When drawing from preexisting works, how do you balance legal and moral obligations with the potential to create new art? Diane Thome



Diane Thome
Photo by Dave Robinson

How do you compose a work using previously existing music so that original music is the result? For all of our history composers have done this, but the question is who does it effectively, successfully, and with integrity, and who does not. There are composers who are real artists who do this and they make it their own. Then there are others who have little craft or imagination, and really nothing original to say. They just do a cut-and-paste job regurgitating whatever they find sitting around in a simplistic, literal, uncreative manner.

Like A Seated Swan for viola and computer-realized sound is the only work I have written in which an initial compositional goal was to achieve a creative integration of my original music with that of another composer. The primary compositional challenge was to compose a 16-minute piece in which recurrent but non-continuous allusions to particular melodic motifs could be unified artistically. I addressed this challenge by using sonic collages of various densities which are threaded through seven sections of different timbral, melodic, and rhythmic materials. In this case, measures from the Lutoslawski String Quartet were either electronically processed or relatively transparent.

Utilizing a collage-like integration of both transparent and electronically-processed material from his string quartet at particular moments in the work, I have engaged in an intimate dialog with a composer whose music continues to inspire me. This revisiting of the past—a process with which all composers are consciously or unconsciously engaged—occurs here in ways that can only be achieved through the use of sophisticated computer technology.

Like A Seated Swan is an homage to Lutoslawski who was my mentor and teacher at Tanglewood. One way that you can create an homage to a composer whose work you deeply admire is not only to have internalized that composer’s music but to create a dialog with the internalized object. It wasn’t a matter of pasting some of his music into my own work.

I have no interest in music that uses literal quotation for its own sake and there’s a fair amount of music that does this. It never bothered me when Stravinsky incorporated certain aspects of the music of Pergolesi or Tchaikovsky or even Bach into his own work because what he did with the material was so clearly Stravinskian.

I draw the line when a composer truly has something to offer in terms of original compositional thinking that imaginatively uses “the found object.” This is a very significant aspect of contemporary art. Of course, it’s ultimately up to the listener to decide whether the composer’s stated intention has been achieved.