Music Innovation vs Music Perfection

I think in 21st century terms. My music is 21st century music.
But am I an innovator or a perfecter of the art form?

There is an interesting anomaly in the way humans think. Concepts we consider common-place are actually elements we have been developing over centuries of thinkers and provocative thought. For example, personal faith, the concept of GOD as an individual communicator has it's roots in the Confessions of St Augustine. The very way he describes his personal relationship with GOD is unique in world literature, yet paved the way for massive tomes on the topic.

Before you get too incensed feeling as though you have always had a personal relationship with GOD and have never read the writings of St Augustine, this example is based how humans transmit concepts from one to another. Someone comes up with an original thought (rare, but it does happen), and they write it down. Someone else reads the thought, causing them to ponder and eventually accept the concept. They then write something extrapolating on the idea. Before you know it, the idea has been read and discussed by thousands (or millions) of people and is generally considered accepted practice or common-sense. So, before St Augustine wrote down his confessions, people might have had a concept of a personal relationship with GOD, but it wasn't common-place. However, the concept in the Confessions seemed so natural that now practically everyone feels as though their relationship with GOD is a personal one. The concept has been transmitted through the ages to become common-place.

Literature has similar examples. Fantasy was pretty much an unknown genre until Tolkien wrote "Lord of the Rings." JRR Tolkein didn't invent elves, or wizards, but what he did with his book was innovate a genre that is now a huge portion of modern fiction. IMHO it isn't the best example of fiction writing. Many authors have come along and written better fantasy books, but Tolkien will justifiably live on as the Father of the genre. Now, Young Adult fiction is all the rage. Before JK Rowling, it was a small segment of the literary world, a sort of bastard step-child to "real" literature. But "Harry Potter" showed what it could really do in terms of popularity and earning potential. Rowling perfected the art form.

What of music -who are the innovators and who are the perfecters? Some anonymous composer decided to write two melodies in harmony way back in the early days of written music. Someone else decided to add a third line, a fourth. Some of these composers, like Machaut, wrote in this new style better than others. They weren't necessarily innovating a new concept - other composers were writing in the same style. What composers like Machaut did was write better than any else had ever done, thereby cementing the style.

One aspect of Machaut's music is the way he approaches a cadence, generally from oblique or opposite direction in the upper and lower voice. This is pretty common practice now taught as a "rule" in basic music theory. But in the 14th Century most composers approached from the same direction. Was Machaut an innovator? No, not really. There were other composers who did the same, just not nearly as well or as consistent.

Moving forward to J.S. Bach, plenty of composers wrote counterpoint, but Bach is considered the Master. Why? because he did it better than anyone else. He wasn't first (not by a long shot --he studied the same counterpoint book Mozart did to learn the technique). What Bach did was master it, to do it better than anyone else ever had. He set the bar.

Much the same can be said of Mozart. He didn't really write in a style different than his peers, but what he wrote was so much better that he stands out as the pinnacle of the classical music era. Haydn was an innovator, developing concepts like the Symphony and the string quartet. There were styles he borrowed from to create his ideas, but Haydn is considered the Father of these musical forms. Haydn was an innovator; Mozart was a perfecter.


So, let's move to the present day. There is a lot of talk in the classical music world about "moving music forward." Ok, we're talking about innovators. Schoenberg was an innovator; Cage was an innovator. These composers did things that created new concepts in musical thought, changing the way we think about music, sound and composition. What about John Adams or Philip Glass? Are they innovators or perfecters? I think they'd both like to consider themselves innovators, creating something new in the way we think about music. Certainly both were at the cutting edge of minimalist music, but is this really a new style or a perfecting of styles already in existence?

The concept of a ground bass, or a repetitive figure carrying through the music is nothing new. Listen to Pachelbel's Canon in D for perhaps the most famous example. What Glass and Adams have done is take this concept and extend it in new directions, creating new (yes, new) ways of thinking about it. But it is really just the same thing, reworked for a modern age. I believe both of these composers will be "remembered" by future generations, much like Bach and Mozart are remembered, as being examples of what great music can be.


Thinking about myself, I'm not an innovator. Maybe I have new ideas, but what I hear in my head isn't music I think is ground breaking. It isn't innovation like what the Second Viennese school accomplished in the early 20th century. However, I do strive to perfect what I'm hearing, pulling in concepts from various music worlds into a single piece, melding them into something better than what's been done before.

Yes, I believe there is room for innovators. The world needs to have new thoughts and ideas, to ponder them and then accept or reject them as we progress. But we also need perfecters, people who will take these ideas and really hone to them to show what they can be. Both have value, both can be remembered for what they bring to our world --art.


Susan Scheid said…
Chip: Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I wonder if the lines are as bright as you pose? Perhaps there are both small and large innovations, for example. As for the Second Viennese School, I can only say thank goodness music is no longer in their rigid grasp. While certainly they innovated, the total serialists, at least, innovated classical music right into an almost irrecoverable dead end (IMHO, anyway—though perhaps, come to think of it, the total serialists were not innovators, but perfecters??). The bottom line for me is this: I celebrate what you and all the marvelous and multi-varied composers out there today are doing: taking as inspiration from here, there, and everywhere, and creating beautiful, inspiring, exciting new music. I feel I am witness to a new golden age of musical innovation, of which you are a part. So, here’s to a wonderful new year of new music.
Chip Michael said…

Thanks for your comments.

YES, Absolutely there are shades amid the mix. According to Steven Berryman on Twitter, "there's effective... And less effective. There's less accomplished and skilful, inventive, imaginative..."

While I appreciate the innovation of the twelve-tone system, I find it interesting that nearly all composers who ventured down that road, ended up abandoning it for something less rigid. Still, the innovation has made a huge impact on the musical community --worth noting!

I think 2012 is going to be a GREAT year.


Popular posts from this blog

The Role of Music in Opera

16 Year Old Pianist Sophie Dee is Winner of Junior Guildhall Lutine Prize