Originality

First of all, I just came from a piano recital by my friend Mac, which was fantastic. Congratulations to him! Anyway, yesterday in Composition we listened to the music of Aaron Jay Kernis. It was a string quartet, a contrapuntal mixture of tonal runs with atonal sprinkles, what I’d like to call “Beethoven with some wrong notes.” Maybe the only strange thing about it was that such a style was out of place where the paradigm runs on new music, although hearing my Adagio in class felt quite the same. And it was not something from which I expected Dr. Thornock would expect us to take influence. Indeed, it was mentioned in class that it sounded like Beethoven, and to this he responded that this was what he did not find appealing. “If I am going to listen to Beethoven,” he said, “why wouldn’t I just actually listen to Beethoven?”

To this I turned my head. Composers take influence from what was previously there, it is extremely difficult not do so. But I saw where he was coming from. Not just Beethoven, but every composer whose name has transcended up to this point was an innovator, someone who was writing in a style specific to himself, and it was radically different from any of his peers. People like Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Messiaen wrote in original and highly personal manners of expression, and it was because of this that music has been driving forward throughout the centuries.

Coincidentally the generalization of historical eras has been on my mind. I think that bunching the Baroque-Romantic eras as a “Common Practice Period” is highly misleading. Especially because after that, we no longer generalize music as a whole but as music of the 20th-century or modernist. This has always struck me as great classical composers writing during the CPP and after that, art going haywire. But as we study history, there are hardly enough composers to generalize so many of them into groups reflecting a certain style, as every significant one had their own. Bach does not sound like Handel. Wagner definitely does not sound like Verdi. I wish to argue that highly tonal modern composers such as Copland and Shostakovich developed fresh new styles that reflected themselves personally. What made me begin to respect Schoenberg is his response to George Gershwin’s plead for lessons in composition, along the lines of, “I would only make you a second-rate Schoenberg, and you are such a good Gershwin already.” Ravel declined the same request along similar lines. I’ve also recently been researching the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen: his music takes influence from Stravinskyan harmonies and American minimalism, however with these he infuses his Marxist political ideas, which makes his style both fascinating and original.

If music has taught me anything, it’s that absolutely anything can sound good when you know what to listen for (does that apply to politics?) I don’t think the point is that we want our own music to be different for the sake of being different. Innovation is absolutely what makes art great, but that doesn’t require experimentation. There is always new material to be worked with. Do I think Kernis sounds like Beethoven? Not really. I am not opposed to writing music emulating that of others before us. After all, Beethoven is no longer writing music. That does’t mean if he is our favorite composer, that our favorite new music must die with him. This does however bring to new light a modernist mentality. Microtonality, minimalism, postmodernism – these developed in the same way every important past composer thought, and I think for that it could be helped that all music can be enjoyable, because as Berg once stated: “Mr. Gershwin, music is music.”

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