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ON TIME, ORIGINALITY, AND THE ART OF
MUSICAL COMPOSITION

by Joseph Dillon Ford

Not so very long ago it was the fashion to believe that the quality of a work of art depends largely on the degree to which it expresses the "originality" of its creator. In order to be pronounced "original," a work had to be "new," "fresh," "novel," and most importantly, "independent" of previous influences. On the other hand, poems, musical compositions, paintings, and buildings conspicuously based on the forms and styles of the past were roundly dismissed as the products of intellectually arrested or creatively deficient minds, worthy only of a place in the musty attics, dank basements, and dustbins of civilization. Just as Cronus devoured his newborn children to ensure his own absolute authority, so did historical tradition threaten to reduce innovative ideas to Pablum and swallow the minds of the unwary. Only those who were wise enough or fortunate enough to escape its ghoulish clutches could ever hope to be truly worthy of the name "artist."

This was the position taken by leading modernists during much of the twentieth century. Their contempt--if not outright aversion--for the past was elevated to the status of dogma throughout academia, within whose hallowed walls they sought and frequently found the economic security and ideological immunity of tenure. Indeed, modernist ideology continues to exert considerable influence over higher education, with very real and sometimes painful consequences for those who dare to question its authority.

For the last several decades, however, modernism has increasingly shared the stage with its avowed nemesis--postmodernism, among whose motley adherents are both those who reject modernism because they believe it has become too traditional and those who parody tradition in a self-consciously modern way. Public consciousness, swaddled with slogans, cradled in kitsch, and suckled by a pop culture with all the maternal instincts of a trash compactor, knows little and cares even less about this muddle of isms.

It is easy to grow cynical in such an environment, and in the end to yield to the dull seeming inevitability of it all. I am afraid that is precisely what many trying to hold down full-time jobs who still like to think of themselves as artists have already done. There may be, however, another way of looking at tradition and creation that engenders an art neither consumed by rules and formulas nor engorged with ideological conceits and mindless materialism. I believe that a finer, more fundamental understanding of time itself may hold the key.

Time is commonly perceived as the unidirectional flow of matter and consciousness from the past, through the present, into the future. From a purely scientific point of view, however, this notion is seriously flawed. The laws of science do not even distinguish between a past and a future (Hawking 144), and thanks to Einstein's remarkable insights, physicists have generally discarded the belief that events occur in a sort of flux from one point in time to the next. Rather, what appears to happen actually just exists in spacetime. In Einstein's own words, "The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one" (Davies 70). That is to say, past, present, and future, although apparently very different from one another, are actually just conventionalized aspects of a more fundamental reality which they persistently conceal.

This is certainly a startling revelation, and one that is hardly likely to win popular acceptance because it flies brazenly in the face of what seems to be so obvious. It is not, however, necessary to fathom the mathematical intricacies of relativity theory to see how eminently sensible Einstein's statement is. One might, for example, approach the matter logically, and define the past as that which once was but is no more, which is the same thing as saying that there is, in actual fact, no past. If one defines the future as that which will be but which is not yet, that, too, is tantamount to saying that the future does not actually exist. One is left with an apparent paradox, exacerbated by the fact that trying to grasp the present is equally futile. The only way around the paradox is to let go entirely of this artificially constructed view of time and simply to observe, without trying to isolate or label past, present, and future as if they were discrete phenomena. It might be helpful to think of these, instead, as several basic modes of human perception, none of which demonstrably exceeds the others in importance.

Perception is the root of aesthetics: the very word "aesthetics" comes from the Greek verb meaning "to perceive." If Einstein is correct, and the everyday distinction between past, present, and future is an illusion, then any artist who narrowly identifies himself with one of the three in an effort to establish or assert his own temporal superiority has not only failed in perception but has also unwittingly diminished the scope of his art. To remain entrenched in the notion of past, present, and future, and to attempt to disassociate oneself from any of these imaginary chunks of reality, results in a fragmentary consciousness which through its own self-isolation denies any possibility of experiencing spacetime as undivided wholeness. All art originates in this seamless totality, and no creative act can exist apart from it. Art which is true to its origins and, therefore, truly original is neither conceived within nor bounded by the conventions of space and time.

