Thursday, April 09, 2009

Imitation v. Creation

"I'm trying to figure out who she's imitating." (Words spoken by a well-known musician after hearing a piece by Amy Beach.)
It bothers me that the first reaction of an intelligent person would be to assume that because the composer of a piece is a woman, it must be classified as a work of imitation.

Even though our society has progressed to the point where we accept the work of women in medicine, law, politics, research, and even musical performance (because it has been demonstrated that it is impossible to tell the gender of an instrumental musician by his or her performance), there are people who still cannot accept the idea of a woman as a "creator" of original material.

Now I happen to agree with Fran Liebowitz's comment about original thought being like original sin: "both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met." I also believe that harmony is not property, and that the harmonic and structural material of any given time period was a vocabulary shared by many composers. Through the musical centuries there has been a celebrated tradition of homage through quotation and parody. Mozart paid homage to Handel in his Requiem. Beethoven paid homage to Mozart in his quartet Opus 59, no. 3. There is a whole Renaissance tradition based on parody, as well as a tradition of transcription (consider some of the work of Johann Sebastian Bach). The list does go on, but in the case of "great" composers, the general response to homage, parody, or transcription is the phrase "he makes it his own."

And then we have those horridly-classified "lesser composers." Why do we insist on making musical hierarchies? We are all "lesser composers" when we compare what we do to what Bach was able to produce in a daily basis, or what Mozart could do with a libretto, or what Beethoven could do with a string quartet, or what Schubert could do with anything he touched, or what Brahms could do with the orchestra. There are composers who, it seems, did not write "second-rate" (another term I hate) music. I believe that they had very high standards, as well as very large wastebaskets and fireplaces that they were willing to use whenever necessary. Felix Mendelssohn was an example of a superb composer who had enough money in his personal fortune to support himself and his family well, while he took his time writing and rewriting music. Some composers had friends who were excellent musicians to honestly critique their work (consider the letters between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann), and some had patrons to support their work (consider the letters between Nadezhda von Meck and Pitor Illich Tchaikovsky).

Why is it that when we evaluate a creative work as "second-rate" it seems to become synonymous with "second-hand?" And why are we so ready to accept that a piece of music written by 19th-century women is a little bit of both? Consider, for a moment, the music of Lili Boulanger (who was born in the 19th century). It sounds like Boulanger. And music by Fanny Hensel (Felix Mendelssohn's older sister) sounds like Hensel. Even the music of Amy Beach, once you have heard more than one of her 300 pieces, sounds like Beach. Some of the music I have heard by Clara Schumann sounds like music written by her husband, but perhaps I have it all wrong. Perhaps I, along with other people, have failed to consider the possible (probable, actually) influence of Clara's creative musical voice on Robert's music.

Perhaps we are all a bit narrow minded. Perhaps we can blame some of our sexual-cultural prejudice on the fact that most music that we hear from the 19th century was written by men, and since the traditions of the man as creator and woman as muse or helpmate are long and deep, they continue to be married to the concepts of male creativity and female re-creativity or "recreation." I imagine that it will be a long time before this cultural prejudice will go the way of some of the other prejudices that we have fought so hard to grow beyond.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Without context, I'll say that I'd wonder the same about almost all early 20th century American composers: whose styles are they incorporating, which traditions are they drawing on? It's not just Beach. (I've heard one of her pieces, am hearing another in a couple of weeks.)

People who would never think Kaija Saariaho anything but a first-rate composer are still aware of her roots in the spectralist movement.

And that's an interesting question about second-rate/second hand. What about that Saint-Saens? Who was he imitating?

Elaine Fine said...

I have a soft spot for Saint-Saens, and can always recognize his "voice." I would never consider him "second rate" in any way.

People do tend to classify American composers from the 20th century as part of the "Boulangerie," which is interesting to me because Nadia Boulanger's whole approach to teaching was for her composition students to find their own individual voices. Her students ranged from Sesame Street's Joe Raposo to Astor Piazzolla.

It is not composers drawing on tradition that I take issue with; it is the supposition (held by some) that a composer who is a woman would be imitating another (male) composer rather than following in or participating in a tradition.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I love S-S myself, but I am not convinced that he's all that original/first-rate, which might give support to one of your points.

By "early 20th C. American composer," I mean composers active around the very beginning of the 20th century, not the generations Boulanger taught starting in the mid/late 1920s.

Mariana Soffer said...

Nowadays, the idea that a truly original creation exist is being doubt about. The idea of copyright, of who is the true author of a piece. Take a look at all the current articles from famous blogger such as nicholass carr discussing intellectual property.

I think this is the interesting point about imitation vs creation, not whether it is a man or a woman, that is a whole other issue, it is true that there is still some discrimination against woman, but it is going away I think. We do not even have to act about it.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

Hi. Seems like this is a situation where your blog title comes into play. There's the music, and then there's each individual brain sensing and processing that music. I'd guess it's not just simple prejudice, but a more complex brew that might include that, but also everything else heard beforehand conditioning the response, as well as various differing ways individuals have of responding to music.

For a lay person not completely knowledgeable about the era and without all kinds of mental furniture to enable comparisons, notions of imitation and ranking of importance would probably not be as big an issue.

You begin the post talking about what "bothers" you is the assumption being made. What gets me is that so many academics and musicians seem to have a need to pin pieces down like butterflies in a case, where all is ordered and arranged - and dead.

Part of what you hear is what the brain is looking for, so if you're busy classifying and judging everything you might miss what the music is really about. Analysis is important, but not the only reason to listen to music.

I'm a music therapist, and often tell people it simply does not matter what someone else thinks of music you like. If it benefits you physically, mentally, emotionally and/or spiritually, that's the bottom line.

(Just found you back when "Sounds & Fury" linked that Gould video you had, and very glad I did.)