Escaping one's influences

Hi colleagues,

I think the key struggle for me as a composer to be the best that I can be has been a struggle to find an original voice. This has become my defining goal. Not to say this is the only goal possible or the only good goal. In past discussions I have participated in, some have suggested that it may not even be a good goal - "seeking newness for newness alone" to paraphrase my critics. Yet I'll stand by seeking newness for newness alone as my approach.

I have many influences, including Gershwin, Chopin, Joplin, the rock band Yes, Miles Davis, and many others. When I first started out as a composer, my music showed these influences, which will be with me forever. In recent years though I have tried to step away from them to some extent. I'm more conscious of when I am being "influenced" by my idols and when I am just imitating them. I want to move on into something more "me." Hope that's a good thing!

Cheers!

p.s. here's one piece I posted on the forum about a year ago that is an attempt for an original voice. Whatever you think of it, I think you'll agree there's no Chopin in it (though I may have had his incomparable sinuous melodies in the back of my mind when writing it) - https://composersforum.ning.com/forum/topics/underground-river-ride

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  • Ondrejben,

    I forgot to reply to the following very important point:

    You wrote (sorry, I removed your paragraph breaks): "I am not sure that 'anything goes' is such a bad doctrine for art, especially for children, whose creative instincts are easily distorted and deformed, not so much by freedom, but as by disapproval of what may be natural or good. Young artists may easily feel embarrassment when violating a "norm." Even in morality, there is such a thing as "false shame," that is the feeling that one is doing wrong, when one is not doing anything wrong, often engendered by parents and authorities figures as a means of control and affirming uniform thinking about a wide range of ethical issues. How much more dangerous is the edict of "this is right and this is wrong" in art; and how much genuine creativity is lost, when arbitrary orthodoxies are foisted upon children and young artists!  I would say it's just as bad for those that are older, and the older seem to fall into feeling a sense of "false shame" just as easily, or even more easily than children, when society tries to push everyone into thinking a certain way, about social issues, aesthetic rules, and the general purposes of artistic production."

    I understand very well what you're talking about, and I think it is a concern of major importance.  I know I was a victim (not sure I should write "was" or "am" -- since the repercussions morph but don't really disappear throughout one's life) of exactly that type of conditioning as a child.

    However, there's the other extreme, which I hope you don't endorse either, which consists of the parent stating "well done!" after the child does anything at all, and the tone of voice is that of fake excitement.  The child's brain recognizes the fake aspect, and the effect on the child is that of absence of truthful feedback.  It is a kind of invisibility for the child, a mental isolation.  It turns out, IMO, that children depend on feedback to help build their inner compass.  It is a complex and difficult task, therefore, to provide feedback guided by respect for who the child is, respect for the child's individuality and for the child's right to be who s/he is.  But the child also has the right to truthfulness and the right to know what the people closer to him or herself think and love.

    Mariza

  • Mariza,

     

    Thank you for the two nicely written and well considered replies to my recent remarks. I can only reply to certain parts of what you said here, so forgive me for not covering everything.  I had written: 'Beethoven may be an example of one who showed how, through his own supposed "peculiarities" or "quirks," he was able to create new kinds of beauty.'

     

    You replied, 'Could be.  Or maybe he already recognized the value (beyond his own self) of some specific personal preferences that would otherwise just be "quirks" and hence gave them room.  Do we know for sure?'

     

    I think that is the same thing I intended to say, or that it at least dovetails with what I meant, though you said it better, and emphasized the more important part of what was in my thinking, too.  Namely, that he, 'recognized the value (beyond his own self) of some specific personal preferences …'

     

    We agree on the other point about, recreating' our entire idea of what is "harmonious" and what is "not harmonious."'

     

    I find your story about composer X very fascinating, and I think many of us may have stories like that to share.  Personally (and surely many people feel this way), I think Gustav Holst's The Planets, is one of the great masterpieces of post-romanticism/early modernism.  But I never heard anything else by Holst that I thought came anywhere close to that in beauty of conception and execution.  

