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Interview with Isnaj Dui

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or ripp-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

To sound artist and experimental flute wizard Katie English aka Isnaj Dui, it isn't important to avoid external influences - it is what you do with them, that matters.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

Like a lot of kids I started learning recorder at age 4 and I immediately loved playing and learning music.  I took up flute aged 9 and studied formal grades although my flute teacher picked up that I enjoyed the weirder side of music so I got to learn lots of more experimental works alongside the standard repertoire.  I see these studies as having gained a good set of tools that now I can use to create my own music and I am still learning now, I don’t think any true musician ever stops learning in one way or another and that in turn feeds into the creative process.
Aside from learning a wide range of traditional orchestral and chamber music in lessons I took in all sorts of music when I was younger, loved the flute loops used on hip hop tracks, the jazzier side of drum and bass and breakbeat.  I guess listening to and playing along with these records helped me practice a different technique and set of chord structures and melodies from what I was learning in lessons.
It just developed from there really, playing around with sounds that I wanted to produce and finding ways to make them!  This is always changing, depending on the sound I want to make or I might buy a new bit of equipment and just experiment to see what comes out and take it from there.  I’ve always been very contrary, as soon as something is sounding like you know where it’s going I want to change it in some way, do something unexpected or leave a chord unresolved, just to throw the listener off a little.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
I’ve always enjoyed listening to a wide range of music so originality has always been important to me.  My parents have amazing taste in music and were always playing different things, they still love keeping up with new music now and we often swap CDs.  I remember them taking me to see the Balanescu Quartet and I just loved it.  It was on their Possesed tour when they were performing string quartet arrangements of Kraftwerk tunes and it was just one of those moments that showed me a world beyond the traditional use of orchestral instruments, but without getting bogged down in extended technique and atonalism. 
Kraftwerk themselves I still find amazing, acts like The Cocteau Twins, Ian Dury and The Blockheads - just real one-offs - also had a big influence when I was growing up.  A lot of mid-90s Warp releases like Jimi Tenor, Squarepusher and Red Snapper also had a massive impact as they were using acoustic instruments along with harsh electronics or tricksy beats.

What's your own definition of originality?
Personally I think it’s just coming up with something unique to you and sticking with it.  It will change over time, of course, but will always be distinctly yours.  Anything that is knowingly trying to emulate something else isn’t original. We all have influences but they need to be used to create something new, rather than just rehashing the same idea.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
It’s definitely become more important to me as time goes on.  I’ve become very aware of trying not to repeat myself too much, of course I have my own particular sound but I like to think it’s progressing and changing, otherwise what’s the point?  I get worried about getting stale and not learning anything new.
I’ll really admire an artist who has tried to do something totally new or unexpected, even if the result isn’t particularly amazing to listen to, at least it’s putting an idea out there which can be worked on.   It seems a shame when artists become content with just using one idea over and over again, which is all very well but just a bit underwhelming in the long run.  Again, it’s where constant learning and development comes in, you can be fantastic at one thing but if you don’t learn anything new, that one thing, however good it may be, is going to run thin pretty quickly.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
This is something I find myself thinking about a lot.  There is just so much out there now which in some ways is great but I find that so much of it is second rate versions of what’s gone before so although there’s loads of new music, it’s not necessarily original. Having said that, there are artists out there who do explore new ideas and that’s fantastic.
I know Field of Reeds by These New Puritans has been lauded and some of the tracks on it are absolutely amazing but for me, Hidden is the standout by them so far.  It just blew me away and still does and the fact that it was written by a trendy electro-pop type act just makes it all the more amazing.  I really admire that, they most likely lost a lot of fans by doing that but if a handful of kids is left feeling open to more unexpected music then that’s job done as far as I’m concerned. 
This is why I love being involved in loads of different projects, both in bands and solo, as it stretches what I learn and therefore what music I produce.  It would be all too easy to stick with what I know but then that becomes stale and predictable, in which case I might as well just re-release what I was doing ten years ago!

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
As I said above, it’s great to be involved in lots of different projects as it’s an amazing way of learning and no matter how disparate the projects might be they always feed back into each other and help me to come up with something unexpected.  In my solo work I enjoy taking things out of context and being a bit mischievous with things, I might use a hydrophone to mic up a flute stuck in a bowl of water or just use little melodic or harmonic changes to make a playful piece turn unexpectedly sinister for example.  One recent strategy I really had fun with was on the last littlebow album where I used rhythmic patterns from Balinese gamelan played on a plucked cello or glockenspiel, which we then used as a rhythmic base to play around with and created something completely different from the traditional pieces that those patterns are taken from. 

