Who Will Cast the First Stone Against John Williams?

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:

Pitch universes:
-tonality (traditional and other forms of pitch centering)
-modality
-synthetic scales
-“free” atonality
-microtones
-bi/poly-tonality
-pandiatonicism

Rhythmic usages:
-mixed meters
-polymeters
-no meters
-unusual subdivisions

Formal schemes:
-rondo, sonata, unitary, binary, ternary, through-composed…

Elemental organizations:
-serialism
-improvised/chance methods

Timbral effects:
-multiphonics
-flutter tongue
-plucking, bowing in unusual spots
-vocalizations

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.

 

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9 thoughts on “Who Will Cast the First Stone Against John Williams?

  1. Interesting comments. My high school band director boldly claimed one day that musicians were thieves! Three schools in our district had a “run- on” that their marching band did and all directors were from San Jose State. We as students were moaning about how they “stole” our thing- probably the other school’s students were saying the same thing too.
    I have always point out to general music classes that composers hear other forms of music by other composers and fit what they have heard into their own music. This concept has worked for me, for years and kept students engaged. I did a lesson “Romantic to Williams” in front of my principal and he was astonished.
    D. Moore

  2. Postmodernism is old hat. We’re beyond that. So is fusion. Your list isn’t exhaustive but it’s also not comprehensive. The quest for originality is pointless because it focuses on the composer as creator-innovator, not as explorer-discoverer (which is the true role). Even in the last decade we’ve heard music that stands as a new, definitive style. If music being derivative is the issue, then consider that all music is born of the music that came before it. All. The very notion that someone can “steal” your music infers that you own the music.

    Joe Public expects “new” work, and loves “the creator”, but can’t necessarily identify a copy so doesn’t bat an eye at it. I’ve not heard Williams criticised for plagiarism, though. Zimmer, on the other hand, has been sued for plagiarist methods. There’s a difference between reference/tribute/homage and making money by claiming ownership. That’s what ownership and the quest for originally are really driven by – the lust for money & adoration.

    Move from acting as creator to acting as explorer and you’ll find new things appear of their own volition.

    1. I don’t necessarily disagree with your views (and neither does the thesis of my article for that matter). I hold that the “explorer/discoverer” role you describe is exactly the embodiment of the new postmodern zeitgeist for the artist. Since “creator/innovator” is no longer practical (the bailiwick of the modernist age, really) we’re now charged with finding new things to say with the tools that have already been forged for us.

      You mention music in the last decade being definitively “new.” In what sense is it something that hasn’t, broadly speaking, been pioneered? In any case, I would be curious to know what pieces you’re referring to.

  3. My (major) point was questioning whether questioning originality is even worthwhile, or if it ever was. The popularist ideal of the creator-artist has long been a fallacious one, but it endures (particularly in the West). The explorer/discoverer has always been the actual role. Everything is pioneered and has its origins somewhere. Everything. The presentation of that truism as an idea or ‘thesis’ for consideration is what had my eyebrow raised. My other point was that postmodernism is not a new perspective/philosophy/movement. You’re at least 60 years off the mark there. It remains contemporary but only barely. Electric guitars were used alongside symphonies in the late 1960s. (Postmodernism is also, incidentally, far more complex than the basic idea of incorporating or referencing ‘other’ or historical material.)

    I didn’t say that the music is definitively new,but, rather, that new definitive styles (i.e. definitions of form, method, content, etc. which are consistent enough to categorise and identify a piece music) have emerged. For example: dubstep. Like everything, it has its origins and pioneers in previous styles (2-step, garage, breakbeat) but is the result is consistent, and different, enough to warrant its recognition as a new, definitive style. I do get the sense that you are particularly concerned with serious/art/concert music (a rather pre-postmodern position, if you ask me), and in that regard I can only suggest that the field of contemporary composition is no longer accessible or consistent enough within its own arena for anything new to emerge and find momentum. But, again, that has never actually been the goal…

    1. I see what you mean now and I think we’re mostly in agreement. Perhaps I wasn’t being too clear myself, and, if that’s the case, I apologize.

      I didn’t mean to represent postmodernism as “new” (nor the illustrations I gave). It’s simply presented here as the reality in which we find ourselves. (The article is aimed primarily at folks who might not have been aware of this trend in the arts).

      You’re right also that the public may not suspect that any of this is occurring (seems new so it must be…) and that it may not be all that important to them. I offer it for edification. I think a better-educated audience is a boon for all of us.

  4. Brandon,

    I just stumbled upon this post/discussion via LinkedIn. It’s great to see young composers such as yourself reflecting in this way. There’s a very healthy, ongoing process of revelation and exploration a composer goes through in trying to determine his/her compositional “voice” against the context of music history and aesthetic movements. Straightshooter has a point about us being past Postmodernism (maybe this is Post-Post-modern America?), but your point is well-taken.

    As to the question in the title of your post, and this may sound hyperbolic but I’ll say it anyway since I’ve written about it before, I think it would be hard to point to a composer who is any closer to the J.S. Bach of our age than John Williams. I could defend this argument in many ways, but here I’ll just mention that Williams, like Bach, isn’t so much an innovator as someone who has summarized and synthesized the musical currents of his time at their artistic epitome and in a musical language that is easy to recognize as his own. It’s unlikely that many composers of our day will be celebrated as “masters” in 250 years as Bach is today, but if I had to pin my bet on one composer and one composer only, in my humble opinion there’s no one who even comes close to fitting that bill the way Williams does.

    I occasionally hear criticism about being derivative pointed at film composers in general, of whom Williams may be the foremost representative, but honestly anyone who tries to go down that road and actually investigates his music must realize that there’s so much more to his music in toto – either that or their definition of art music is so narrow that no rational argument would ever pull their head out of the small aesthetic realm of sand it’s in 🙂

    Best regards, Scott Watson

    1. Hi Scott!

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!

      I like your perspective about Bach and Williams. And it might be useful to point out that Bach wasn’t really celebrated as a composer until a century after his death. Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have until we have some perspective on it.

      -BN

      1. Yes, Brandon, and that is a departure from the analogy I’ve made between Bach and Williams to be sure. Despite the world of Western music being much smaller geographically back then, it was much larger in terms of modes of communication. Despite that, Bach did have somewhat of a reputation in his lifetime as a fine organist and singularly talented improvisor. I describe Bach’s interaction with this world in the “Musical Offering” episode of my podcast, WHAT MUSIC MEANS TO ME – found here:
        http://whatmusicmeans.podomatic.com/player/web/2012-06-25T17_43_24-07_00

        If you have the opportunity to listen, I hope you enjoy!

        Scott

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