of imagination when it comes to song writing – of how the rest of the music frames the 303, influencing how it rises or falls – that causes the problem. Too many tunes are built around what the 303 does rather than use the 303 to accentuate the music and respond to what else is happening. The tune, essentially, becomes a pedestal upon which the 303 sits.
In truth I think the problem is this: Techno, like almost all music that isn’t part of an overtly experimentalist vanguard, should be about structure and form as much as pure sound. The structure is important for the way it frames the sounds into an order which pleases the mind, body and soul. In fact, I would go further. As with classical music – a field that shares some stark similarities with electronic music in general and Techno specifically – the structure becomes even more vital given the way the structure, the arrangement, allows us to make sense of the largely instrumental nature of the music. Without vocals, the sounds of the instruments must be given the space to create the emotional response that the missing human element would otherwise provide.
Perhaps the reason that the sound I’ve been searching for doesn’t exist is that it can’t exist. Not on its own. And what I’m looking for is not about the sound at all but how the rest of the music responds to the sound, and through that, how it moves me. And it’s that, that emotional response, I am really hunting for. That’s what keeps us listening. That’s what keeps us travelling even though we know the destination isn’t real. I hope we never stop searching.