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
It's probably a bit of a cliche but inspiration can come from anywhere, that's why I always have a notebook and pencil to hand!  Sometimes a little melody or beat might come into my head and I'll play around with that, seeing how I can develop it or sometimes just rip it apart and turn it into something completely different.  Before recording I’ll often sketch out a piece of music to get a shape of it first, that way I know where it starts and where it’s going.  Again, that set of tools and fluency on an instrument is so useful as it enables you to be more playful with ideas rather than sticking to the same sequence of notes or chords.
It also depends on what mood I’m in and what I’m trying to get across.  Sometimes my head just feels full up with noise and I can’t stand to listen to music so just sit in the quiet and draw or paint, it depends where the idea is best placed. 

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
I think that's a very interesting point.  In Western terms we're used to the idea that if we write a piece of music then it belongs to us and anyone using recognisable parts of it is in breach of that.  Yet at the same time we have so many compositional rules that everyone follows, for instance twelve bar blues is by definition the same chord pattern so which parts do you claim as being original?  I played with a London based Balinese gamelan group for several years and was always told that this attitude of copyright and ownership just doesn't exist there.  Someone will write a piece but then different groups will interpret it and modify it as they please.  Yet it's still considered to be the same composition!  I think it's perhaps more where you take the idea rather than ownership, another example would be hip hop and sampling, what those guys did in the early days was amazingly original, yet all done by chopping up existing (and recognisable) records.  Having said that I just can't bring myself to like plunderphonics, it just always comes across as a bit of a piss take.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
As with anything, you need to know the tools you’re using and use them to your best advantage.  Instruments, hardware, software, they're all essentially tools to create a finished product and you need to be familiar with them all.  Recording and sequencing software is great as it opens up so many possibilities and makes a lot of processes a lot easier but it can also generate a reliance on these things which are essentially designed to point you in a particular direction, for example putting a track together using Cubase will push you towards a certain way of working that Abelton Live won't, and vice versa.  If you don’t have proper control over what you’re trying to achieve, the software wins and the music ends up sounding like the software, rather than human creativity.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
Personally I like trying out different bits of hardware and seeing where they take me.  It's usually something really simple like a toy keyboard or type of microphone rather than expensive equipment but it's fun to take things out of their usual context and just have fun.  One particular favourite is playing flutes through hydrophones by dangling the hydrophone into a bowl of water and dipping the end of the flute into the water with it.  It produces such a weird sound that's kind of familiar but also quite eerie.
The ability to record on the move has certainly provided me with lots of new points of inspiration and was particularly useful on Duodecim, a project where I aimed to capture the changing seasons throughout a year.  Although I use field recordings sparingly I enjoy getting audio snapshots of places, if only to then use a rhythm or something inspired by that recording. 

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
It’s a constantly changing thing and of course also depends on the individual, a particular point in time and the culture they’re based in.  Technology has always played a massive part in enabling artists to realise ideas, from the division of musical scales to developments in instruments to computer software, each development brings with it new possibilities.  The fact that communication is now so much easier across the globe has also impacted greatly on the way we work as exchanging ideas is now essentially instantaneous which has allowed infinite crossovers of cultures, technologies and ideas.
Any obstacle should be seen as something to be challenged and turned into an opportunity, as hard as that might be.  For instance, I think the relatively recent upheaval in formatting in terms of digital versus physical formats has pushed people to become more creative with how they package the final product.  In many ways digital is purely focussed on the music yet people still want to produce physical copies as the digital copy isn’t considered ‘real‘ enough and therefore isn’t appreciated as much as it should be.
The fact that so many people are producing new work is also forcing those with original ideas to push that extra bit to make their ideas stand out.  At the moment it’s very hard as the market is pretty much at saturation point but you just need to keep on trying. 

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Haha, yes!  I’ve had so many ideas over the years that I haven’t been able to realise for various reasons.  There have been installations with various speaker arrangements that I haven’t found time for yet, I’d love to write something for ballet but to be honest I’d have to go back in time to Diaghilev’s day so that one’s probably out! 
Having said that I am so fortunate to have been and continue to be involved in so many different projects and commissions that I rarely find myself bored or pining after some other project, I just wish there were more hours in the day…

Isnaj Dui interview by Tobias Fischer
Photo by Sarah Faraday

Homepage: Isnaj Dui