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On influence

Written: November 10, 2003

The question of influence is a subtle one. Obviously, one can’t help but be influenced by what one experiences, whether positively or negatively. For me, there are influences I consciously follow, and those which inform my music without me noticing until much, much later. I was recently thinking of my Lightning Fields, which I wrote four years ago, and suddenly realized that it was very strongly influenced by a song by Tori Amos and Gustav Holst’s most famous work – on top of the influences I knew were there as I wrote the piece.

I mention this partly because it seems as if we artists are not supposed to openly acknowledge that our works draw from others’, as we’re expected to act as if our work exists in a vacuum, devoid of knowledge of anything else. Composers rarely mention their creative debts in program notes, no matter how obvious they may be – or how critical to understanding the piece.

A friend of mine (who is an aspiring poet, among many other things) made what I feel is a salient point, that often we refuse to acknowledge our influences, even to ourselves, to prevent our work from being compared to those influences, not only for fear that our work will be found wanting, but for fear that one’s own work will never be considered to stand on its own.

Being a perverse man, I myself have written pieces that are (or even try to be) nothing but influences, most obviously my Cobralingus: Bach Phase, which is a combination of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, J.S. Bach’s “Prelude in C” from the W-TC, Book I, an idea I stole from a friend (with his blessing), and almost nothing else. Almost. How much credit, then, do I deserve for creating the piece, if I only made about five decisions? Is the question of who gets credit even important unless you’re engaged in some sort of musico-historical pissing contest?

These ramblings bring up the question of, what makes something ‘original’ and ‘new’? I think, possibly arrogantly, that nothing like Bach Phase has ever existed before. Yet it’s comprised entirely of things that were made by other people. Whose is it? Is it original or is it derivative? Is it some of both? Is that dichotomy false?

I would argue that new combinations of ideas constitute something new in and of themselves, regardless of the fact that their components existed beforehand. I don’t know that that’s very satisfying, though.