Monday, December 3, 2018

Everything Has Already Been Done

Here is a video by producer Rick Beato with guest Rhett Shull asking "Has every song been written?"

I think that this is really a genre question: the more tightly restricted a genre becomes, the more pieces written in that genre come to resemble one another. This could be Viennese minuets, San Francisco psychedelia or current pop songs. The first example in the video is of exactly the same chord progression used by Marvin Gaye and Ed Sheeran over which different melodies and lyrics are heard. What we have now is a kind of industrial songwriting process vaguely similar to the process of making sausages or hot dogs. The process is similar and the end result is similar. This is actually a plus because in the pop environment the listeners tend to like stuff similar to other stuff they like, so the more homogenous the product, the more likely it will be accepted. On the other hand, the danger is always present that too much homogeneity will cause boredom and rejection. You want to give the listeners exactly what they expect, with a little spice of difference.

But then you get critics, like these guys, or me, saying "hey, you're just regurgitating what has already been done." Hilariously, there was a critic back in the 16th century, if I recall correctly, who was claiming that all the contrapuntal ideas and combinations had already been tried. Two hundred years before Bach! And then Shostakovich, in the 1950s, proved all over again that even in the genre of keyboard fugues, you could still come up with lots of new ideas. (Domenico Scarlatti managed to write 555 sonatas for harpsichord between 2 and 6 minutes in length without ever repeating himself.)

Creativity is a very remarkable thing because someone can come along, and with one tiny change, or a whole bunch of them, or one or more big changes, they can transform a whole genre, create a new mood or perspective and thereby renew a whole area of music. DuFay did it in the 15th century, Monteverdi did it in the 16th century, Bach did it in the 17th century, Haydn did it in the 18th century, Chopin did it in the 19th century, Stravinsky did it in the 20th century and so on.

And at the same time, every one of these composers used a whole lot of traditional material, they just transformed it without throwing it away.

For an envoi, here is the ballade by Guillaume DuFay, "Se la face ay pale."


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

and it seems Vsevolod Zaderatsky proved even earlier than Shostakovich that even if you're thrown into the Gulag you can still compose a cycle of preludes and fugues for the piano on telegraph cards.

There are so many cycles of preludes and fugues for the piano in the 20th century it's actually hard to keep track of them all. It seems that it's only settled in the minds of music teachers and historians who don't want to keep teaching anything related to counterpoint that the fugue was somehow "spent" after J. S. Bach. Bach's fugues are the most amazing and compact in their developmental efficiency, certainly, but there have been lots of finely made fugues since Bach. Haydn, of course, was known to have written a few of them, too.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for introducing me to Vsevolod Zaderatsky of whom I had never heard!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I've been overambitious with what I've wanted to blog about but the Zaderatsky cycle is something I hope to eventually blog about, guitarist though I am. I'm also hoping to write about Nikolai Kapustin's cycle of preludes and fugues. I had not heard a composer attempt to pull off a fusion of Art Tatum and OScar Peterson into the prelude and fugue tradition before I heard Kapustin's cycle, which was nearly impossible to get recordings or scores for until just in the last five years (and it's not cheap!). But I still haven't even gotten half way through blogging about Nikita Koshkin's preludes and fugues as it is. :(

Bryan Townsend said...

I am familiar with Koshkin's music, at least his earlier stuff, but I need to look into this cycle!

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

ah, well I can potentially be of some help there since I have blogged about the first eight of the twenty-four

I've had enough stuff going on IRL I have stalled at the point where I would be moving forward with E major and C sharp minor but such is life. I'm still hoping to get to blogging through the entire cycle with some analytical and descriptive posts in the future. I'm also trying to keep tabs on when reviews go up about the Koshkin cycle. Hoping to eventually blog about his two large guitar sonatas, too, but I suspect I have over-ambitious blogging goals.

Bryan Townsend said...

You and me both! My series of posts on Sofia Gubaidulina is in temporary hiatus as are the ones I was planning to do on Leo Brouwer. Blog longa, vita brevis.