Wednesday, March 2, 2016


I've just found another term for something I have an instinctive dislike of: pastiche. In talking about it in the past I may have called it "fusion" or "crossover" or even "kitsch", but pastiche is also a good description of it. Here is how NewMusicBox begins a piece on it:
The predominant ideology in composition today, across all genres, is rooted in pastiche. Most composers in the new music community aren’t consciously thinking about this, but we’re involved all the same. I mean, just look at the names: new complexity, neo-romanticism, post-minimalism—three of the broadest trends in contemporary music, all with echoes of pastiche baked right into their labels. Of course not everyone is writing “in the style of” or explicitly quoting other pieces, but the desire to build perceptible bridges between musical traditions is nearly universal.
While the writer, Aaron Gervais, portrays this as the "predominant ideology in composition today", I think that is not true, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the use of pastiche is age-old and comes and goes in most eras in music history. For another, I really don't think there is such a thing as a "predominant ideology" in composition these days, or if there is myself and a lot of other people don't share it. Mr. Gervais goes on to contrast his pastiche ideology with the alternative:
In previous decades, society’s archetype of a great artist was the solitary genius who creates strikingly original work (supposedly) out of thin air. To expose one’s sources was frowned upon, because it gave the lie to the myth. Today, society seems to have the exact opposite set of priorities: art that borrows liberally and obviously from other sources generates the most praise.
This is just another example of the standard practice these days of only attacking straw men. The "straw man" is the solitary genius meme which dates back, not just a few decades, but to the late 18th century at least. We tend to think of composers like J. S. Bach, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven as geniuses because, well, they were. And they wrote music that is still, except in NewMusicBox circles, considered the gold standard of composition. As for the solitary bit, that is just some 19th century Romantic mystique wafting around. No composer ever created great work out of thin air, but insofar as it was original work (there is that straw man again), it was something new and fresh. Speaking of which, perhaps the NewMusicBox should change its name to PasticheMusicBox? Just saying.

While J. S. Bach certainly created great music he did so by synthesizing a number of different traditions: French binary dance forms, Italian harmonic clarity and German contrapuntal complexity. In doing so he created a genuinely new and fresh musical style that endures to this day. One could make similar comments about all great composers. What makes them great is not the raw materials--these were available to every single composer of Bach's time--no, what makes his music unique and durable is rather how he succeeded in synthesizing a single, powerful musical style from these disparate elements.

I won't continue to beat up poor Mr. Gervais, who seems to have had a spotty music education, but I would like to quote one more sentence. He says,
All artistic ideologies (or at least those that make an impact) arise as a response to the values of a society.
This is the kind of vast, all-encompassing claim that the simple explication of should demand a hefty volume at least. But he tosses it off as a mere velleity.

To go back for a moment to my claim that pastiche is age-old, we could cite the Medieval forms that use mixed texts in Latin and the vernacular, the inclusion of Hungarian recruiting songs in Haydn string quartets, Beethoven's use of the Lydian mode, the Baroque suite with its dances from Germany, France, England and Spain, Berlioz' use of a pastiche of different musical styles in several works, Takemitsu's quotation of a Bach chorale in a piece for guitar and so on. But again, what is really significant is not the haphazard tossing into the mix whatever the composer wants to appropriate, but how it is integrated, for aesthetic purposes, into the fundamental style or structure of the piece. Those musical salads that fail to do this do not endure much past the occasion of their composition. As examples of those, we can find a host of them in the musical "happenings" of the 1960s and 70s.

I was just writing about Steve Reich the other day and while you can find some interesting examples of seemingly disparate elements he has incorporated into his music, like the speech melodies in his Different Trains, it is always the case that they are tightly integrated and not just tossed in. He is actually a very good example of someone whose music is the furthest thing possible from a pastiche in the sense that Mr. Gervais uses the term. Reich's music for a couple of decades was impressively unified by some very simple ideas such as the single rhythmic pattern that comprises the whole of his hour and a half long piece Drumming. If he is able to incorporate more kinds of musical material into later works it is because of his creation of a strong musical style previously.

Instead of pastiche being the predominant ideology of today, I would say it is better described as a frequent bad habit of second rate composers throughout music history.

For our envoi I think a good example might be Berlioz' Harold en Italie which, while not the work of a second-rate composer, is certainly a good example of pastiche, comprising as it does scenery painting, pilgrims marching, a serenade and an orgy. Oh, and somehow in the middle of all that it is a viola concerto. Sort of.

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