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A Question of Originality

PostPosted: Sat Oct 01, 2005 9:20 am
by howard male
What is originality? Well it's certainly not an absolute. The completely original piece of music cannot exist. For even when the modern classical composer decides to do away with harmony, melody, consistent rhythm and so on, he/she ends up producing something which, arguably, isn't music. And something which has been done before repeatedly for the last half a century, proving to be a dead-end for classical music.

So originality in music has to be an incremental thing. A gradual and natural adding on, to what has gone before. For example, if we think of the development of music in Jamaica is the equivalent to watching one of those CGI films of a sea creature evolving into a land animal. It is hard to see how one became the other without all the intermediary stages. Pre-ska Jamaican music was a rolling mix of trad jazz (listen to that bassline's circular assent and decent) and early R & B. Then the guitar started to punctuate rather than just strum, and at some point the sound became distinctively ska. Rocksteady was slowed-down ska, with cleaner, simpler arrangements, and then dub was a further stripping-down and expanding, just as those fins on our sea creature slowly changed into legs. A quantum leap from ska to dub would be unimaginable, in fact impossible without this slow, unforced metamorphosing.

Originality is a long hard climb to an unknown, unknowable summit. Each artist makes their modest contribution and the next one comes along, borrows or steals (depending on who their lawyer is) what he/she needs from the last, and adds their own character. The summit is never reached but the will to reach it remains with each original artist who comes along and makes their modest contribution.

I was inspired to write this piece when Eno played the enigmatic Books on CG's show a month or two ago. Ostensibly you couldn't have a more original sounding band. As Eno said - every track of theirs explores another avenue of sonic investigation. But their shaky harmonies and melodic character also echo Simon and Garfunkle; their ethereal chord sequences have the fragrance of sixties west coast hippydom, and the use of spoken-word samples has a long and distinguished history back to Eno himself and beyond. But because the Books are such thoughtful and competent studio technicians with a clear understanding of their own music in a wider context, they can assemble their musical collages with a combination of post-modern irony and emotional surefootedness. In other words their songs have heart as well as intellectual substance. Another favourite non-world music band of mine, Califone, also have one foot planted firmly in the past and the other stepping forth into unknown territories. It's unfortunate that these days such bands are destined to remain on the peripheral.

Young music fans and old radio stations don't have the same appetite for the original as they used to. Young bands - simply as a bi-product of their youth - are influenced by the last boy band they heard, rather than the band a thousand fallen dominoes away - the band the whole thing began with. So their music is a dilution of a dilution of a dilution. A faded facsimile of a distant truth. There is nothing truly explosive or revelatory about their music simply because it is a distant dying echo of Little Richard or Keith Richards.

But originality isn't everything. To coin a song title: 'it's not what you do, it's the way that you do it.' And to add to that refrain: 'it's not what you do, it's the way that you do it - and when you do it.'

So once again we come around to world music. Jonathan Ross is rightfully under fire at the moment on this forum. But some explanation to his (and many peoples) doubts about world music, could be heard in a throwaway comment on his Radio show a few weeks back. He said that he liked a certain contemporary band because, "I don't have to go outside my comfort zone" to appreciate them. That said it all for me. Music for most people, even ex-punk rockers like Ross, is a balm or a nostalgia trip.

Now I like my comfort zones as much as the next man. A familiar armchair, a cup of tea, a favourite TV show - they're all important to me. But with music it's different. And I imagine it's the case for most you reading this.

For the counter-force to artist adventurousness is public reticence and conservatism. This is another factor which prevents the quantum leaps in music happening. The musical innovator often has to wait years for their time to come - the time when Joe Public is ready for them. What most of us want from the music we love, is a cocktail of the familiar and the unfamiliar- we need to know where we are, but not necessarily where we're going - as long where we end up is somewhere good. But the familiar/unfamiliar ratio does vary from person to person. My sister likes her musical cocktail to be nine parts familiar to one part unfamiliar. My mother likes music to be ten parts familiar to no parts unfamiliar, and I like music to be...let's think...maybe seven parts unfamiliar to three parts familiar - with not too much ice.

The only area of music where you can always be sure of hearing something you've never heard before; where adventurousness isn't an intellectual exercise by a band who playing to 30 people at the ICA, is world music. It's instead - and more excitingly - originality as an accidental result of musicians from different cultures playing together and evolving a new sound. Or it's 'original' simply because we, in our insular little country, simply haven't heard it before.

As I've already rambled on at some length, I won't go into the more regularly discussed aspects of originality, such as the use of sampling in music. But if anyone else wants to take up the baton and widen the debate, let's have it.

PostPosted: Sat Oct 01, 2005 6:52 pm
by Tom McPhillips
my daughter has me pigeonholed "Uneasy Listening" she calls it - "Eventually I'll like what you play, but it's a lot of work" -- My wife on the other hand regards my taste in music a result of my tin ears - "you're much more tolerant of (what she calls) "unmusical music" because you aren't as bothered by the disharmonies"...

Some years ago I made a vow that since life's so short I wasn't going to listen to undemanding music and I was only going to read books that had literary merit. Well the road to mediocratic miasma is mined with better intentions, and my way is still muddy with miasma. Ater a long days night I still reach for the latest Kurt Wallender mystery, and soak my ears in Dimanche a Bamako which is after all, easy listening in another language... Well I never said it was a perfect pitch...

So is my love of "different" music just the result of impoverished genetic hand-me-down?

(I'll take that straight up no ice and in a really well designed glass please)

And as for originality? I'll settle for "different"...

And once again Howard - a fine example of what you do best... get us thinking!