On finding oneself, others, and each other through sound design
I am LYZZA, a music producer, vocalist and sound designer; the latter I don’t usually mention when telling people ‘what I do’ because it would be necessary to then explain exactly what ‘designing sounds’ entails, what that means to me and how in my eyes sound design within music production is a gateway to liberation of marginalized identities.
When we speak of sonics we speak of sounds. We are surrounded by sounds. Whether we're outdoors, indoors, at work, in a city, or in the country. Voices, vehicles, birds, wind in trees, machinery, footsteps, rain, beeps of our electronics, dogs barking, sometimes blood moving through our bodies. Sound, through speech, is still the medium of our language. But within music, all those sonic environments can be produced and designed.
Sound design is the process of recording, developing, or producing audio elements. Not a song, but an element. It is used in a variety of areas including in films, television production, theater, and video game software development.
The process usually involves manipulating previously composed or recorded audio, and using it in music and/or creating sound effects. A great example of this are the lightsabers in star wars. Lightsabers don’t exist; so the sound that happens in the star wars movie as they’re fighting with them had to be fully designed and synthesized.
I don’t come from an artistic or musical background. Between my father’s day job in IT, my mother’s occupation as an emigrated au-pair, and neither of them being big music listeners, it's interesting how I ended up falling in love with sound as a trade. There wasn’t much focus on arts and culture, the focus was mostly on making ends meet. I've asked my mother why she never listens to music. She told me likes silence so she can hear her thoughts.
When I was 15, I went to Appelsap, an Amsterdam electronic and hip hop music festival. This is one of my fondest memories simply because it was one of the first times I was introduced to sound design and the beauty of sonics. Back in 2014, It was also one of the first times the late pop and electronic music producers SOPHIE played a headline show in Amsterdam and I remember it clear as day. The way she walked on stage and then pressed play on her then latest single, "L.O.V.E".
Hearing this song for the first time completely shocked me, I had never heard sounds like that before; and I didn’t know where to place them or what to relate them to.
Years passed by and somehow SOPHIE reached out to me and that caused us to become colleagues and friends. From there, we were able to share a lot of conversations in regards to sounds and how they can be taken from the world around us and catapulted into something completely new and abstract.
One of the main things that drove SOPHIE was the idea of creating sounds that didn’t already have a place in the real world. To manipulate sounds beyond conventions of genre towards the creation of little utopias and transgressive sonic soundscapes all within a 3 to 5 minute song. One of the main goals SOPHIE used to have when creating these sounds was to create sonics, instruments, and melodies that seemed as far removed from humanity and the status quo as possible, thus expanding boundaries on what it meant to exist in a world of sounds that technically don’t exist and also make that existence be known and unapologetic. Even though SOPHIE is not with us anymore, I am grateful to have shared as many conversations about this with her as she is the person who was able to help me formulate my view on this topic.
The reason why sound design within music is so important to me is because I view it as the groundwork on which a house is eventually built upon. It’s the colors to a painting, and when wanting to translate a message or be able to communicate a feeling through a painting; some of the key factors that influence how that message will eventually be perceived is who the person perceiving it is and the colors that are being used. As you may or may not know; Certain colors evoke certain emotions in our brain which has developed over the past hundreds of years and now that same psychology is used in steering us to buy certain products and helping ads to translate a certain message to us.
I like my artistry within music to move and challenge people, and I found that sound design works best to make this happen to whoever is open to listen. The more I create sounds that have been synthesized to become something that is non-existent and can’t be traced back to the sound of a object or instrument or movement; thus, very far away from reality, the more room that I create for people to move more freely within music or reach deeper to connect with unknown or undiscovered parts within themselves and their identity because there’s nothing ‘real’ and no ‘reality’ to hold onto.
Swing, 1973. Sam Gilliam
This is something that has pushed my music into a box that is hard to understand or even uncomfortable for others. Recently, Pitchfork described my music as sounding like it was on the brink of collapse and I had to read over the review many times to figure out whether this was meant positively or negatively (it was the latter).
To challenge with sounds is worthwhile because on the one hand, I think that the music industry thinks we like to be fed pre-chewed material because we can’t think for ourselves and a lot of the music that is pushed onto us isn’t supposed to make you think or question anything unless there’s an active political message tied to it. It seems like a vicious loop of ask and demand where there is no room for wondering why you want that thing, or why the public is demanding this thing and I think a lot of that can be reflected in the music to TikTok loop that currently exists. I think Spotify was a challenge to this; allowing us to make our own playlists and allowing people to curate and think about what they wanted to hear (say what you want to say about Spotify, but the focus on playlisting worked well).
