Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In modern creative works, are imitations and connections to the past really bad?

In the reading for this week, Hewett discusses how there has been a trend, particularly in the mid to late 20th century, of composers doing everything they can to "denature" their music and cleanse it from any past influence. This trend started much earlier in the 19th century and has been debated to some degree ever since. Nevertheless, I would like to ask the class, should a composer really be ridiculed for using "old" techniques?

My father is an avid collector of classical recordings and movie soundtracks, so I have been surrounded by the sounds of instrumental music ever since I was a boy. One of the "games" we would play with movie soundtracks was guessing what piece or style the composer was imitating. Doesn't the "Imperial March" from Star Wars somewhat resemble "Mars" from Holst's The Planets? The Superman theme is based on the same octave and fifth structure as Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. The music describing Tatooine's desert in Star Wars is almost a direct transcription of the opening of Part Two in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

This game can also be played with many "serious" orchestral works as well. The 4th movement of Shostakovich's 9th Symphony sounds a lot like a particular section of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Webern's Passacaglia has moments that resemble the final movement of Mahler's 6th Symphony. Countless pieces invoke strains of Wagnerian harmony, or bear the mark of the composer doing all he/she can to create something decidedly anti-Wagner.

In most cases, so long as the composer employs some art, subtlety and skill in the imitation, my reaction is usually, "Wow, that's cool! It's neat to see how this composer re-used that technique/color/sound in a slightly different way or context." Others who I have discussed this with in casual conversation also seem to have the same reaction. But I feel that this is a reaction which can only be admitted to "off the record" - in the presence of our academic peers and colleagues, we, as musicians (and especially composers), must show more discretion and taste. This taste must be demonstrated by deriding creations such as film scores and anything not purely "original."

I am not saying that every film score, TV commercial, or derivative composition deserves merit. There are certainly many examples of crass, hollow, cliché imitations of older works. But, I believe it is a mistake to dismiss anything not written as "serious, original music" as pastiche (to use a word of Hewett's).

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