Old is the New New

Colin Holter’s hilarious send-up of the curmudgeonly composer includes the following decree:

I will continue to write the same kind of music I wrote when I experienced my first critical success—my “breakthrough,” if you will—until death.

While Colin’s vow was tongue-in-cheek, I’m starting to think it’s really the way to go. Churning out the same stuff over and over again is exactly what great artists do, from Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin to David Mamet and Woody Allen—infinite variations on the same theme just seems to work. So if artists across the board don’t have a problem with tinkering around in the same old niche for their entire career, let ‘em. Why should we lambaste composers for, say, having a strong affinity for arpeggios and sub-dominant minor chord progressions?

Not unrelated, I finally got around to seeing Pan’s Labyrinth over the weekend. The film was touted by some Dublin-based friends who insisted that I immediately run out and see it, but that was a good few months before it was released here in the States. Luckily, half a year later and Oscar season over, my local movie house is still screening this Spanish import. I have to say, I was impressed. The most striking thing about the movie is how intensely gripping it is, despite the fact that the look, style, and storyline seem all too familiar. No matter how many giant toads, pasty dudes with eyeballs on their hands, and polymorphic flying bugs you throw in, it’s still just a fairytale, and the film adheres to its premise. Personally, I find it difficult to be totally riveted by something that lacks originality, but this film managed to win me over somehow. Sometimes this same weird strain of inventive non-innovation grabs my ears in a piece of music. It’s the fly in the ointment, so to speak, as older generations of composers constantly stress the importance of innovation. Is it possible that they’ve been barking up the wrong tree?

When sitting down to compose, it makes a lot of sense to extrapolate things from older pieces, preferably the elements that worked, leaving behind the stuff that fell flat. Instilled with the notion that a composer had to recreate not only the wheel, but the universe as well, each time they approach a new composition, I felt that copying and pasting from older stuff was cheating—but call me a cheater, because I did it anyway and then carried around the guilt. Looking back, I can’t believe I actually let myself feel burdened by the torchbearers of the new music must be “new” attitude. Interestingly, I think the quality of the music I’ve written has consistently improved since breaking that shackle. In fact, maybe when that next commission comes along I’ll break open the archive and throw together a 10-year highlights reel.

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