On the other hand, The idea of being able to create completely new environments out of silence is one of the things that initially attracted me to electronic music, and music production. So I don't see myself ever wanting to step away from this brink and am actually very curious to see what this collapse would sound like.
Being black in this world can be incredibly crippling when it comes down to finding ways to move around it, but also through it. It can be incredibly hard to properly communicate and be understood or even seen when the way of being perceived is already being dictated by so many other factors and in a way my message has already been pre-designed by societal ideas. Stereotypes can help make sense of the world. They are a form of categorization that helps to simplify and systematize information. However narrow judgements in the past by white people have reduced black people to this day to certain narratives around art and music that most don’t even recognize themselves in. This was also one of the inspirations I've come across in my recent project ‘Mosquito’.
LYZZA - 'MOSQUITO: The Movie'
There is not a single aspect to the culture of music which has not been touched by black presence already. When we look at genres like soul, jazz, techno, country, hip-hop, rnb (rhythm and blues) we can see that a lot of these genres were born from the efforts of black people coping with social constraints placed upon them.
For outsiders looking in, black music on its own was once viewed as being primitive sounds of defeat. Carl Van Vechten, self-appointed white overseer of black people in the arts, and regarded by some as the custodian of the Harlem Renaissance, voiced his beliefs in the 1920’s that ‘Their kind of music helped them survive’ and that ‘Its a record of the torturous journey of their lives’. I even remember in high school one of the first things that i was taught in history-books relating to black accomplishments or black history was about how slaves from different countries, tribes, and cultures used singing as a way to communicate during their aggressive shipment from one country to another and then continued these songs while working on the fields and even during their escapes.
Because music, when looked at from a historic perspective within blackness, has such a rich and vast history to it; it became very important to me, to look at music from a contemporary and exploring perspective. I realized that this music; soul, jazz, r&b: although beautifully continued and rendered to this day essentially has become music of accommodation rather than liberation in modern day society as our current struggles and lived realities aren’t the same anymore. I know this is quite the hot take, especially as these genres are something I appreciate very much in their own separate context. But I wanted to have space to create new stories and I wanted to have the choice to not have to continue to carry on the ‘pain’ of this ‘tortuous journey’ into my art because I felt that the history was too vast for me to find my own place in it. This is what attracted me to sound design and challenging these already pre-existing genre’s, and in that way creating a new kind of freedom.
In today’s day and age, and this is for Gen Z and Millennials, when we look at art or listen to music; we ask ourselves: What's the story? What is this telling me?
One of the duties of anyone trying to think and share ideas through an artistic medium is to become inclusive, not exclusive. Inclusivity to me means giving space for new ideas, new movements, new stories; and not perpetuating same ideas by repeating the status quo; or within music; this can be extended to only making use of pre-existent instruments, sounds and genres.
Music history that revolves around marginalized identities runs very deep. There are already so many preconceived notions attached to those sounds and genres, so to tell my story as a modern day black woman through music I hope to contribute towards the explorations of the unknown— to design the majority of those sounds myself, distort existing sounds to a point of semi to no recognition and to seek out music that uses the same principles; to prevent pre-existing notions being attached to that experience and for it to not become a story that has already been told. And with that, creating an environment which is open for everyone regardless of age, religion, sex, and gender to create their own narrative.
This doesn’t come from a place of wanting to differentiate too much from the past as I know history always repeats itself and I am very aware that racism is still seeping through in ways it has plundered and influenced the lives of black people and POC for years. But as a Brazilian who is part of the black diaspora, living in an European country I had to try and translate these feelings into a story that felt more like my own because like many others I’m not sure who my ancestors are. I love reclaiming this way of thinking around electronic music because at the end of the day electronic music was a black exploration of freedom and expression and I'm keen on keeping that tradition alive. It is not lost on me that from a mainstream eye, visibly black femme’s to this day are still not able to fully integrate into popular culture unless they succumb to either a neo-soul/r&b corner or a rap corner. And even when black people are successful among their peers and in the general media, they often still aren’t granted the space to exist outside of these boxes. More than ever it is important for us to keep genre-bending, sound designing, and thinking of ourselves outside of these pre-existing genres and are seen moving electronic experimentations forward to our and culture’s utmost limit. I want more people to step closer to that brink of collapse with me.
Nomads in Native American communities used to say there are three questions when you perceive art:
Is this giving me something I didn’t have before?
Is this giving my community, my tribe, my family something that it didn’t have before?
Is this giving the world something that it didn’t have before?
And that if it’s not doing any of these things, it holds no value.
LYZZA's record, MOSQUITO, recently released. Find her on instagram and twitter @clublyzza.