Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Everything is Derivative?

I was reading an article about a case that is about to go to court regarding the possible plagiarism of the song "Stairway to Heaven" from an earlier song by the group Spirit. In the comments on one blog post about it, nearly every commentator expressed the thought that these kinds of cases are silly because, in music, "everything is derivative". Everything has already been done. All songwriters can do is try a different tempo or a different key with new dance moves and new costumes. Right?

This is a long-standing view, indeed. But the poverty of this particular piece of conventional wisdom is illustrated by a comment made by a theorist on counterpoint way back in the early 16th century who asserted that every possible combination had already been used in counterpoint--the hundreds of thousands of possibilities were exhausted. But the irony is that nearly all of those composers whose counterpoint we admire for its brilliance and originality came after this theorist!

At any given moment in time it always seems as if there were no more possibilities, that everything has already been done. But of course this conventional wisdom is conventional because it is the perception of those people who are fundamentally not creative! That is exactly why they think this, because they can't imagine anything new and original.

When Bach sat down to write his Well-Tempered Clavier, there were thousands of preludes and fugues already written. But his very first prelude, while extremely simple, is entirely fresh and original:

Those who are not really creative think that the only path to something original is to add complexity to what is already there. But that doesn't take us very far. The astounding truth is that there are always new ways of making music.

But of course, most music is highly derivative of other music and when the copying is particularly shameless we call it plagiarism. But the best music is always fresh and original and stays fresh and original. Take the beginning of the Rite of Spring:

Audiences in 1913 had never heard anything like that before--and it still sounds new to us even today.

The thing to watch out for is that certain words, like "derivative" have taken on a pejorative quality: in other words, they are always used as an insult. When my theory teacher in undergraduate music school described Sibelius as "derivative" what he meant was that we would not spend any time studying Sibelius because the prevailing ideology of modernism had determined that the only "innovative" composers were those who followed a certain path: Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, etc.

But have a listen to this music by Sibelius and try to show that it is less original--aesthetically--than anything coming from the Second Viennese School:

"Derivative" is negative marketing: it is a description designed to turn you off something, much like the phrase "authentic" when used in connection with performances of early music is designed to be positive marketing: our performance is "authentic" but those other guys are phony.

So when someone says all music is derivative all they are really saying is that they can't imagine anything new or different. But the real challenge is not only to do something fresh, but to do something good! And it doesn't have to be huge. Haydn achieved an interesting novelty in one symphony simply by starting it with a drumroll:

The cool thing about this is that he brings the drumroll back later on.


Jeph said...

Just played the "drum roll" a few weeks ago. The first movement really is a hoot, with the foreboding opening that dissolves into a jig. Delightful as usual with Haydn. Until I played it, I didn't know that the lines the bassoons and celli play in the beginning come back later in diminution. Kind of makes me think he wrote the opening last.
Currently, I'm composing about a half hour of orchestra music for a performance in September. So I'm very engaged with the question of what is "derivative" in music as I try to put something down that people will enjoy, which will also satisfy my inner critic. That's the tough part, right? I find that all my decisions seem to be subject to an inner council, which is made up of past professors, fellow musicians, friends, critics, or perhaps more accurately, my ideas of what those people would/should think. Since I'm writing in a tonal idiom, it can be very dicey to balance the familiar with the fresh. We write to be heard, and the weight of opinion (real or imagined) can be stultifying. But as I write, I find myself thinking that I need not worry; that no one has put together notes and rhythms and instruments in quite the same way as I'm doing right now. Not that I'm some amazing innovator, I'm not. I'm just a unique person, with a particular set of influences, working at a particular time in history. I guess that's "I'm a special snowflake" reasoning, but hey whatever works. Your post today was very encouraging.

Bryan Townsend said...

If something I wrote encourages you, then I am very happy!!

What supports and sustains us all are those musicians we work with and respect. Audiences are sure important, but what they think is perhaps a little less important to us than what our peers think.