     

    You wrote:

     

     

    There is an interesting case of a modern-day composer, let's call him "X".  I heard a piece from composer X and was so taken by it, it is actually one of my favorite pieces of music in the world.  Naturally, I went on Youtube to hear more from him.  It turns out I don't relate at all, on any level, to anything else that Mr. X has composed.  In fact, it was so intensely boring to me that I had trouble continuing my search for other gems from him.  This experience was puzzling, to say the least.  I couldn't understand how my favorite piece from a living composer came from someone I don't really want to hear more from.  I still struggle with the explanation.  I play with the possibility that Mr. X may compose mostly in a portion of the musical landscape where I've never entered and have not the capacity to appreciate.  At the border of this section of the landscape, he created one piece that I could still understand, and it's beautiful beyond words to me. 

     

    Of course, you make me curious, and I want to know what that piece was.  Would you consider telling us? I had another similar experience, and a strong sense (probably entirely subjective) that Henri Pousseur's Trois Visages de Liege, was up and above every electronic piece of music that I have ever heard, and even beyond that, ranking with the best of the best by Debussy, in its mixed impressionistic mildness (rare in electronic music) and its moments of grandeur and climax, as well as possessing immense variety in timbre, mood and impressive use of subtle rhythms.

     

    I have shared the link several times.  Here is Part One of three:

     

    Henri Pousseur: Trois Visages de Liege, L'Air et l'eau (1961)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPDCPWoJtuY

     

    My story with Pousseur ends a bit differently than yours with your composer, however.  Or perhaps it never ends in any definitive way.

     

    I listened to a number of other works by Henri Pousseur, and found (as you did with Composer X) that nothing else seemed, in my mind at least, to come close to the Trois Visages.  That was the case for me for many years.  Even later, and recently, during the past four or five years, during which time I found a fair amount of Pousseur's work on the online, none of the recovered and available compositions seemed to come up to the high standard of the one work I loved so much.   I am beginning to reevaluate that opinion, though.  During the last six months, or the last year, I started to listen to another work by Pousseur (a piece called Electre, a sort of electronic, instrumental sound drama, based on the ancient Greek play).  It reminds me of an earlier and highly celebrated work of the musique concrete school, by Pierre Henry, the Veil of Orpheus, with a text in ancient Greek. 

     

    Pierre Henry Le voile d'Orphée

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAxGbZgzuAU

     

     

    I am not mentioning these particular pieces to make a case in favor of musique concrete generally.  I realize this music is difficult to listen to, and that even today, it taxes the ear of many who have hesitations about modern and contemporary avant-gardism. My point is that through persistent research, discovery and listening, one's opinions can develop and evolve and one may find something somewhere which, at first, one did not think to exist.  Namely, not just greatness in one work which made a strong first impression, but some other subtle and uniquely significant aesthetic qualities (just as beautiful perhaps, in their own right, as those initially discovered).  But of course, that is not always the case, and the search and research may appear to lead ultimately to a dead end. 

     

    In the case of the development of my own tastes and interests, my appreciation for Pierre Henry's Veil of Orpheus, acquired over a long period, allowed me to see new things in the recent encounter with Pousseur's Electre, that I might not have seen before, if I had listened to it several years ago.

     

    So when I said, in my last post, "Of course, nothing beats repeated exposure to, and listening to, the art and the artists who innovate, to overcome prejudices."

     

    You replied, "I'm not sure that repeated exposure works, especially when it feels deadly boring, sometimes painful."

     

    I sympathize with that sentiment.  Certainly, I do not mean to suggest that repeated exposure will somehow automatically make a composition that initially sounds boring and unmusical suddenly, or even gradually, sound like the gentle falling of celestial manna from a sonorous heaven.   Nevertheless, I still think many people (and I include myself in this) do not give the "new piece" the full number of hearings that it might deserve; and even more importantly, they do not listen to a sufficient number of pieces of similar genre and similar style, to help uncover and make manifest that new "musical landscape" you were talking about.  That landscape is growing, and has been growing, unfolding and evolving in different directions, generating new horizons, for many decades now.  Learning to appreciate some new aspects of it will continue to help us learn to enjoy other works that hover around and near that particular spot on the wider "landscape," I think.  That's what happens in my mind, at least, if you will permit me the use of your metaphor.

