Challenging conceptions

On to the first chapter of Burnard’s book (2012). ‘For most of us, ‘musicla creativity’ refers to a particular type of practice, perhaps that of the Great Composers’, rather than to multiple possibilities’ (7) strikes me as odd as I have never considered that to be the case, and wonder where such a claim comes from. Certainly Burnard sees pressure from policy makers, particular in education as ‘governments and industries are not only telling artists and educators what they do but also prescribing the terms in which they should think and the ideals towards which they should aspire to in their creative practices’ (7). I can see that my own idea of musical creativity has not doubt been shaped by the policies which inform my teaching but nevertheless my own experiences as a musician and composer – diverse and encompassing western and non-western traditions – mean I have a rather liberal idea of what musical creativity is. Hopefully by the end of the book I might be able to articulate it in words. Perhaps there can never be a definition that fits all, but Burnard cites Merker (2006) in saying that he differentiates different musical practices by ‘whether there are musical constraints on musical creativity’ (7). It all feels a bit like this book is catching up with musicology, where I am certain in the last twenty years there has been a shift away from the singular composer-genius. I shouldn’t make generalisations,however, without evidence.

‘Musical creativity remains deeply linked to the ideal of individual heroism, of the Great Composers’ individual genius. Historically, composers are described as mystical, elusive, with inaccessible dispositions that bring new, reproducible pieces into existence.’ (8) This is the exact stereotype I try to dispel in my own teaching, and encourage students not to be willed into thinking that these were people of extra-human powers. I remind them, as Burnard writes, that ‘the Great Composers created works that were situated in and determined by a complex of social and ideological structures’ (9) in that they had to eat! They had to earn money and consequently much of their musical endeavour was to satisfying the needs of their employment. This is not to diminish the works as anything other than ‘art’ but it does make me smile how much the classical music museum culture propels works that had little significance or a different use at the point of creation compared with their performance in recent years. Sting recording an album of Dowland’s lute songs, for example, is fascinating. I value the fact compositions can be re-created in a multitude of ways and they are not always bound to be created in identical circumstances.

The idea all composers are chasing originality, Burnard suggests, intrigues me. I do often try and seek originality but often with reference to my own works – trying not to repeat something I have done before. I can never be in possession of all the music that exists in the world to the point where I can ensure fully I am not repeating a compositional idea that has already existed. Chasing originality is a futile concept but I agree with Burnard that ‘the ideal of originality had an impact on how composers viewed their compositional procedures, encouraging them, for example, to dispense with rule-following models’ (9). I think there is a slight error thinking composers followed rules – I would rather think composers instinctively adopted models of good taste as that is what their audience desired. Deviations from these models were what gave the audience sufficient intrigue to propel their interest through the whole piece. Many of these ‘rules’ were noted after the fact I imagine, though I feel slightly compelled to explore the history of music theory through composition treatises now…

‘The Romantic legacy of Beethoven was to have a massive impact in securing the mythical cult of the genius in which composers became enmeshed; and this expressive aesthetic of originality and authenticity has remained centre stage. It is this formulation of musical creativity that has become fixed in the musicological ideology of Western ‘art’ music’ (9). I really don’t think this myth still exists – not in musicology but I can see how it exists in how arts marketers present repertoire in concerts through their programming and notes. Again I can something of an interesting study comparing programme notes of the same piece, charting its transformation across a century of performances and seeing how much marketing of music has changed. It is interesting to look at posters for concerts, seeing who takes centre stage in terms of the photo or the size of the typeface for their name – conductor, composer or performer.

‘The sacred and fetishised concept of ‘composition’ is as far removed from most of the world’s traditional music as it is from globally spatialized, internet forms, both of which were not originated through formal acts of composition. In order to demythologize the scholary rhetoric, we need to recognize that it is a human construction, a product of culture, and accordingly varies from time to time and from place to place’ (10). This kind of statement reminds me of how those who create performances of classical music is less conventional spaces; they need to further the stereotype of the old ‘twin-set and pearls’ classical music concert go-er to promote the supposed uniqueness of their concerts. I am not sure if such fetishisation is still continuing with composers – maybe it is and I am not privy to it – but I think artists are increasingly aware of how their work interfaces with the culture and society within which they exist. What is wrong, though, with western art music being far removed from traditional music, non-western music and other forms of ‘internet’ music? Why is this presented as a negative thing?

It is good to read that a definition of musical creativity needs to acknowledge the diversity of musical genres present today, as well as the spectrum of how this creativity interfaces with the listener; internet, live performance, festivals etc. all provide vehicles for delivering creative endeavours. It is important to recognize, as Burnard points out, that creative practices rarely involve individuals but are collective endeavours. Performers, producers, composers and listeners (and others) have a role to play in the creation of musical works that are but the beginning of a creative process. Composers do not create works, the create the instructions for performers to actualise an attempt to organise sounds that really do not exist until they interact with a listener. Scores are not ‘music’ – I always tell my classes this as. If anything is fetishised it is the score.

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