Recently I reviewed some field recordings I had made several years ago of ocean waves against the beach in La Jolla, California. I found the overall quality of the recordings to be pretty good, except for some occasional wind noise which could probably be edited out fairly seamlessly, and the sounds of the waves were gorgeous—sweeping high-pass filters of pink noise, performed with nature’s exquisite sense of timing. Not particularly unique or different from the ocean waves you and I have heard over and over in our forays to the beach. Still, I like these sounds, and thus couldn’t help but think about how they might be incorporated into some compostion in the future.
Water sounds in music—always tricky. Due to hackneyed overuse (French composer Michel Redolfi’s work stands far apart), I actually am quite allergic to music that uses the sounds of water as an element. Lots of students seem to gravitate to water sounds, and especially the ocean, and usually not to great effect. I somehow always prefered Takemitsu’s metaphorical and impressionist “use” of water in the instrumental realm. And yet, dammit, real water sounds in all their variety should and can be a great source for the 21st-century composer.
Interestingly the Free Dictionary says the word “cliché” comes from the past participle of the French verb “clicher” (which Presse- francophone.org says means “to dump”), but most sources say the word, indeed French in origin, is an onomatopoetic printer’s term for the sound that happens when a matrix is dropped into molten metal in order to make a stereotype plate. That I found interesting—stereotypes being both “a solid plate or type-metal, cast from a papier-mâché or plaster mould taken from the surface of a block of type” (OED) and a “metaphor for any set of ideas repeated identically, en bloc, with minor changes.” So in fact, cliché and stereotype were both originally printers’ words.
Of course no material is ipso facto a cliché as we have come to understand the word. It’s all in the way it’s used. But some things—be they materials, harmonic progressions, or formal structures—have become hackneyed and trite through overuse. Hey look—I just made a meta cliché!
Seriously, do you ever find yourself afraid some idea might be teetering on the edge of the cliché? And, if so, what do you do about it? Toss the page aside and start over? Or maybe turn the cliché on its head in some ironic fashion? It sometimes seems hard to use old ways to express new ideas; is it any easier finding new ways to express old ideas? I’d like to hear your thoughts. I’ll be traveling for the next two weeks—first to San Francisco to perform with a wonderful ensemble, Melody of China, and then on to Europe for some concerts in Italy and France. While my columns might be a touch delayed, please know that I’ll be looking forward to reading your comments on every Wi-Fi connection I can muster on the road. Until the next time!