     

    How that ever-developing landscape (and our ability to appreciate its newest features) will "influence us," and whether we wish to escape or make use of its features, is another question entirely, of course.

    [More on your other points, hopefully, at a later time].

    - YouTube
    Enjoy the videos and music you love, upload original content, and share it all with friends, family, and the world on YouTube.
  • Ondib,

    Thank you for making those points, with which I agree.  On the topic of getting exposed to works that we don't initially enjoy:  I am re-evaluating my opinion that exposure doesn't help.  I'm experiencing some interesting things.

    One time fairly recently, I experienced the following.  I wanted to give feedback on a particular piece that was posted on this forum, but was having trouble focusing on it because I wasn't relating to it at all.  I kept coming back to it day after day and trying to really listen to it in a meaningful way, but being unsuccessful at that.  Then one day I suddenly found myself able to follow the piece and actually understand it.

    Another experience.  I purchased Hilary Hahn's "27 Pieces" (do you know that album?) where she commissioned the 27 pieces from different composers.  On the first several playings I couldn't relate to most of the pieces, and kept waiting for my 2 or 3 "favorites" to come up.  But now, when I play the album, I find a lot of enjoyable passages in all of the pieces.

    So I think exposure does have the capacity to change you.  Maybe what it is is that, if a piece happens to catch you on a particular day where your brain is more receptive than its usual, then it will have opened a door, and then that door remains open later on.

    Another realization I've had in recent years, and it's a humbling one, is that there are music pieces that are not accessible to me but which have a recognizable inner logic and meaning to other people.  This is also true of the visual arts, particularly the abstract pieces - that I've been aware of for a while now.  I had a friend in Germany who, with obviously genuine feeling, would weep in the museum looking at abstract pieces. To me, they just looked like random blobs of paint. Humbling, indeed.

    Mariza

  • "I wanted to give feedback on a particular piece that was posted on this forum, but was having trouble focusing on it because I wasn't relating to it at all.  I kept coming back to it day after day and trying to really listen to it in a meaningful way, but being unsuccessful at that.  Then one day I suddenly found myself able to follow the piece and actually understand it."

     

    That's dedication, and I compliment you for your willingness to give such attention to your fellow composers on this site.

     

    I have done something like that on a few occasions, but I admit, I usually only give that much undivided and persistent attention to Henze, Pierre Henry, and Peter Schaeffer, Henri Pousseur (folks like that), though that may be a mistake on my part. [I guess they have to have an "h" or a "p" as the first initial of one of their names].

     

    "Maybe what it is is that, if a piece happens to catch you on a particular day where your brain is more receptive than its usual, then it will have opened a door, and then that door remains open later on."

     

    I think something like that does happen.

     

    "Another realization I've had in recent years, and it's a humbling one, is that there are music pieces that are not accessible to me but which have a recognizable inner logic and meaning to other people."

     

    Yes, that seems true to me.  My father is a mathematician, and he has an ability to grasp aspects of Hindemith's music that I often find impenetrable.  Hindemith wrote so much, and though I like some of it, there is so much I have not yet learned to appreciate fully.  Most of the Kammermusik pieces still elude me.

     

    "This is also true of the visual arts, particularly the abstract pieces - that I've been aware of for a while now.  I had a friend in Germany who, with obviously genuine feeling, would weep in the museum looking at abstract pieces. To me, they just looked like random blobs of paint. Humbling, indeed."

     

    I don't recall ever crying while looking at a painting before though I have many times felt the flow of tears, or tingling of the spine, in response to moments in symphonies, by Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich or Prokofiev.

     

    Still, my mother is an abstract expressionist painter, and so I do have responses and ideas about many artists like Kandinsky, for instance.  The "modern art form" I have the most trouble with is architecture.  I have just never looked at it, or studied it deeply enough.

     

    Kandinsky looked at the colors in his work as a musician might look at the so called colors in music, the way Messiaen and Scriabin perceived music (with synaesthesia, perhaps).  So maybe there are many abstract painters who are also doing that.  The colors themselves, without clearly delineated representational forms, elicit for them a kind of feeling.  