The language I have used thus far (and for lack of anything better will continue to use for the rest of this article) has inevitably been shaped by these very conventions, but if the reader and I have reached a common understanding, then it has served its purpose. For those who may still be uneasy about the admittedly counterintuitive implications of Einstein's physics, however, I would like to demonstrate my conclusions about originality by citing examples of work by some of the most creative minds in history who have leaped over the temporal stockades in which ideologues, scholars, and critics have corralled them and have given the lie to the provincial definition of originality recalled at the beginning of this article. To this end, I will focus on poets, musicians, artists, and architects whose works acknowledge and draw inspiration from history, and to whom the expression "Genius borrows nobly" is especially applicable (Emerson 294).

Those who decry "derivative" work as inferior might be at a loss to account for Picasso's 1954 sketches of details from Edouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass (1863). In his History of Art, H. W. Janson identifies the source of Manet's painting as a detail in Marcantonio Raimondi's The Judgment of Paris (c. 1520), an engraving which itself can be traced through Raphael back to a third-century Roman sarcophagus. A more recent example is Stanley Kubrick's Academy Award-winning Barry Lyndon (1975), a superb film portrayal of the eponymous character in Thackeray's 1844 novel, which Kubrick strove to interpret with such finesse that even costumes worn by the actors were actual antique apparel.

Artists have often striven to produce work which authentically evokes the essence, manners, forms, or styles of an earlier period. Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953), a chilling dramatization of the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials, is a particularly fine literary example which effectively demonstrates how historical materials, far from restricting the artist to the role of a mere laudator temporis acti, actually enable him to expose and interpret the failures of both past and present. Mozart's Prelude and Fugue in C Major, K. 394/383a, an imposing keyboard piece in the grand baroque manner, reveals how completely this quintessentially neoclassical composer had mastered the stylistic idioms and contrapuntal complexities of an earlier generation.

An eclectic approach, in which elements of two or more historical periods are blended, is evident in Leo von Klenze's Propylaea (1846-50), the dramatic entry to Munich's Königsplatz which marshals the powerful affects of both classical Greek and Egyptian architecture. London's original Kew Gardens (1760s) as planned by William Chambers were even more stylistically diverse: in this magical microcosm, Greek, Roman, Gothic, Islamic, and Chinese landscape architectural features would collectively conspire to transport pleasure-seeking visitors to remotely romantic times and places.

Historical material is often interwoven with elements considered "new" at the time of creation, as in Igor Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938), a "little concerto in the style of the [Bach] Brandenburg Concertos," and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini (1849-50), the widely admired Pre-Raphaelite painting whose numinous medievalism is underscored by subtle traces of contemporary style and technique.

Some of the preceding types obviously overlap: Stravinsky's Sophoclean opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927), with text by Jean Cocteau, and Federico Fellini's Satyricon (1969), an irreverently anachronistic marriage of Petronian debauchery and twentieth-century cinematographic licence, are both clearly derivative, but their classical content has also been substantially modified by contemporary idiomatic twists and accretions.

China's "first" emperor, Shih Huang Ti, ordered the burning of countless books so that it would appear history began with him, and isolated his empire from outside influences by erecting a Great Wall extending some fifteen hundred miles at an average height of twenty-five feet (Borges 186-189). Neither of these unimaginably draconian measures, however, succeeded in excluding the presence of the past. Similarly, modernist ideology, which anathematized history and raised past-bashing to the status of a virtual cult, has ultimately proven to be an ineffective barrier against the powerful influences of tradition, without which, in fact, originality itself would be inconceivable.

In his remarkable essay, "Quotation and Originality," Emerson insightfully summarized the importance of historical tradition in the arts when he observed: "The originals are not original. There is imitation, model, and suggestion, to the very archangels, if we knew their history." One would not expect such a decidedly "unmodern" point of view to be corroborated by a bellwether of the avant-garde, but in fact the late John Cage would admit as much in one of his more lucid moments: "I think of myself as an inventor, but I almost always find that what I think is really original in my work has been done before by someone else" (Tomkins 91). That most modern of modern poets, T. S. Eliot, however, may have summed up the question of time and originality best of all in an oft-quoted passage from "Little Gidding": We shall not cease from exploration | And the end of all exploring | Will be to arrive where we started | And know the place for the first time.

* * *

"My end is my beginning and my beginning is my end."

