Originality in Art: A Novel Idea
One of the questions put to me regularly as a professor of music composition is this: What is originality? I shall attempt at least a partial answer here. The question, however, is rarely spoken so directly. It is rather more implied in other questions I am asked while critiquing my students’ compositions. Also, the question, whether implied or spoken, usually takes a more personal and urgent form: “How can I be original?” This question may be based on a presumption, often untrue, that the questioner knows what originality is, generally, but just doesn’t know how to apply or implement it in his or her own work.
As with many deep questions, it can be easier to say first what originality is not. I once heard a talk about teaching given to a group of college professors by the late educator Neil Postman. You may recall him as the author of the popular 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, with its Huxlean predictions of technological, self-induced zombie-hood that have already come true, even beyond his prescient imaginings. In this talk, Postman characterized teaching as “not merely shoving stuff into empty young heads,” but rather as “surgically removing the ignorance that is already there.” It was a subtle but profound distinction, and in my professorial career, I suppose I have done a bit of both. So, I will attempt now to begin surgically removing from our noggins at least one understanding of what should not pass for originality in the arts.
Originality must be distinguished from “novelty”. That sounds fairly obvious and all well and good to say, but I find that many people have only a rather vague idea of all that “novelty” comprises, and so a distinction cannot be fully made. Novelty comes from the Anglo-French “novel”, meaning simply “new”. From the 14th century, the word carried with it a positive connotation of “new and unusual,” that is to say, making a remarkable or innovative contribution to society, as in a scientific breakthrough. Later, it also began to take on a pejorative sense, as in “the novelty of the new style of hats soon wore off,” indicating that something has become dated and had only been a fleeting fad or of superficial worth.
There is another sense of the word novelty, which is the one I particularly want to address, and that is the connotation of something bizarre, shocking, fascinating, or strange, or as in “a novelty act.” A visit to Seattle’s “Ye Olde Curiosity Shop” will thrrrrill you with preserved two-and-three-headed ducklings and bunnies, a four-legged chicken, shrunken heads, mummies, and a mechanical fortune telling gypsy from an old carnival. Of course the name invokes both the Dickens novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, published around 1841, and the sixteenth-century building housing a shop in the West End of London, reputed to have inspired Dickens. The shop was later renamed after the book and remains in business to this day, though lately reincarnated as a posh shoe shop. And of course, throughout America we have Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums, in the same vein as the classic curiosity shop with its neo-Gothic, macabre, or weird objets d’art.
What does this have to do with the “contemporary classical” music being written today? Plenty, I think. At least it feels that way to me when I attend many such concerts now. In my student days, you could expect to hear several dryly academic, atonal works with titles like Suite No. 2 for Piano and Constructions No. 7 for Clarinet and Marimba. Now we more often have works with colorful and intriguing titles like Whispers of Heavenly Death, Missa Charles Darwin, Operation for the Removal of a Gallstone, Spoon Hanging from My Nose, Requiem for the Living, Cosmic Wheel of the Zodiac, and even Hipster Zombies from Mars (all titles of actual classical works that have also been recently released as recorded albums, by the way).
I tend to think that this trend mirrors the decades-long tendency in the visual arts away from traditional painting technique, in favor of concept. However, listening to it on YouTube, Hipster Zombies from Mars (subtitled, “Piano Music for a Post-Ironic Age”) actually sounds, to my ears, pretty much the same as the old-school “Suite No. 2 for Piano” once did! Now I do find that fact ironic (though not “post-ironic”). So, perhaps composers now are just getting a little more savvy in marketing their works to sell a few more tickets to curiosity seekers. But I do think this trend of turning the concert hall into a kind of curiosity shop also reflects some kind of search for originality, the same search I see in my students, in their searching eyes as we talk. Only now it can be a very misguided search, if there is a presumption that originality is to be found in the form of increasingly sensational novelty of concept.
One problem with curiosity shops, like Ripley’s, is that once you have visited one, as fascinating as it may have been to see, one time, you really don’t need to see it again. Been there, done that. Great pieces of music are just the opposite. You want to hear them again and again, many more times throughout your life. You buy a recording and listen to that music over and over. And I believe that is one reason this kind of novelty music has miniscule record sales, even among people who enjoyed hearing it once at a concert. Another problem with curiosity shops, is just that – curiosity as the motivating factor, or more crudely stated, voyeurism, often appealing to our lower nature. Great art, ideally, does not exist to satisfy our basest curiosity, but to nourish our souls. It may also satisfy true intellectual curiosity and teach us something. Great music does not exist to present “genetic mutations” of aural beauty, like a poor musical duckling with two heads, but to discover, shape, and celebrate the true aural beauty that is latent in God’s natural creation of sound.
Moreover, the implied message of these kinds of works is that now art must be “about” something. It is not enough simply for it to present (or in theological terms, I might say “re-present”) the beauty of God’s creativity working in us. What disappointment I sometimes encounter from reviewers of my work when they learn that my piece is not “about” anything – at least not anything topical, political, ironic, or sardonic. I tell them it was simply written for listeners to enjoy – now that’s novel! But they don’t find it much from which to write an interesting review. I could rightly say it is simply “about” beauty and the self-authenticating truth of unity and musical syntax and narrative form that tells a story and moves the emotions and inclinations toward goodness.
An original work may also happen to contain some element of novelty – not so much the weird kind but fresh newness of imagination. However, novelty for its own sake is not the goal of originality, not an original work’s raison d’etre. So what is originality? Spiritually speaking, it may sound simplistic. We should know ourselves, according to Aquinas, and I believe that entails the understanding that each of us is already a unique creation of God. As with snowflakes, there has never been and will never be anyone else exactly like you. You do not have to grow a third ear or have two heads, like a sensational museum display, to be “original” as a human. You already are unique.
By extension, the same can be true of the art you create, the music you compose. What matters is that it is well crafted and beautiful. If you can accomplish that, then originality has a way of taking care of itself, because there is no one who ever lived or will live who would have composed it in exactly the same way you did, in every detail. This is why the composer Jean Sibelius, who was not trying to be original or novel but only trying to write beautiful music, sounds so distinctively and so naturally like Jean Sibelius and not like Serge Rachmaninoff, and vice versa. I tell my students “Try to copy your favorite great master, and perhaps you will even succeed in writing a piece that sounds as much as ninety percent like that composer. But you will fail at sounding one-hundred percent like that composer, because you are simply not that person. But perhaps the ten percent of the music that “fails” is actually you! Take that ten percent and write the next piece based on that, and find who you are.” Originality is simply the natural product of your own uniqueness. It can have many things in common with a musical tradition, just as we all have in common a nose, two eyes, and two ears. It does not have to be a freak show.