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Ondib,

    Thank you for your interesting message. It is amazing how much you love music and how much the work of various composers means to you, and that you are aquainted with a vast body of work. I congratulate you on having such passion.

    Sadly, I never paid much attention to anybody or any repertoir, except for the pieces that my piano teacher put in front of me when I was a kid. I wish I had practiced more back then because then my piano teacher might have added a broader repertoir that included many composers. That would've been great! I played Beethoven but it meant nothing to me (boring, predictable, pieces, is how I felt about them), similar with Mozart. Schubert, Schumann, Haydn, several others, meant nothing to me. Ah, there was Albeniz -- do you know him? Fabulous, very impressive composer! Chopin I absolutely loved. But Bach - ah, Bach was like life itself. Nothing anywhere in my experience compared to the feeling I got from the music of Bach.

    On the topic of this thread, "Escaping one's Influences," I've been having further thoughts. First, it is obvious from many of my pieces that Bach has influenced me a lot. Second, today I posted a "little prelude" which Gav correctly noted had a Chopin influence. A marked one, I would add. Yet, it is also clear that I am not immitating either one of them, and each of my pieces has a life of their own. They may even be recognizably mine.

    Gav is worried about escaping his influences, and I wonder why I should worry about escaping Bach and Chopin. Gav, you even wrote in a comment to Stephen Lines' post titled "an alternative direction" -- the only valid goal for any composer is to experiment with new things. Well, perhaps I'm not a composer. I just compose music - that's different than being a composer. I'm actually a scientist, a hydrologist to be precise. And a person who happens to compose music these days.

    I found what Bob Porter wrote to be more reasonable and "humane" -- he wrote that we all compose for different reasons.

    Indeed! All kinds of different reasons!

    I am NOT under the influence of Bach and Chopin. I AM built up as a person in part from Bach and Chopin. I AM part Bach and part Chopin, in addition to lots of other things too. That is a reflection of the power of music. You put a child at the piano, teach them to read music, have them play Bach and Chopin, and you think they're just playing music? No! They're building themselves block by block as they grow up, and the music guides the way the blocks get put together as the kid grows. And then there's adolescence and the teenage years, and why do you think we go through those years with headphone permanently on? Because we NEED music to help us become who we want to be in those years. Unfortunately, my favorite musicians in my teens cannot be named now -- too embarassing.

    Why should I escape my Bach and my Chopin? Escape myself? Escape my childhood? I like to honor that feeling from my childhood. Why should I wish to escape that? Am I not a unique person anyway?

    Here's another thing, though. When a piece of music pops into my head, which happens several times a day these days, the fact is that I filter out those that don't feel as comforting and familiar as the pieces that have enough Bach or enough Chopin in them. Should I leave my comfort zone? Why should I do that? Honest question.

    Mariza
  • "Well, perhaps I'm not a composer. I just compose music - that's different than being a composer. I'm actually a scientist, a hydrologist to be precise."

    And Alexander Borodin was a chemist.

  • Hi Mariza,

    That is what I said and what I do believe. For one simple reason - I believe if it is not new, it is just imitating those from the past. This puts me at odds with many (perhaps most) of the composers on this forum. I think I understand their opinion: they want compositions to be beautiful, and they think that the standard of beauty ended a hundred or more years ago and that is what they seek to comply to. I don't think that the standard ended a hundred years ago, I just think classical composition lost its way for a while because of atonalism, which I think is the most destructive and negative thing which has ever happened to classical music. I despise all atonal music, which I would call anti-music, and which I loathe in its entirety. To me, tonal music is the only music which is worthwhile. And there is much wonderful tonal music which has been composed in the last 100 years, mostly, but not exclusively, movie music, jazz, rock-and-roll, and video game, pop, and Broadway music (Stephen Sondheim in particular), and lately, some of the latest country-rock. Classical music I consider to be exceptional to all other forms of music, including the ones I have just mentioned, but only if new.

