Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Death To Originality

(For its own sake)

Those who know me personally may find such an injunction coming from me to be either ironic or crazy – I don't consider myself particularly original, but many who know me do in fact find me unconventional, even uncomfortably so. My two-part heading may be taken either to mean a) that one should not try to be original simply for the sake of being original, or b) that originality itself must perhaps not even be attempted, lest something inferior result from the attempt.

I've been stewing in this juice all day, ever since I traced it to my bungled attempt to play a particular guitar figure correctly in church this morning. By 'correctly' I mean duplicating the intro as played on the original recording of the song we were playing. The intro in question consists of playing a simple eighth note pattern against a triplet echo produced by a black box at my feet. The result is the same sort of figure heard in a song like 'Where the Streets Have No Name' by U2 or GNR's 'Welcome To The Jungle, the kind of thing I've been playing ever since Barrett Golding gave me my first digital delay line thirty years ago. But the song in question has an intro whose note sequence bears only a shadowy relationship to the song's actual harmonic content. Hearing it would cause any listener to expect the song that follows to be in the key of 'F', not the key of 'C' the rest of the song is actually in. (You may not even know what I mean by 'key', but you would nonetheless be adrift until the vocal comes in and establishes what's really going on.)

Sounds like I'm whining, doesn't it? Well, if you don't read certain Psalms because they're “whiny”, then you needn't read this either. Still, I should have immersed myself in listening to this well-recorded, well-played bit of musical disinformation instead of listening to Frank Zappa while I cleaned the kitchen, right? (Frank himself would have something to say about that.) Should have practiced it instead of going to Barrett's barbecue? Well, that might have counteracted the lackluster intro I played today, which I attributed to a) having a cold, which always affects my ability to do anything right, even if it's easy, and b) the part's inherent semi-musicality.

I'm so unoriginal that I'm going to pass the pen to C. S. Lewis for a minute, since, if I've ever been guilty of letting someone do my thinking for me, then he's the one I trust to do so:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

“Well, that's alright for him,” someone may say. “He's already original to begin with!” Well, yes. (He was also one of the best-read men in England.) Having an imagination is one thing, but as soon as I start thinking about my imagination, I run out of ideas. So rather than bore you, I'll try to make my point and let you get back to whatever it was.

Originality is almost universally hailed as a virtue. And so it is. When a creative work takes us to new territory, challenges our preconceived notions and opens our eyes to new possibilities or shows us timeless truths in a new light, then originality becomes the unobtrusive servant of art. But even the most startling originality in the arts can nearly always be found to have deep roots in its medium's storied past. Pablo Picasso leaps to mind.

It's almost cheating to cite Picasso, but nowhere is there a better example of what I'm trying to say. For many, Picasso is nearly the only 20th century artist they can even name, let alone describe. His pioneering work in Cubism, collage and sculpture are among the most easily identified departures from the status quo during the 20th century, and their fragmentation of conventional visual themes virtually defines the word “original”, as though it all sprang without warning or precedent from the mind, heart and hands of one Spaniard. Which it didn't.

Those for whom the name “Picasso” only conjures mental images of people and objects with noses and eyes in the wrong places or pointed in wrong directions are usually ignorant of his earlier works, in which people and things are treated very realistically  . He didn't break the rules until he knew them, and then not until it was time to do so. He earned the right to innovate, which he did gradually. But even his innovations, from Modernism to his fabled 'Blue Period' to Cubism andy beyond, had roots. The Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco influenced him, as did African tribal masks and sculpture. I feel like I've already opened Pandora's can of wasp worms by dragging Picasso into our discussion, but I hope I've made my point. His influences are too many and varied to be ignored, but, filtered through the Picasso grid, they combine, crossbreed, tangle and weave into a body of work that has brought boundless vitality and joy to each new generation that discovers it.

What does this mean for the contemporary artist, musician, dancer, writer or filmmaker? I hope it means that doing good work comes to be more important than reinventing the wheel. This came home to me several years ago when I was playing bass in my church, with a drummer whose traditional vocabulary seemed quite limited, but who nonetheless seemed determined to jettison what little he had. Instead of keeping time on the ride cymbal or hi hat (two instruments, BTW, that have lent themselves to daring innovation by many great drummers from Tony Williams to Travis Barker), he tended to wander off into attempts to change it up by tapping his sticks on the rims or shells of the toms. That itself has been a useful technique for occasional use by great drummers, but in our context it only served a) to call undue attention to itself, and b) to make me (and probably others) long for a regular, solid rock drum groove that would give the song, the congregation and the band the foundation we needed to drive the message home. There's a REASON that you only seldom hear that sort of thing. Why drive a nail with flashlight when there's a hammer nearby?

I also had a very dear friend years ago who was a very skilled electric bassist, and had been regularly performed this gig with a nationally known Christian artist. But, once free of her constraints (it was children's music), he decided that his mission was to to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. Now, if you'll scroll down a bit you'll see my essay, “How Low Should You Go?”, in which I try to make the case for the bassist's job being that of making sure everyone else sounds good. My friend cared little or nothing for that – every constraint was to be thrown off, every note tried, every musical style explored, whether in or out of its natural context. I love salsa bass lines (more correctly, the tumbao pattern that helps define much afro-latin music), but not so much when it doesn't correspond to the rock groove the rest of us are playing.

Musical styles are indeed born of cross-pollination – reggae, latin jazz, highlife, western swing, none of these genres could have been born in a vacuum. Curiously enough, though, they are not the results of somebody's attempt to be original. They are, in fact, the results of the time-honored musical practice of stea . . . um, borrowing from other musical traditions. Many years ago in China I was mesmerized by the background music accompanying a Chinese acrobatic routine – someone was playing some plaintive, Chinese melodies on a notch-position Stratocaster. (The same sound you hear on 'Sweet Home Alabama' or 'Sultans of Swing'.) The result was somehow ancient and hip at the same time. Alas, I had no tape recorder with me at the time. (I have since made it a point always to bring a recording device to any country I visit.)

Chances are, your favorite music and songs are likewise Frankenstein'd together from the artiste's collective musical background. One need look no further than The Beatles to see how this can work. And while the Beatles were purposeful in their creativity, the latter was mainly the result of their simply trying to create good music with the resources at hand.

And then there's Christian worship music. How often do I go into a situation where the drummer has taken what would have been a good hi hat groove and instead transferred it to the bass drum for 64 measures, where it fascinates those whose idea of classic rock is 90's worship music, but for us old-school curmudgeons only points up the song's lack of craftsmanship? If the song is good enough, you don't have to do screwy things to the drum part to compensate for shoddy songwriting.

I'm not being completely fair. Some of these songs are reasonably well written, and as such would be at home in multiple musical genres. My old friend Karen Lafferty's standard “Seek Ye First” has thrived in classical, death metal, bluegrass, electronica and bebop settings. (I'm afraid to ask her what other styles the song has sported.) She wasn't trying to be original, she was simply expressing musically what she felt God wanted her to express. The result? Millions of people worldwide hiding the words of Christ (Matthew 6:33) in their hearts, in whatever musical heart language they love best.

Well, that paragraph didn't help me to be any more fair to anyone, so I shall instead apologize to those who may have been offended (at least I didn't name any song titles, in order to protect the guilty.) Please, feel free to innovate. Just remember, though, that innovation means begging, borrowing and stealing creative ideas anywhere an everywhere you can find them. And hopefully becoming as knowledgable about them as you can. Then “you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”