The Perils and Potentials of Pastiche

When I was a young composer in high school, I thought the pinnacle of musical genius to aspire to, the composer to emulate and copy and write like, was Beethoven. I had a deep love also for Sibelius, and Liszt, and Dvorák, and sought to write music along their styles, too. Little did I realize as I was cutting my compositional teeth that I understood their music’s beauty, without understanding its importance.

It wasn’t until I got to college and had my first compositional tutoring session that my world collapsed. I proudly placed in front of my professor the culmination of my childhood work – a full-length orchestral symphony that could’ve been written by Schubert – and watched in mounting horror and deepening shame as he methodically tore it apart. It was, in a word, a pastiche.

I had never heard the term before, and had never been presented with its concept as a negative thing; I had never been exposed to the idea that imitating art is not in fact worthwhile, but instead misguided flattery and a twisting of influence into something derivative and necessarily ‘less-than’.

It crushed my spirit.

But from the ashes of my early compositions rose something far, far better, and I am to this day indebted to my early composition professor for what he taught me about originality. You see, I had been laboring for years under the impression that the best works of art I could create would be in the same style as my influences. It never occurred to me to think otherwise; after all, shouldn’t I be writing the music I wanted to hear? And if what I wanted to hear was Dvorák’s ‘New World’ symphony, then shouldn’t I rewrite it with my own notes?

What I learned instead was the ability to see a work of art for its context, and not just its enjoyability. The dissonances and unsettling cross-rhythms of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony are beautiful, uplifting and inspiring, yes – but they are far more important than that, because they represented a moment in musical history when people heard something they had never heard before. But Beethoven didn’t simply create a symphony that was entirely atonal or arhythmic; he wrapped these special moments in a musical tapestry that in other ways harkens back to Mozart, and Haydn, and Bach before them. It was new, but it wasn’t unfathomable.

And this is where I learned the difference between pastiche and originality. You see, I could write a symphony that would sound like Beethoven’s tenth … but why should I? Where’s the value in recreating something that won’t have sounded ‘new’ for 250 years?

Instead, I started working on a style all my own, borrowing from what I enjoyed in others’ music and molding it into a shape that was recognizable, yet (almost) entirely new. I wrote clarinet solos; I wrote elegies for voice and string quartet. I wrote a 14-minute musical essay on the canon form for full orchestra. (To this day this remains one of my favorite compositions.)

And this is something I’ve learned to translate from music into writing, as well. When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I more or less wanted to write a story that would read like Tolkien. I realize now that this was misguided (I have nowhere near the mastery of the English language to even place in the same league as Tolkien), and as the series has progressed, I feel I’ve begun to develop my own linguistic style.

When I wrote my young adult novel, 22 Scars, however, I refused to read anything in a similar genre. This story was important to me, and it was important that I write it in a way that really could only have come from me. With short, often incomplete sentences, multiple points of view, and little to no emotion in third-person scenes, I was able to create a literary world that (hopefully) embodies the spirit of numb depression, draws the reader in and puts them squarely in the shoes of a suicidally depressed teen with a tragic upbringing.

The tonal difference between The Redemption of Erâth and 22 Scars is distinct, to say the least; I suspect most people would not assume they were the work of the same author. But there’s a reason for that; the entire world of Erâth is derivative of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and so it makes sense that the tone of those stories would match. The world of 22 Scars, however, is bleak, numb, and highly personal – it is my world.

Now, this isn’t to say necessarily that all pastiche is worthless; I believe there is a value in being able to recreate the style of your favorite artists whilst recognizing that what you’re creating isn’t necessarily meant to stand on its own without context. For my second YA novel, The Broken, I needed to write a few songs to get in the heads of the band members described in the book. However, these songs would be from the early- to mid-nineties, and to write songs that I would write today wouldn’t have fit. Instead, I listened to a lot of Rage Against the Machine, Korn, and even through to System of a Down and Slipknot, and wrote five songs that, to my ear, could have been the bastard children of these bands.

If I were to write a soundtrack to a period film, I would want that soundtrack to sound like it came from that era. The same rules apply. I wouldn’t bill that soundtrack as art in its own regard, but rather to be considered against similar works of the era.

Ultimately, I think that there is a fine line between influence and pastiche. It’s fine to be influenced by other artists, but the moment what you create could have been made by that same artist, you’ve lost the most important thing in art: your own soul.

Movie Night: Beethoven Lives Upstairs

Year: 1992

Director: David Devine

Production Company: Devine Videoworks Production

Leads: Neil Munro, Illya Wolloshyn

Beethoven_Lives_UpstairsI had forgotten about this movie for so, so long; I can’t believe it’s been over 20 years! As a young classical music snob this was one of my favorite movies, and revisiting it now I can safely say it still is.

