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.