It’s not uncommon to hear people say (and maybe you’re one of them) “oh, that [John Williams/other famous composer] is so unorignial! He just steals from other composers!”
I have a dirty little secret: we all do in some way.
Does that make us all hacks and charlatans? Hardly.
The reality is, there simply isn’t anything genuinely “new” left. Any possible way you can think of to deploy musical sounds has already been thought of in some manner:
-tonality (traditional and other forms of pitch centering)
-rondo, sonata, unitary, binary, ternary, through-composed…
-plucking, bowing in unusual spots
Broad style movements/methods:
-electronic/computer manipulation, pointilism, klangfahrben, minimalism, avant garde “anti-music”
Nothing above (a comprehensive though not exhaustive list) is “novel” anymore.
This all brings us to a rather daunting question: if there’s nothing new under the sun, should composers (and other artists) just give up? I reassure you the answer is “no,” however it will require that you rethink your notion of what “originality” means and the value you place on it.
We live in an age that is known as “postmodern.” Broadly speaking, this means the artist now has totally free reign. Since there are no new styles, there are all styles. We are not locked into whatever school happens to be in fashion as composers were in the past. For instance, Bach had a relatively small menu of well-defined options with which to work (forms, tonal universe, styles), whereas today, there is, for better or worse, no such guidance; the composer must create a new universe with each new piece.
But since there’s nothing “new,” how do we do this without simply echoing the past?
The key concept is “novel combination.”
Neoclassicism is one prime example of this. Here we take forms and styles that are well-worn but we put a new “spin” on them somehow. Perhaps we will write a minuet (which is a dance form popular in the classical period) but we will use jazz-influenced harmonies (which are much newer), or maybe we will use serial techniques.
The point illustrated here is that “novel combination”: minuet is not “innovative” in itself; nor are jazz harmonies or serial techniques. But putting them together can make us experience those things in fresh ways.
There are other ways to utilise the past to create new expressions. Quotation is popular: taking literal excerpts from past music and couching them in a new context. Charles Ives was a fan of this method. He would often take traditional hymn tunes or folk songs and put them in decidedly “modern” frameworks to make an (often ironic) statement.
There are still other composers today who try to more literally recreate the past. For example, they will compose a minuet using the traditional harmonies and idiomatic styles. It is possible, as they believe, that there are still more things to “say” with the old techniques.
Another postmodern compositional method is borrowing from popular or “non-art” idioms. A symphony for electric guitar which uses and builds upon hard rock sounds….
We come back to our point about origniality. Should one still say John Williams is a thief undeserving of our respect? I don’t think so. He lives and works within a postmodern creative world, as all of us do. So our ultimate test of a composition’s quality should always be this: did the piece of music move us in some way? Did it have something to say to us?
That a piece of music is completely “novel,” then, isn’t all that important. Since we’ve seen that true novelty isn’t even possible, we must judge each piece anew for its sincerity, integrity, craftsmanship…its soul.