It has been well said that real originality is in the re-animation of
tradition, the re-ordering of familiar ingredients, the result of
reassembling components already in existence, on the shelf, in fresh
patterns so that both the novelty and its source can be perceived at once.
In that recognition of both is found the excitement of an original creative
A composer who defies tradition and invents a quite new notation, or
imposes a random selection of sonic incidents on an audience, or devises a new
technology as a sound source will, in due course, find it necessary to link
experiment with traditional experience before there can be a communication.
If it is not recognised in the creation of the work, it may well be imposed by
re-creation or audience perception, whether the initiator of the experience
wants it or not.
The liveliness of real originality is also in the realization
that it is all so simple, even to the extent that we believe we could have done
it ourselves had we only thought of it first. Creative originality should form
another link in the great chain of human achievement.
But the word originality
suggests the mystery of origins which, it could be argued would pre-date
tradition. In the sciences this could be a valid understanding, for in
an academic context scientific presentations are expected to be original
in that they will go beyond the perceived confines of tradition. A thesis
for a higher academic degree will be deemed original if it is free from
plagiarism, but would it be an original thesis if it was written in an
Yet a composer is not a scientist, and a research
journey back to the mysterious origins of sound production and the psychology
of human communication in melodic, and more recently, harmonic components
will not provide any more than most good film composers already know.
The pursuit of originality would therefore seem to be a vague, and possibly
vain search for novelty, an excuse for either an unwillingness or inability
to understand the tradition upon which we should build, or creative
impotence and a determination to set it aside at any cost. However,
we must not be too hasty to condemn originality before we have checked
our own experience of tradition, for we may have missed some vital links!
Copyright © 24 February 2004 Patric Standford,
From: Silvio Camilleri, UK
May I congratulate this correspondent on his interesting contributions. Yet, I did not entirely agree with some comments of his:
'The pursuit of originality would therefore seem to be a vague, and possibly vain search for novelty, an excuse for either an unwillingness or inability to understand the tradition upon which we should build, or creative impotence and a determination to set it aside at any cost.'
In my opinion, whilst this does seem to be the case with most 'innovative' music, it is not always so! If we look at two original composers of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky and Sir Michael Tippett we can acknowledge that these artists were able to create an original expression of their own. Yet we can hardly argue that they had a 'creative impotence' or could not appreciate tradition. For instance Stravinsky's later compositions eg the opera Rake's Progress in neo-classical style show his appreciation of Baroque and Classical music. Tippett's expression was often inspired by Baroque composers such as Antonio Vivaldi and Corelli.
Thus, whilst perhaps agreeing with Patric's comments about 'originality' let's also add that thank Goodness, when the originality is 'true originality' these comments do not seem to apply.
I thank you for your interesting column and website.
From: Tom Henighan, Canada
Mr Standford's intriguing remarks fail to take account of two things: first, that the very notion of the ever-changing, self-renewing style of a creator (composer, poet, visual artist) is itself a Romantic concept, one that was quite alien to the Middle Ages and the 'classical period' up to Beethoven and Goya, but which has become the reigning view in the modern era (eg Picasso, Stravinsky). Prior to the notion of the Coleridgean creator, who in imitation of the divine principle, created everything ex nihil, a composer or poet who wrote it 'new' each time would have been considered 'mad', not gifted.
At the other end of the spectrum, Mr Standford underestimates the power of period style, espoused in the literary world some decades ago by critics like Wylie Sypher, who found it easy to equate, say, Milton, and Handel on the basis of an over-arching 'baroque' stylistics, and by Andre Malraux in who treated the history of art as a continuing 'dialogue in time' in which a painter like van Meegeren, who faked Vermeers, failed - not so much because he lacked talent - but because he could only imitate a great style that was no longer part of the leading edge of the creative present.
My conclusion: you have to ask young students to make a leap of the historical imagination, and/or to acclimate themselves by active listening, in order for them to enter, dynamically, the worlds of say, Mozart or Handel, not to mention Schoenberg.
From: William Copper, USA
It may have been said that originality is the re-animation of tradition. It may be true that sometimes a re-vivification can make a ghost seem to blush. There may be originality in re-ordering, re-using, re-storing - but to say that this is what originality is has gone far too far.
In a not-so-subtle rhetorical trick, you list, as opposites to this respectful specious originality, loaded verbs: 'defies' tradition, 'imposes' random selection, 'devises' new technology.
Your definition takes a plausible part for the whole; your presentation of the other side takes an even smaller part of what else there might be in originality.
'Die unbegreiflich hohen Werke
Sind herrlich, wie am ersten Tag' - Goethe, Faust
As you say, the word originality might suggest the mystery of origins - why not? And who, if not a composer, would be a scientist? A knower, a seeker, like you, after all, of knowledge? For me, without defying tradition, imposing random selection, or devising new technology, seeking truth in music requires as a goal the true originality that re-ordering, re-using, and re-storing do not usually satisfy.
Thank you for the thoughts, even if sometime they provoke disagreement!
From: Gerald Berg, Canada
Given size of space and scope of subjects, I suppose one should expect Patric's summations to be chronically cryptic but dang if I know what his last sentence in this piece means! I've come to the decision to get over it and regard Patric's assays as well, just that. So too, on occasion, when the riding habit or rather, writing gander hits me I'll attempt to enjoin Patric on one of his outings. Sometimes, hopefully, with success.
I have taken as the kernel to Patric's piece the question implied within the first sentence of the last paragraph. (Is) originality ... a vague, ... vain ... excuse for either an unwillingness or inability ... to understand the tradition upon which we should build ...(?)
Of course it is! But then, sometimes not. The cliché of this is comparing Eastern and Western attitudes to artistic activity. Having no personal admittance to universal Eastern attitudes I do feel safe in saying that clearly, the West admires novelty but, like most societies resents change. Hence, (insert artistic cliché number here).
On one side we have creativity. On the other, a list of every activity a human can do that a mind can properly imagine to apply its thinking faculties to. From the condemned to the sanctified creativity is, at first and foremost, local. Hence, (insert classical music neglect cliché number here).
3rd Assay aka Two Prongs and the Fork
A) Free license. This is what artistic activity has that no other activity in our communicative imagination can claim (I include architecture) and not feel squeamish about it. Although, with typical topsy-turvy real life action the arts lately, seems to require acquiescence and science not.
B) Principally this license means that the artist can muck up anything he likes (to whatever banal degree) and nobody is the worse for it. As an activity art making really is as simple as the person, the materials, and that moment of life. Also as about as useful. Hence, (insert most artistic activity you will witness or endeavour here) is perforce, mediocre and yet never fully meaningless.
The Fork: As a most controversial example I'll use Leni Riefenstahl. The purposes to which she put her originality are reprehensible yet the vocabulary she devised is of such prevalent durability that we no longer see it or are incapable, as a society, of acknowledging as the source. Unlike Beethoven, whom we have allowed to lay claim to the language that he created, Leni will not be allowed hers. Nonetheless, she is still a great artist.
In joust I trust,
PS Jean Genet's The Balcony probes the above topics quite imaginatively. I have written a libretto, not to mention music, for it.
PPS I have greatly refined my genius charting which I would like to reintroduce to Patric at some point. Subsequently, I noticed a book review for an author who claims to have arrived at an empirical methodology for the determination of genius. I make no claims for that but I can imagine that mine will only be more fun.