The plot is elegant and simple; young Christoph lives in Vienna with his recently widowed mother, and in order to make a living they rent out their upstairs room. It just so happens that their new lodger happens to be a rather well-known figure: Ludwig van Beethoven.

Predictably, Christoph hates Beethoven for taking his father’s place, and for desecrating his father’s study: in his constant madness and compositional furore, Beethoven writes music on any surface he can find – including the walls and the shutters.

Ah – the shutters. Well don’t worry, after I move you can sell them. I’ve heard they demand a good price.

Eventually though, he comes to understand the source of the man’s terrible frustration – to have such beautiful music to write, and be so totally unable to hear it. Christoph’s uncle Kurt helps him to learn the passion behind the man, and the terrible sadness and humiliation Beethoven lives with every single day. Gradually the two become ever closer, culminating in the hair-raising premier of his 9th symphony (one of the most glorious pieces of music ever penned). The triumph, of course, is made bittersweet by the knowledge that he was to die only three years later.

One of the best aspects of this film is that the score is entirely comprised of music by Beethoven – even the peddler and his monkey on the street corner! So great and varied was the output of Beethoven’s life that there was more than enough material to set the atmosphere of any setting, from overwhelming sadness (Allegretto from Symphony no. 7) to fury (Allegro con brio from Symphony no. 5), reminiscence (Für Elise) and light-hearted joviality (Menuet in G).

The performances are, in hindsight, less than perfect; Illya Woloshyn, in particular, feels like a by-rote actor. Neil Munro, however, is surprisingly excellent as the tempestuous and eccentric Beethoven, passing from raving lunacy to gentle tenderness and everything in between.

Little Satis enjoyed it, although I think I enjoyed it more; he very much likes Beethoven’s music (especially the 5th and 9th symphonies), and he certainly learned quite a few things about the man that he hadn’t known before. He gave it three stars, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to give it

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

There are many princes; there is only one Beethoven!

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Music I Love: “Symphony no. 5”, Ludwig van Beethoven (1808)

bee5_1_mThis is one my favorite works of music. Before you decry it as an obvious choice, let me point out that there is a lot more to this symphony than meets the ear. Aside from the obvious popularity of the opening movement, there is a lot to be enjoyed in the remaining three, including some musical moments that are, essentially, groundbreaking.

Nearly everything Ludwig van Beethoven composed is simply genius (I say nearly – I’m not all that fond of the cello sonatas), but in his early works he tends to stick to the tried and true forms of the classical era. He deviates, pushes the boundaries, but his first four symphonies, the multitude of piano sonatas, and even the violin concerto, still retain obvious and strong connections to the classical stoicism of the past.

So what makes the fifth symphony, written in 1808, so different? The first movement is in a nearly textbook sonata form; the second is a kind of theme and variation; the third a straight scherzo; the fourth a massive but unmistakable rondo. Structurally, there is little here to suggest anything that would upheave the musical dogma for everything to come.

Yet it’s usually accepted that Beethoven forms the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras; Mozart and Haydn before, Schubert and Mendelssohn after. But at what point can we say that Beethoven was a Romantic composer, and not a Classical one?

Often it’s considered the ninth symphony, with its sprawling themes and instrumental excess, but for me I feel like it traces back to his fifth symphony. The main reason for this is not because of his structure, or indeed his themes, which are (the second movement aside) hardly lyrical. It is because of the emotional drama that he infuses every single note of the symphony with. From the first notes, starting on a weak beat (beat 2.5 out of 4, as it were) yet played with immense force, to the intense finale with its pounding C major arpeggio, the symphony drags the listener into a maelstrom of violent and tempestuous musical material, and doesn’t let go until the clamorous final notes, a single enormous C major chord stretched to infinity.

Though emotion was not anathema to Baroque and Classical composers, it was handled with restraint. Even Mozart’s final symphony, one of the most ingenious and complex pieces he ever wrote, doesn’t linger on any one theme, and moves on throughout its movements with poise and dignity, but never with untamed, rampant joy. Beethoven’s fifth symphony, however, oozes emotion, a roller coaster of joy and fury, of exuberance and despair.

It is this, more than its structure, that t0 me marks the turning point between the Classical and the Romantic eras. Even the most sophisticated Romantic composers such as Tchaikovsky and Mahler still made use of classic sonata, binary, minuet and trio, and rondo forms; it was emotion that these composers sought to infuse their music with. To me, this is the first time a composer did so on such a grand scale.

Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

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