Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Finding a Voice: Musings on Creativity

It occurs to me that so much of what becomes popular culture (in other words, culture that catches on with a large casual audience) has to do with imitation. Take Christmas music, for a seasonal example. Many of the enduring classics of the Christmas season, like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," written by Johnny Marks, are pretty much variations on the same formula, much like what we think of as candy bars are variations on pretty much the same few formulas. There is popular Christmas-season music that doesn't follow the Marks formula, like descendants of "Sleigh Ride," selections from the Nutcracker, and the ever-popular Schubert "Ave Maria," but there is a lot of exquisite Christmas-specific music that people in stores and shopping malls would never identify as Christmas music.

Here's one example, and here's another.

I heard an interview with Audra McDonald the other day where the interviewer, who was not a musician, asked her who she used as a model for her voice. Her elegant response was that when she was young she tried to imitate singers she admired, but she failed miserably, so she understood that she had to live with her own voice. The current assumption, I suppose, is for "lay" people to imagine that musicians must model what they do on someone else's creativity. Some of us, like Audra MacDonald (or perhaps I should say unlike Audra McDonald), fail miserably when we try to imitate another person's voice.

I don't know about you, but I would prefer to fail as an imitator than succeed as an imitator.



Interesting, and of course I see your point - and McDonald's. But I think that imitation is too often undervalued as a source of creativity. Sure, we imitate (through etudes, etc) to develop technique, but imitation also can often lead to unexpected discoveries and is a natural way to learn how to be creative. Bach certainly gained a lot from imitating previous composers....as did most other composers. Jazz musicians learn to improvise by imitating. I'm sure McDonald did find it important at a point to follow her instincts, but that moment of departure most likely happens when one has been inspired by an imitative path. You can be sure she's done a lot of imitating that helped her as well!

Anonymous said...

When I studied composition in college (in another century), I learned more about politics and propaganda than music. I was told that I was to find my own voice but when I brought in works I wanted to study I was "taught" that....

...Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" of 1912 was deemed modern but Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra" of 1914 was old-fashioned.

...Webern's "Six" of 1910-rev. 1928, was contemporary but Rogders' "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" of 1936 was not.

...Berg's "Wozzeck" of 1914-1922 was approved as modern but Puccini's "Turandot" of 1924 -- that dreaded word -- too tonal, not to mention kitsch and corny.

...Varèse Ionisation of 1921-1931 for thirteen players was deemed cutting edge stuff, but a thirteen piece "Appalachian Spring" of Copland from 1945 was old-fashioned and cloying.

...Boulez' 1952 assertion than anyone who didn't fathom dodecaphonic technique and aesthetic stance was "irrelevant to the needs of his epoch." But Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" from the quartet of 1938 is more beloved than any of Boulez' work as far as the general classical music audience is concerned.

I learned that Milton Babbitt's work is known to a small coterie of devotees, while Bernstein's "West Side Story" spans the classical and popular musical world. I was also taught that Babbitt's student, Sondheim, was not approved of by the classical taste makers in the avant garde circle.

What I learned was that one was supposed to find one's own voice, as long as it was in my student-years betters' approved list of composers, styles and sounds.

Everyone talks about creativity, but show some and there are plenty of enforcers waiting to tell you that you are wrong-headed, following a fool's path and perhaps even being behind the approved times.

I learned that the "modern" stance of composition teachers was enforcement and not allowance, rule driven to excess and not free, and such a stance was rigorously enforced in academia. That was the politics of do as I say, not "find your own voice."

Then I made money in the real musical world, and learned that world of "find your own voice" was malarkey, dedicated to an almost fascist-like will to constrain and hollow out glimmers of creativity which did not CONFORM. Being a non-conformist seemed to irritate the political ardor and intellectual fist of the "find your own voice" crowd.

I am not saying that Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Varèse, Boulez and Babbitt don't have their place in the larger scheme of things, but I say with clarity today that their "place" is not to tell me what to study, like, imitate, perform or applaud. I left that composition teacher with prejudice. The choice has made all the difference.

Thanks for the post.

Elaine Fine said...

In the case of an actual "voice," you are really stuck with what your anatomy gives you. It's kind of like a face or a stature. You can dress it up, but ultimately you need to accept what you have and work with that. As composers we all imitate in order to understand or to make reference, but ultimately it is our own face that stares back at us in the musical mirror. When I put my hair back in a barrette thinking that I could look like Katherine Hepburn, I really look no more like Katherine Hepburn than you do.

I'm so bad at imitation that I cannot even fabricate a Boston accent, even though I grew up there. But I can identify a fabricated one instantly. I can recognize regional accents in both English and German, but I cannot reproduce them at will. I am simply a lousy conscious mimic.

I can recognize influence from one composer to the next, and do so far too much of the time, but I can't seem to separate "styles" used in late 20th and early 21st-century pop music, because so much of it sounds the same. What makes something "punk" or "post punk" is totally lost on me. So much I hear on the airwaves when I am in public places seems to be in the same couple of keys, so it is hard to tell one pop song from another.

You totally hit the nail on the head, Anonymous, with your list of what was considered acceptable and unacceptable as new music during the last century. I feel fortunate NOT to have studied composition in "college" (if you call Juilliard college) during the 1970s, when tonality was considered trite and taboo, and egos flared supreme. I always saw the disconnect between the music that I found beautiful and the music that was considered "important" when I was a student. Even Varese, who was the king (or perhaps the Emperor) of newness. I remember once playing Density 21.5 at a concert in Boston--at the Gardner Museum, actually, and thinking "this is really a stupid piece that is a blatant (and inferior) imitation of Syrinx." I kept my thoughts to myself.