Saturday, October 02, 2010

Influence and Imitation

Somehow my comment on Ron Davis' post over at Chamber Musician Today got labeled as an anonymous one, so I thought I'd reproduce it here, because it is something I truly believe (and I'm kind of proud of writing):
I think that this is an appropriate place to draw the line between jazz, which is ideally a kind of music that involves spontaneous improvisation, and what we call "classical music," a kind of music that involves an exact series of directions that are written by a composer with the intention that they will be played as written, and enhanced by the tonal and interpretative imagination of the performer.

Jazz also relies on a kind of tradition in order for it to be recognized as Jazz. Influence and types of inflection, having to do with diction, tone color and tone production, articulation, and rhythmic swing are of utmost importance. Therefore imitation is vital. A lot of iconic jazz musicians (the people chosen to be imitated) did not notate their music, so imitation from sound alone is probably the purest way of keeping the music alive.

"Classical" music is kind of the opposite. I know that I carry all kinds of influence in the music that I write, but I am rarely aware of it at the time of writing (and sometimes I cringe when I hear a performance, years after writing a piece, where the performer notices a bit of "homage" and brings it out). In "classical" music it is important to learn techniques. Everybody worth his or her salt as a composer is able to employ techniques used by great composers of the past, including great composers of the past. But what "classical" composers strive for is to find ways of expression and organization that are true to his or her own sense of music. The danger sign for a composer is when one piece that he or she writes does sound too much like another.

People in the visual art world are encouraged to find a medium and a style that they can perfect within that medium. You have sculptors, oil painters, print makers, watercolor painters, people who draw with pencil, people who do their visual art in abstract, people who are realistic painters, people who assemble objects, people who specialize in collage, people who make objects, people who design . . . The list goes on and on. I believe that success for a visual artist would be to make work that can be instantly identified as a work by that person, yet can be unique in its individual expression.

Composers need to be able to work in every medium, but success, to a certain degree is similar to the success experience by a visual artist described in the above paragraph. When I turn on the radio and can be sure that a piece I have never heard before is by Bartok, Barok has been successful. If I turn on the radio and hear a piece that sounds like the composer was influenced by Bartok, and that influence is all I can hear (I know, it is rare to even hear anything post-Bartok on the radio these days), perhaps the composer of the piece has only succeeded in showing his or her influences.
Still, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, the limits of my musical experience define the limits of my musical world.

Related Post: Imitation v. Creation

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