I finished Haruki Murakami’s “Wind / Pinball” a while ago, and this month’s Language / Lingo theme got part of it resonating in my memory. The novels are forewarded with Murakami’s own narrative on how he came to realize he should be a writer.
It dawned on him in a moment: the crack of a double in a Jingu baseball stadium, then,
“In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me:
… I think I can write a novel.”
Of course, Murakami’s first steps were stumbles. None of us makes anything worth noting when we’re just starting out, however well we’ve pinned our standards to the stars.
What caught my eye in Murakami’s origin story, though, are not his struggles with finding anything to say, but the realization that had he had no good way to say it–no unique voice of his own–and set off to discover a language that was uniquely his.
It’s worth reading the entire foreword, but in short: Murakami’s of his attempts to discover a literary style via trend emulation and guesswork leave him with drafts that, well, don’t feel like his. Zero confidence in his authorial voice make for uninteresting content, which makes for less confidence, which repeats the pattern. His breakthrough comes in breaking away from the trends by picking a different base language entirely–English–and translating the results back in.
Needless to say, my ability in English composition didn’t amount to much. My vocabulary was severely limited, as was my command of English syntax. I could only write in simple, short sentences. Which meant that, however complex and numerous the thoughts running around my head, I couldn’t even attempt to set them down as they came to me. The language had to be simple, my ideas expressed in an easy-to-understand way, the descriptions stripped of all extraneous fat, the form made compact, everything arranged to fit a container of limited size. The result was a rough, uncultivated kind of prose. As I struggled to express myself in that fashion, however, step by step, a distinctive rhythm began to take shape.
Since I was born and raised in Japan, the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed. Writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that entailed, removed this obstacle. It also led me to discover that I could express my thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammar structures, as long as I combined them effectively and linked them together in a skillful manner. Ultimately, I learned that there was no need for a lot of difficult words—I didn’t have to try to impress people with beautiful turns of phrase.
The plainspoken, accessible language (and the magic surrealism it describes) have become his hallmark, but started out as a deliberate effort to stray away from the language he knew.
Some people have said, “Your work has the feel of translation.” The precise meaning of that statement escapes me, but I think it hits the mark in one way, and entirely misses it in another. Since the opening passages of my first novella were, quite literally, “translated,” the comment is not entirely wrong; yet it applies merely to my process of writing. What I was seeking by writing first in English and then “translating” into Japanese was no less than the creation of an unadorned “neutral” style that would allow me freer movement. My interest was not in creating a watered- down form of Japanese. I wanted to deploy a type of Japanese as far removed as possible from so-called literary language in order to write in my own natural voice. That required desperate measures. I would go so far as to say that, at that time, I may have regarded Japanese as no more than a functional tool.
It got me thinking, how do we find our own voices in sound design?
Time was, the conventions of sound design were not so well established–every voice is unique when there’s no common language. We now live in an age of total information overload. Everything’s tutorialized, somewhere. We’ve forums, Facebook, Twitter, a 24/7 hyper-functional chat room stuffed with hundreds of working professionals around the world. The “best” of us are acknowledged, awarded and imitated, and when shit works well, we do it. Maybe we’re stuttering things, or aping early Mass Effect, or pumping sine waves through chaotic matrices of distortion. Everywhere is S-Layer, Whoosh, and a million happy accidents tucked into layers, masquerading as deliberate design.
(I still use the heck out of these two and don’t know when I’ll stop. But I’m certain I someday will.)
Even if we design differently, we’re increasingly serving that design up with the same sets of tools. Middleware’s everywhere–learn it once, and you’ve learned it for next time, too. The emergence of this transferable audio artist skillset means that designers can move from gig to gig while skipping fewer beats. And that’s pretty great in an industry where things get cancelled, contracts end and people are frequently fired for reasons beyond their control. So the waterline of game audio marches ever onwards, at the expense of individuality as defined by the quirky workings of proprietary tools.
But after we’ve all got random containers, we’ve all got HDR, we’ve all got native ambisonics decoding and pinpoint positioning, well. What’s the thing we do that others don’t?
Rare is the self-knowledge that lets you look at yourself and go, Ah, right. Here’s my style. No one thinks they have an accent, but we must all pick them up over time.
How do you put a lens on it? When pressed, I could tell you the types of things I think I like to design more than others, but I’m not sure I could look at the entire body of my sound design and tell you the overarching commonality there. I’ve worked in different styles on different projects–we all have. Is there some hallmark that spans it all, though? What’d that be like? Would it manifest as the subtle effects of a favorite plugin, or samples you just can’t stop using?
Moreover, are there any strict translation exercises that might mirror Murakami’s approach? Recently, I’ve had to slot in to evolve some sound that was made in an existing style, and am trying to reverse engineer it with words. Interpreting someone else’s sound legacy with your own vocabulary, then aiming your design at those, seems a pretty sure way to get one’s own filter on the results. But I’m really not sure.
Are you conscious of your sound voice? What have you done to try to cultivate it?
Addendum: Additional Reading
They went into this on one of last year’s Game Audio Hours, too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7682eDHZF4&t=56m17s