March 11th 2017


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Money flows freely to fuel anti-coal campaign

CANBERRA OBSERVED People and renewables get on till pay day arrives

EDITORIAL Commission report demonstrates old saying about statistics

ENVIRONMENT Ignore claims that Antarctic ice sheet will melt away

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Taiwan society divides over gay agenda

ECONOMICS Globalisation: a bumpy ride for some

GENDER POLITICS Parliamentary stalemate on same-sex marriage

CULTURE WARS Samizdat and the internet

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Theresa May prepares Britain for post-EU life

HISTORY Christianity and progress in human happiness

MUSIC What's the score? Originality v novelty

CINEMA Silence: Stamping on the face of faith

POETRY AND SOCIETY The modern world and damnation as voyeurism

SOCIETY The working class and globalisation

BOOK REVIEW The man who split the party

It's time to build new water storages in the Basin

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MUSIC
What's the score? Originality v novelty


by David James

News Weekly, March 11, 2017

Much is made of the importance of doing something new in music. There is an implied assumption that art is an analogue of evolution: what comes next must at least aspire to be better, or an improvement, on what came before.

That this is plainly absurd – who in their right mind thinks that Stockhausen or Schoenberg are better than Bach? – does not stop the descent into a kind of “aesthetic Darwinism”.

Maria Callas

Music is now burdened by the heavy weight of history. Classical composers cannot avoid negotiating past achievements, and revolutions. It must be oppressive: rather than concentrating on making fine music the initial focus is on where to place oneself on the historical continuum. It is a very different situation from, say, Mozart’s time, when Bach’s music had all but disappeared.

The same weight is evident in other genres, such as jazz and blues. The masters weigh heavily on younger players. How does one find something new when Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Keith Jarrett have explored so much, their achievements have to be understood and their techniques at least to some extent absorbed? Few are finding it easy to respond.

So is there an alternative to this “aesthetic Darwinism”? It is not entirely wrongheaded. All great music has a recognisable uniqueness, and that, by definition, is new. So to that extent, departing from the past is a feature of artistic development.

But uniqueness is not the only, or even the most important, characteristic of great contributions to music. For one thing, something could be uniquely awful. Neil Young’s singing springs to mind.

Or it could be unique but mere novelty. John Cage’s 4’ 33” of silence is an example. It was a new idea to call it a piece of music, but the silence is indistinguishable from any other silence. To that extent it is neither unique nor new.

One way forward is to make the distinction that literary critic George Steiner makes: between novelty and originality. Originality, he argues, is antithetical to novelty. The word comes from “origins”. It implies a return to the past as well as the finding of something new.

Steiner writes: “The etymology of the word alerts us. It tells of ‘inception’ and of ‘instauration’, of a return, in substance and in form, to beginnings.” (Real Presences, 1989)

It is worth looking at musicians through this three-way lens: novel, original, and good but the same. The atonal excursions of Schoenberg are probably novelty. They were different, but had little appeal to ordinary listeners, who have tended to find the structured chromaticism meaningless and ugly. Mainly because it was meaningless and ugly.

The Sex Pistols was a novelty act. There was no attempt to create melody, or even pitch for the most part. Its effect exclusively relied on shocking by deviating from the past. No one will ever hum a Sex Pistols tune in their head.

Jazz pianist Thelonius Monk is a supreme example of originality. His peripatetic style is like no other, and all other attempts to play his pieces sound unconvincing. He played in the “cracks” between the keys like no other pianist ever has, or perhaps ever will.

These cracks were evident in pitch and rhythm. He routinely played two notes a semitone apart so it sounded like he was in between them. He also played between the beats, which is where his effect of a staggering drunk comes from. It was an almost superhuman feat (perhaps derived from his fragile mental state). While many are able to swing, deviate around the beat, no mere mortal can imitate Monk’s cracked rhythms.

At the same time, Monk had many features in his music that come from recognisable origins, such as the use of structured melodic sequence and cadence. It is the tension between the two that makes his playing so compelling.

As for “good but the same”, consider the difference between opera singers Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas. Sutherland had astounding technique, but her singing was less distinctive than Callas’, who varied her pitch in a way that was not dictated by the score yet was profoundly affecting. Callas thus remains uniquely recognisable and original, Sutherland “good but the same as the score”.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.




























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