The words of T.S. Eliot? Or perhaps James Joyce's description of his own modus operandi in Finnegan's Wake? No, this time the text quoted is that of a rondeau by the fourteenth-century poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut which is as good a musical representation of nonlinear time as anyone might hope for. In Machaut's ingeniously crafted work, the upper voice has the same melody as the tenor part, only backwards, and the second half of the contratenor part is a mirror-image reversal of the first half. The net result is neither progression nor regression but a sort of cancellation or suspension of time, but if the listener attempts to negate this musical paradox by insisting that time behave in a strictly linear fashion, its mystery and beauty elude him altogether. He must surrender instead to the view that past, present, and future are essentially one, not unlike Machaut's elder contemporary, Meister Eckhart:

A day, whether six or seven ago, or more than six thousand years ago, is just as near to the present as yesterday. Why? Because all time is contained in the present Now-moment" (Rucker 136).

This remarkable view of time is hardly an isolated case. Thus spoke the Zen master Dogen:

It is believed by most that time passes; in actual fact, it stays where it is. The idea of passing may be called time, but it is an incorrect idea, for since one sees it only as passing, one cannot understand that it stays just where it is (Capra 186).

When Machaut died in 1377, a younger contemporary, F. Andrieu, composed a four-part ballade in honor of and in a style reminiscent of that of the deceased master. Josquin Desprez would do the same more than a century later in "Nymphes des bois," his homage to Johannes Ockeghem; so would François Couperin for both Lully and Corelli in two eponymous apothéoses; and Ravel, in turn, for Couperin in a delightful tombeau with versions for both piano solo and orchestra. This practice of stylistic imitation in each case produced music of conspicuous excellence: the whole point, after all, was not to break with tradition but to acknowledge it openly and affectionately. Where is the "anxiety of influence" in these formidably original works? Their creation betokens, instead, the natural gratitude of a student towards a beloved teacher; the artful resolution of stylistic diversity; or the easy, cheerful intimacy of minds who have touched one another across the centuries.

Nothing could be more remote from the central tenets of modernism, but as I have already demonstrated, many notable moderns did not always practice what modernist propagandists, academics, and critics so vehemently preached. Had modern composers actually divorced themselves from the influences of the past, there never would have been the Bartók whose Mikrokosmos was so immeasurably enriched by the folk and traditional music of Eastern Europe; the Hindemith of the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber; the Schoenberg of Moses und Aron; or even the Cage whose study of ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and the I Ching was so instrumental in transforming him into the darling of the avant-garde.

It might still be argued that it is the degree to which one draws upon the past that is an index of the "originality" or quality of a work of art. Following this argument, the smaller the ratio of tradition to innovation in a musical composition, the greater the aesthetic achievement. This, however, presumes the existence of linear time, which scientists like Einstein and mystics like Eckhart have patently denied. If past, present, and future are given all at once in a sort of "block universe," the passage of time, the discrete existence of old and new, are no more than misapprehensions perpetrated by the rather narrow parameters of conventional human perception. Or, as the ancients observed:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us" (Ecclesiastes I, 9-10).

Those who prefer a more "contemporary" scientific explanation might consider physicist David Bohm's theory of the "implicate order" or biologist Rupert Sheldrake's theory of "morphic resonance," in which "there is the possibility that most if not all new patterns of activity that appear on Earth have already appeared frequently elsewhere in the universe or in other or previous universes" (Sheldrake 305-306).

If one still clings to the concept of originality as the triumph of the new over the old, one should also have to dismiss Bach's Mass in B Minor, Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, and Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Handel as lamentably derivative with regard to both form and technique, and therefore decidedly inferior to even the least examples of "new music" synthesized by the university composer with his computer-generated algorithms and daunting battery of state-of-the-art digital samplers and tone generators. "What would remain to me if this art of appropriation were derogatory to genius?", humbly queried
Goethe--words which resound with unalloyed purity over the hollow rhetoric and feckless posturing of many of the so-called avant-garde (Emerson 300).

