Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Curse of Being "Derivative"

I think I've mentioned before that calling a piece of music 'derivative' was a way of putting it beyond the pale during the glory days of modernism. It meant that it didn't need to be taken seriously. "Oh, he's just copying the old stuff." The hidden assumption here is that the highest virtue in music is the new. As that article in Slate was pointing out, the rule was "make it good or make it bad, but above all, make it new." After a few decades of that, I think we all--including composers--got tired. I was at a conference once where there was a panel of three composers who all wrote for guitar. They had all started writing more tonal music. As I recall the members were Gilbert Biberian, Stephen Dodgson and Leo Brouwer. I stood up and asked them, "why are you all writing tonal music now"? and the answer was, basically, "we got tired of atonal music". Fair enough.

This may even be related to a typical failing of young composers: they keep introducing new ideas, unconnected to the previous ideas. One thing, then another thing, then another thing, then another thing. Artistic chaos. Remember when 'derivative' was a virtue? "Notice how this theme is derived from the first one"? As a marketing scheme, claiming that your piece is all new is certainly better than claiming it is based on stuff somebody wrote last year or last decade or last century. But that is really just a marketing scheme! If Bach used a theme for a fugue that was age-old, we don't think less of him. One of the most hilarious quotes I have ever seen from a music theorist (yes, right, it's a small pool) was from around 1580. The theorist was complaining that all the possibilities of counterpoint had been explored--everything had already been done a thousand times. Heh. And a hundred and fifty years later, Bach shows how wrong that was!

A historian once commented that in describing history you can either emphasize the dislocation or the continuity. That might have been in The Idea of History by Collingwood. Actually, there is an analog in composition as well: you can emphasize continuity or contrast. Beethoven did each in different places. If you look at a piece of music you can examine it for novel elements, or for elements that connect it with previous music. For a long time now, the bias has been strongly in favor of the novel. It might be interesting to look for continuity. The musicologist Richard Taruskin, for example, has demonstrated that Stravinsky made use of a lot of folk themes in the Rite of Spring--something he consistently denied. I can remember getting into an argument with a professor in a Bartok seminar about a movement in one of the string quartets. To me it was obvious that it was fugal, but he vehemently denied the possibility. Odd, since most analysts accept that the first movement of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste is a fugue.

I think what seems logical to me to do is to first look for the continuity, then the novelty. When I hear something for the first time I notice what it reminds me of, then, on closer examination, how it differs. What's wrong with that? Don't we want to locate our understanding? Music has a context, after all. Music that stands in relationship with other music, past and present, has the possibility of a richness that entirely novel music does not. Debussy can quote Wagner for humorous effect:

The quote, from the opening of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde starts at 1:10. Here is the original on piano so you can easily hear the quote. It is the first 15 seconds:

Shostakovich can quote the same melody of Wagner and make it wistful:

The quote starts right at the 1:00 mark.

What does a piece sound like that is not at all derivative? I'm not sure that is possible. But here are some pieces that most people would say were quite novel when they appeared:
  • Drumming Steve Reich
  • Piano Pieces op 11, Schoenberg
  • Revolver, The Beatles
  • Quartets op 59, Beethoven
  • Rite of Spring Stravinsky
  • 4'33" John Cage
What would you bet that I can't find precursors to each of these? Even the Cage? But that sounds like another post...

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