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Friday, September 10, 2010

On Originality

One of the more perplexing questions that looms underneath the hood of creativity is the notion of originality.

Every time I begin a new work, internal voices of discontent rise to contradict a slew of emerging ideas put forth by my personal Muse. The voice of Mr. Antagonist is often louder than that of Mr. Muse, who tends to be a rather loosy-goosey naïve chap who doesn’t care much about practical matters such as follow-through and delivery. One of the nagging questions that my Antagonist keeps harping on is a Big Kahuna: the big fat question about originality.



Now, if I or any of my immediate colleagues were to pre-screen our ideas against the body of musical work that has been produced to date, we would probably find a lot of precedents for what we are writing. As much as we would like to think we are original, we very often draw upon the stored memory of works that reside in our collective past experience, works that have influenced us profoundly in one way or another. From that wellspring, we remodel those techniques, patterns, and sounds into a seemingly new framework that (one hopes) will reflect our thoughts and ideas within the context of our uniquely personal tone of voice.

I am not one of those composers who has an ambition to invent a brand new syntax, create an entirely new musical language, or start a brand new artistic school or movement. I’m too preoccupied just writing down what I hear. That task tends to be challenging enough and a full-time job in itself. But as a composer of comparatively conservative tastes, I my internal Antagonist occasionally asks the question about the relevance of my work. Seeds of doubt are sown throughout my psyche.

The basic set of standard resources of contemporary classical music have been rather consistent and surprisingly static over the past 100 years or so. The primary materials are about as generic as they can get. I work with 11 pitches to the octave, rhythms that are easily played, and instrumentation that hasn’t changed much since the good ol'days of Papa Haydn. A lot of other composers work within the same baseline of raw materials. In other words, we design sound-art to be implemented with vocal cords, drums, pianos, flutes, and assorted strings. You can't get more fundamental than that. It's not unlike banging rocks together for entertainment while sitting around the campfire at night. Primitive, but timeless fun.

When it comes to musical form, there is also a predisposition on my part to lean toward structural patterns and musical dialogs that have been hanging around for a while. For example, something as banal as ABA’ form seems agreeable enough to most, and apparently is still possible within a contemporary modernist context. To take this not-so radical idea to another level, there is almost an expectation by the audience that some sort of musical “return” should occur – at least somewhere in the overall design of the musical work.

One law that my Muse and Antagonist can agree on is that "Contrast and Unity are polar opposites." The problem is that they can't agree on what the proper balance and middle ground for Contrast verses Unity should be. The New Complexity school advocates information overload and maximal contrast. The Orthodox sect of the Minimalist party seems to advocate minimal contrast as their overriding virtue (hence their label). I'm in neither camp.

Sometimes I succumb to the voice of negativity in my head and give in to my Antagonist. For example, I had been working on an orchestral piece this summer but shelved it because it just didn’t seem original enough. Following my intuition, I was experimenting with rich chords drawn from late 19th century harmony along with grand orchestral clichés and gestures. But after many weeks of struggle, it finally occurred to me that my audience would be so much better off listening to Richard Strauss or one of David Del Tredici’s lush Alice pieces from the 1980s instead.

My Antagonist regularly attends concerts with me, and is not shy about offering harsh criticism of the works on the program. I’m quite use to his brash cynicism, and sometimes agree with what he says about individual works. His nihilistic attitude about what is considered to be state-of-the-art in this sometimes hokey pokey world contemporary music makes me grin.

I can't fire my Muse or Antagonist. This is a profession I did not volunteer for, and they are necessary partners in crime. I was drafted into this wacky business against my will. I'm incapable of doing anything else, so I better make the most of it. Mr. Muse and Mr. Antagonist are like annoying but unavoidable co-workers assigned to the cubicle next to mine.

One particular example of 21st century self-consciousness arises in the area of musical form. For instance, the concept of the Concerto seems to retain durability in modern times. Yet some composers, such as Boulez, have abandoned the concept entirely. For them it is an impoverished art form, a legacy of past centuries - although their music is clearly virtuosic in every degree.

In contrast, many other composers have embraced the Concerto idea and have chosen to run with the ball. Master American composers such as Peter Lieberson, Elliott Carter, Martin Boykan, and Yehudi Wyner all come to mind as composers who have adopted the Concerto form rather successfully. They have done so even though the classically-derived concerto is probably not up-and-front in the minds of our 21st century European counterparts. It could be that Concertos are just another “American” fetish.

My Antagonist is unrelenting in his brutal analysis of contemporary musical discourse. Just the other day he said that nothing new can be written within the existing framework of standard musical materials (I’m paraphrasing). In other words, I’m redundant and should retire ASAP. Concertos are old hat, and chamber or orchestral works written for traditional instruments using traditional notation and traditional tuning systems are hopelessly old school. To use a metaphor borrowed from the business of Information Technology, it’s like writing code in “COBOL” when the industry has migrated to “dot NET” or “JavaScript.”

Now and then I sit down with my Antagonist and try to prove him wrong. “Originality is not equivalent to Change!" I scream.

I go on to make my case... "Salient examples of new and original music are created all the time in our present culture. These works still blow my socks off – even though they are by common standards of measurement neither radical nor revolutionary. A composer does not have to create a paradigm-shift for every piece they write. As Charles Wuorinen once famously said, 'How do you create a revolution when the guy before you said anything goes?'"

My Antagonist looks up at me with a Devilish grin and blurts out, "You are an idiot."

My Muse sits by silently, paralyzed and afraid to say a word while holding back tears.


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1 comment:

  1. I just read your post about originality. I smiled at your description of artist's dual personalities as Mr. Muse and Mr. Antagonist. As painful as their internal arguments can be, I think we realize that a preponderance of one at the expense of the other doesn't lead to good results. It's essential to try to keep them in balance.

    Most of all, I don't think that originality is something under our control and I don't think we're the best judge of it. If it's there, it'll come out; if it isn't, no amount of effort will bring it out. Instead, what we so often hear is something so monstrous or so pointless that it never would've occurred to anyone to do it before.

    Your voice of reason is a comfort to me. Keep posting!

    ReplyDelete