Goethe's acknowledgment came at a time when the Industrial Revolution and capitalism had barely begun to transform the face of Europe and the Americas. In hindsight, it seems almost inevitable that the increasing competitiveness fostered by these drastic socioeconomic forces which shaped the modern world would inevitably result in a class of artists hawking their creative products in much the same way that manufacturers promote their endless assortments of gadgets and appliances. To succeed in the marketplace, it is well for a recorded song or the latest digital widget to be seductively innovative, technologically sophisticated, enviably à la mode, and irresistibly unique.

This commodification of art appears to have reached its zenith at a time when the number of genuine masters has dwindled to virtually nil. Twentieth-century America, for all its vast material wealth, technological prowess, and internationally touted schools of music, has failed to produce a single composer of the importance of a Mozart or Beethoven. Instead, the ideal of the self-sufficient, creatively autonomous artist has been supplanted by legions of parasitical pedagogues inordinately proud of their scholarly pedigrees, corporate grants, and capacity to reduce a Bach fugue to its Schenkerian quiddity, but with little more ability to create great art than a band of narcoleptic change-ringers on a cold Sunday morning. Schools of music nowadays routinely screen candidates for graduate programs in composition on the basis of scores obtained on the verbal and quantitative sections of standardized tests, but if solving for "x" or analyzing prose passages pertinent to the migratory habits of the Canada goose have become established criteria in ascertaining one's suitability to become an artist, something has obviously gone terribly awry. Predictably, many university composers' scores make about as much musical sense as those machine-scanned answer sheets with columns of darkened bubbles frantically picked out with a number-two lead by graduate-school hopefuls.

In the final chapter of the 1984 edition of his book New Directions in Music, David Cope candidly exposes the ultraconservatism of the avant-garde, whose hard-core resistance to history "binds the composer to reject the past and work within a multitude of limitations often surpassing those of the strictest of traditional contrapuntalists" (Cope 337). He goes on to envision a post-avant-garde in which composers freely accept "all sound and silence without being limited by current styles" (Ibid.) Indeed, the antihistoricism espoused by modernists has begun to loosen its choke hold on musical culture, and the temporal territoriality of the avant-garde has been increasingly exposed as the militant threat to cultural efflorescence it actually is. A renewed licence to travel freely across the landscape of music history has resulted in a variety of responses by composers, several of whom I should like briefly to discuss.

The case of University of Chicago composer Easley Blackwood (b. 1933) is particularly interesting. His 1985 Cello Sonata was a deliberate attempt to augment the repertoire for that instrument by composing in a style resembling what Blackwood imagined Schubert would have developed had he lived until ca. 1845. Without renouncing his earlier works, which are mostly atonal, Blackwood attributes his affinity for historical musical styles to his research into the harmonic and modal properties of equal tunings, his pedagogical knowledge of traditional harmony, and his discovery of "the poetic aspects of writing in tonal idioms" (Blackwood 3). His Fifth Symphony, premiered by the Chicago Symphony in May 1992, expressly fuses the style of Sibelius (ca. 1915) and other romantics with impressionistic, modern, and even Medieval materials. Blackwood, who compares writing atonal music to composing prose, and writing tonal music to composing poetry, suggests that atonality is largely limited to pieces depicting "degradation, mayhem, the ravings of a madman, and people cast into grotesque or abnormal roles" (Ibid. 5).

The music of composer Alfred Schnittke (b. Engels, USSR, 1934) similarly ranges from almost pure historicism to a kind of "polystylistic" eclecticism. Influenced by twelve-tone composition and the works of Stockhausen, Cage, and Ligeti, around 1966 Schnittke, by then a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, set out in a different direction by incorporating into his works musical quotations and pastiche (Oxford, s.v. "Shnitke, Alfred"). His Suite in the Old Style for violin and piano, originally conceived as cinema music in the 1960s, might well have been written in the eighteenth century, although a few telltale dissonances and harmonic ambiguities suggest that the composer cannot or will not fully engage the past (Schnittke 2-3). His Moz-Art à la Haydn, described as a "Game with music," is parodistically postmodern, contrived, as it were, from the fragmentary remains of Mozart's pantomime music, K. 446 (K. 416d). Its largely dissonant idiom suggests a far greater level of psychological complexity than the title leads one to expect, and the conclusion, in which the thirteen solo string players successively leave the ensemble as the house lights fade, à la Haydn's Farewell Symphony, transmutes eighteenth-century humor into grim twentieth-century irony. For Schnittke the past is crumbling ruins; spectral apparitions; auditory hallucinations; and poignant, even grotesque remembrances--all of which might be expected from a former Soviet composer caught between the demands of a career scoring film music and those of a "serious" artist struggling to produce work worthy of the legacy of Shostakovich.