    Mariza Costa-Cabral said:


    Gav, you even wrote in a comment to Stephen Lines' post titled "an alternative direction" -- the only valid goal for any composer is to experiment with new things.
    Escaping one's influences
    Hi colleagues, I think the key struggle for me as a composer to be the best that I can be has been a struggle to find an original voice. This has bec…
  • Gav,

    A few points I would like to make, please.  I'll even number them.

    1 -- I commend you for expressing your opinion (and reiterating it) even though it is not share by many or most.

    I commend you for that because, in my experience in the US, there's some unspoken cultural norm by which people don't express divergent opinions if they can avoid it.  They find round-about ways.  The norms differ greatly from culture to culture, from the British "who, me?!" at one end of the spectrum, to the German "Ich bin nicht einverstanden!" (the welcomed beginning of a good discussion!) at the other end.  With the US closer to the British end, and Portugal (my birth culture) closer to the German end of the spectrum, at least since the dictatorship ended in 1974. 

    2 -- I am personally very glad you have taken the role you've taken on this forum.  I think it's very effective and even inspirational at times.

    3 -- But I think that (1), and especially (2) (as it may eventually become clear), needs to be balanced with contemplating the possibility that some other people find genuine meaning and great value in art forms that you loathe.  I learned my lesson, by seeing my friend respond emotionally to abstract art in the museum, that these were not over-hyped blobs of paint.  Perhaps you should at least contemplate the possibility that atonal music has true meaning and therefore value?  Although, as it happens, this meaning is not accessible to you right now.  If so, it would then become more of a puzzle to you (and we're free to either ignore puzzles or try to solve them), rather than pseudo-art -- which I'm guessing is what you loathe.

    4 -- While I understand your position that composers, to merit that title, should strive to innovate (albeit only within tonal music??), and I do see merit in it, I think you are positioning yourself too radically on that point.  Sometimes we express something in a radical way to make a point, because if we go more moderate we risk not being understood.  Maybe you're doing that subconsciously.  But it seems as though you are not able to appreciate what Bob Porter said that we all compose for different reasons.  In my opinion, these different reasons are all valid, because we all have different roles to play in life.  We are not all, each one of us, THE COMPOSER.

    5 -- Progress in music, as in science and everything else, can probably be made incrementally.  An innovation here, another one there, pretty soon we're talking real changes. 

    6 -- You wrote about the misconception that "the standard of beauty ended a hundred or more years ago".  Here I'd like to reiterate what other people have already pointed out, which is that music is not all about beauty.  I am not sure whether you ponder on what people write - did you consider the posts they wrote on that topic?  Art in general is not about beauty.  I think the sense of beauty comes from perceiving something deep, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Anyhow I think I DO GET what you're saying here.  I think  you're saying the language of tonal music needs to evolve.

    7 -- You use the term "imitating" old composers to express the idea that the same musical language is being used over and over.  Please take some minutes to think about this point in particular.  People are not really imitating.  They are being who they are.  The music language SHAPES the person.  Music is not ice cream for the brain.  Music plays an important role in our neurological and spiritual development.  We may not be what we eat, but we are in part what music we hear.  You are underestimating the role of music in our lives, through your approach to these points (6) and (7).

    8 -- Because of (7), it is imperative to invest in music education and a thoughtful approach to including a vast array of music in our lives and in particular children's lives.  What if I stated that "the only valid goal for any composer is to assist the young in accessing a vast array of musical experience and musical tools"?

    Best to you, Gav, and I really meant each of these points, including point (2) which is very heartfelt.

    Mariza

  • Well, Alexander Borodin was a chemist AND a composer!

    I'm a hydrologist :-)

    O. Olmnilnlolm said:

    "Well, perhaps I'm not a composer. I just compose music - that's different than being a composer. I'm actually a scientist, a hydrologist to be precise."

    And Alexander Borodin was a chemist.

    Escaping one's influences
    Hi colleagues, I think the key struggle for me as a composer to be the best that I can be has been a struggle to find an original voice. This has bec…
  • I hear you, Gav.

    I often wonder what it was like to be a kithara or lyre player in ancient Greece.   ...where there were no expectations based on music's history, just emotional and intellectual response from listeners based on the artistic moment.  Fantasy?

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