Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is Originality a Detriment in Art?

I think originality is an essential element in art, but in my previous entry I suggested that there are many examples of great art in which the degree of originality is arguably not very high, but this does not seem to detract from the value of this art, or its impact on us.

Today I will go a step further and suggest that originality, and the power of art to move us, may exist in a kind of inverse relationship; that is, a groundbreaking, highly original work of art may be less likely to move us than a work that uses techniques and conventions with which we are familiar, albeit in a somewhat original way. Or, put another way, if someone makes up a beautiful poem in Klingon language, most of us are unlikely to be moved by it unless we know Klingon. Which, alas, I do not.

But first an explanation of why this topic interests me.

I post my music at, a site where anyone can upload their music for the purposes of getting feedback from others. I like it a lot; it is very welcoming to people who make the effort to be involved, which I suspect is true of all on-line communities.

In addition to written comments, you can also vote on others’ music (although some artists choose to disable this option for their submissions, preferring to receive comments only). The voting system goes from 1 to 10 in four categories, one of which is “originality/creativity,” which is explained as follows: “Has this artist created something unique or pushed the musical boundaries?”

The answer to this question is clearly “no” for every piece I have ever heard there, including my own music, if one understands “unique” to mean "highly unusual or rare," "the single one of its kind," or "radically distinctive and without equal" (definitions I found at Fear not, gentle reader; I do not therefore go around MacJams giving scores of “1” in this category. I do what I suspect most voters do; I give high scores to music that doesn’t sound too much like a blatant rip-off of something else, and medium scores to music that does. Being Canadian, my genetics prevent me from giving low scores.

In any event, the existence of this voting category at MacJams got me thinking about the meaning of “originality/creativity” (which I see as two separate categories, by the way, but that is a discussion for another day) and the importance of originality in the evaluation or creation of art.

The other reasons that this topic interests me are that (a) I am a composer, and it’s an issue that is on my mind whenever I write music, and (b) I am a composition teacher, and an idea that I try to communicate to students is that being overly concerned with the originality of one's creations may be dangerous, because it can lead to extreme self-censorship, i.e., not continuing any musical ideas because, upon reflection, they are not original enough.

On the other hand, it seems to me that at least some originality is essential if one does not wish to write music that sounds like somebody else's. As with so many other things in life, it comes down to a question of balance.

And so, to answer the question posed in today's blog entry, originality (by which I mean the quality of uniqueness, being significantly unlike anything else that exists) can indeed be a detriment in art if one of the goals of the artist is to express something that others can understand. In spite of this, it is an essential aspect of art. Perhaps it can be said that a little goes a long way, but too little goes nowhere at all!


Justin Guzzwell said...

What young, upcoming composer/musician doesn't want to be original? At least in some sense of the word. But I do agree, being too concerned with this can be crippling. I know from my own experiences that when I set out to be as original as possible, I tend to ignore any tools or techniques I have for writing music. As a resul, I frequently find myself in a void, without any reference as to what it is I am trying to create. In the past year or so I have really thrown myself back to my musical roots when writing music (mostly when I'm writing pop or rock music), because though I would like to do something creative and original, I've got to give myself boundaries; I'm not talking about writing music that explores and exposes the limits of sounds, I'm talking about good old, catchy, dancy, sing alongy, rock and pop music. After all, people don't want their minds to be blown all the time, do they? Do I?

This however DOES seem to be a huge problem for me when composing. When writing my piece for the ECM reading, I felt that it was my duty as a student of the school of music at MUN to do something outlandishly original, and as a result I was consistently unhappy with my work. So, I took a step back and starting doing some things that were more conventional. I can't say I am totally happy with what I created, as my approach changed so drastically about half way through the writing process. But I did learn that being too concerned with the outcome of a piece, and its' originality, can be detrimental, and extremely discouraging to an artist.

David said...

I often feel conflicted on this topic. I don't want to create music that is bland or predictable but at the same time I want to reach people with it and have it convey to them the sentiment(s) that I am going for with the piece. That was sort of the reason why I chose to write my latest piece in a more tonal and generally accessible realm. It was a sort of experiment to see if I could stay in a tonal sort of realm but still be inventive. I like to put limits on myself from time to time as I find it helps me to think in different ways creatively. It is a very difficult balance to achieve to have just the right amount of originality but still making it within the realm of general understanding. Personally, I know that I want my music to be able to reach anyone but I don't want to get boxed in either. I still have some searching to do for my musical voice but I guess that takes a long time. Perhaps I should check the crisper droor.

Aiden Hartery said...

Like Dave, I too feel lopsided with the topic of being original.
With my most recent compositions: The ECM piece and my trombone quartet, I've tried to take my writing to "the next level"...something a little more complex and intricate than I had tried in the past. I tried to focus my mind to more specific ways of writing: Motive development and shifting tonality, respectively.
In the process, I have been more concerned with my originality. On top of that, I was also wondering if anyone would like it as a result of my originality...
I wanted to be as original as I could, but was I willing to take it so far that I would not care if everyone would hate besides myself? Uncompromising my devotion to my art at the price of approval of the public??

I believe that I want to be as fresh and new as I can, but also try to relate my own feelings towards music with the outside. I want people to get it, and not just sit there rolling their eyes while my hard work gets whooshed over their heads.

Finding the right balance between originality and ... whatever that other thing is... is quite a difficult task.... much harder than I thought it would be, that's for sure.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

On the topic of originality, I believe that composers would do well to learn from writers of prose. Stories have been around since ancient times in various forms. With very few exceptions, they all share some important elements: characters, conflict, resolution, etc. Stories even frequently share enough elements to be grouped into genres. And yet, people haven't stopped writing novels because it's been done before. “Original” stories are told all the time, new tales that nonetheless draw on the success of their predecessors. New stories are written through creating new ideas, not new language.
I would say that copying work, either directly or with minor differences, results in inferior music. But to use the conventions that have resulted in beautiful and moving compositions in the past is not "unoriginal". I believe originality is about the creation of something that does not yet exist, not the creation of something with no relation to that which exists. The pressure on artists to be iconoclasts traps them into writing music that struggles to communicate meaning, and makes composition about the composer rather than the music. The music should come first, before the composer and their own attachment to being unique. The history of music has been to build on and develop the traditions of our predecessors, not to eliminate them, and this approach has given us a wealth of varied music and permitted the best composers to attain mastery. I would prefer this to “originality” any day.

Flutiano said...

My reaction to the title of this blog post was, no. Originality is not a detriment in art. All of the great composers were original in their works. Most of the time that was in minor elements, like Beethoven writing expansive codas in his sonata-form pieces. I would say that it is the opposite; complete lack of originality is a detriment in art.

However, the post itself poses a bit of a different question. In the post, the doubt that originality matters does not exist; instead of answering the question as I read it (quite literally). I fully agree that striving to be highly innovative while composing can be counterproductive. I want to create music that is interesting and engaging. I am not particularly concerned with being overly innovative. Part of the reason for that is that I think that a high level of compositional skill is required in order to pull off something extremely unique and have it meaningful for performers and audiences. Another part of the reason that I don't worry too much about my output being highly creative and innovative is that I have great love and respect for the classical music tradition that I am a part of, and like the idea that my music is in some way connected to this canon.