A few months ago, I watched School of Rock for the first time. In the movie, Jack Black’s character explains to the school children, “The first thing you do when you start a band is talk about your influences. That’s how you figure out what kind of band you want to be.”
Things aren’t as simple in the contemporary music world. In one corner, we have the ever pugnacious Pierre Boulez: “All kinds of references, for me are absolutely useless. If I want to be myself, I don’t need references. I want to be myself. Period.”
In the other corner, Alexander Goehr: “Early on I was influenced by something that Boulez said to me, which had an enormous effect on me in an exactly inverse way to what he intended. He was looking at a piece of mine, and he pointed out that at one point I’d reached a kind of dominant seventh, which, he said, created a false kind of tonal anticipation. Because of the wrong accidentals, I’d not realized this. . . . You come across such moments coincidentally, in the part-writing, and I’ve always regarded them as God’s gifts. If I hear a quote from the Ring, or Janáček, I don’t want to cut it out, as Boulez does: no, I want to keep it, and develop it.”
These divergent attitudes give a good overview of a persistent artistic question: Does being original mean doing things no one has done before? Or is the Preacher right that “there is no new thing under the sun,” thus making originality the way an artist makes old things new?
To me, the devotion of composers such as Pierre Boulez and Morton Feldman to stylistic purity strikes me as misplaced. Despite their claims to the contrary, I’m skeptical that non-referentiality is even possible. I think Harrison Birtwistle said it best, “After all, we all come from somewhere: we don’t invent it for ourselves; we don’t come from the moon.”