Few composers have captured concert-goers' imaginations in recent years like Henryk Górecki (b. 1933), whose Symphony No. 3 ("Sorrowful Songs") brought him, more than any of his other works, into the international spotlight. Górecki, too, was influenced by serialism at the outset of his career, but his interest in early music, and particularly in the Middle Ages, combined with a fine sensibility for late-romantic instrumental sonorities, led him to explore historical materials in a full orchestral context. The arching first movement takes as its text the fifteenth-century "Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery," and makes extensive use of the imitative techniques and canonic writing characteristic of vocal music of the Renaissance. Górecki's Three Pieces in Olden Style, which have about them something of the atmosphere of the Third Symphony, are further evidence of the composer's ongoing engagement with the past (Górecki 2-3).

This rekindling of interest in music history, whether as a consequence of specific postmodern or post-avant-garde tendencies, or as a personal quest to illuminate the original depths of one's own creativity, is a phenomenon whose effects have become increasingly evident over the last several decades. It is equally apparent, however, that the cyclical return of historical themes, forms, and styles, and even the very tension between tradition and innovation, are aspects of a far greater cultural dynamic which fairly typifies the unfolding of Western civilization.

Orpheus, whose mastery of the powerful harmonies of Apollo's lyre could becalm savage beasts, embarked on a perilous journey to the Underworld to reclaim his past--the inspirational love of his departed wife Euridice. But failing Hades' test of faith, Orpheus dared to look back at the shade of his beloved, who was to follow him up to Earth, and lost her once again. Unable to console himself or to respond to the seductive charms of other women, in the end he was torn limb from limb by Dionysus' jealous maenads, whose frenzied screams alone could dampen his entrancing songs of a life of joy forever lost. This myth is an archetypal statement of the conflict between past and present, knowledge and doubt, tradition and revolution--but perhaps there is even more to the story than the ancient texts and vases reveal. Perhaps Apollo recognizes in Dionysus an inexplicably hidden and passionate side of himself through whose mysterious art the enshrined remains of Orpheus are quickened and resurrected. Perhaps Euridice, too, emerges from the shadows to rejoin her husband, and both are reconciled with Hades and their assailants. And perhaps--just perhaps--the illusion of time itself is vanquished, the dread cycle of life and death is ended, and all are redeemed in the expansive union of an eternal, illimitable Now.

References

Blackwood, Easley, and Frank Bridge. Blackwood and Bridge Cello Sonatas. Easley Blackwood and Kim Scholes. Cedille compact disc CDR 90000 008, notes.

_____________. Symphony No. 5, [and] Symphony No. 1. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra. James DePriest, Charles Munch. Cedille compact disc CDR 90000 016.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths[:] Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, with a preface by André Maurois. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics, 3d ed. updated. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.

Cope, David. H. New Directions in Music, 4th ed. Dubuque: William C. Brown, 1984.

Davies, Paul. About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster: 1995.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Quotation and Originality," in The Portable Emerson, ed. and with an introduction by Mark Van Doren. New York: The Viking Press, 1965.

Górecki, Henryk. Symphony No. 3 ("Sorrowful Songs"), Three Olden Style Pieces. Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Antoni Wit. Naxos compact disc 8.550822, notes.

Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time, with an introduction by Carl Sagan. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Janson, H. W. History of Art, 2d ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1980.

Rucker, Rudy. The Fourth Dimension: A Guided Tour of the Higher Universes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Schnittke, Alfred. Concerto Grosso No.1, Quasi una sonata, Moz-Art à la Haydn, A Paganini. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Deutsche Grammaphon compact disc 445 520-2 GIMA, notes.

_____________. Sonatas for Violin and Piano Nos. 1 and 2, Suite in the Old Style. Mark Lubotsky and Ralf Gothoni. Ondine compact disc ODE 800-2, notes.

Sheldrake, Rupert. The Presence of the Past[:] Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Tompkins, Calvin. The Bride and the Bachelors[:] Five Masters of the Avant Garde, Viking Compass ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.

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