One of the difficulties facing the modern musician who hopes to achieve something original is how to deal with the weight of the past.
How does one write great counterpoint when there have been the glories of Bach, or the sublimity of Mozart? How can one reach the extremes of expression available to the jazz saxophone when there has been the transcendence and ferocity of John Coltrane? How does one write a timeless pop song after the Beatles or a protest lyric after Bob Dylan?
The advent of digital technology and the internet means that, more than at any time in musical history, nothing is lost. Just how unusual this is is often not fully appreciated. When diplomat Baron van Swieten in 1782 showed Mozart the manuscripts of Bach and Handel, which he had collected through his diplomatic service in Berlin, this was a rare thing, and something of great benefit to the young composer.
By the 19th century, Bach’s music had actually been lost (it was rediscovered and revived by Felix Mendelssohn). The past had been forgotten. But his works will never be lost again; there are multitudinous recorded performances and digital versions of Bach’s manuscripts.
It is the same with jazz. The solos of the great players, which were original and shocking at the time, have now become familiar touchstones, shaping what was to come after.
This memorialisation has implications for originality. With such a weight of history, it is all but impossible to find a blank slate on which something entirely new can be drawn. It means that instead of music developing in a historical line, the past impinges heavily on the present.
This is what composer John Cage – who did manage to find something strikingly new by “writing” a piece of music that consisted only of silence – meant when he said music had become like a delta: “Instead of being mainstream, it’s like a river that is divided into many streams.”
It is hard not to see this weight of the past as oppressive. Finding a new voice can seem to many young musicians all but impossible.
The implications are different for each genre, however. In classical music it is perhaps most problematic. The complexity and depth of the tradition is such that it is impossible to find radically new ways of developing harmony and, to a large extent, structure. There is perhaps more room for innovation in rhythm and orchestration but the modern composer of symphonies, for instance, would be moving very carefully so as not to sound derivative.
In jazz, the pressure of the past is similarly intense. After the sophistication of pianists Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, it is hard to imagine that a dramatically new harmonic language could be developed, simply refined and explored a little. It is hard to imagine moving beyond the rhythmic power of Miles Davis.
But jazz has a get-out clause in that it is invented in the moment. There is always a sense of presentness in jazz, even when the playing has a derivative flavour. That immediacy is not available in classical music, which is necessarily fully prepared.
In pop music, the relationship with the past is a little different. Because its main imperative is commercial, not artistic, a certain level of amnesia is built in. Many modern pop songs are just rewritten versions of older songs, carefully concealed. Increasingly the singing styles of pop singers are reproductions of previous performers. The result is a stunning lack of innovation; quantity has replaced quality.
Globalisation has also reduced the possibility that something culturally unique will emerge. The blues, for example, arose out of very particular circumstances in the African-American culture in America’s South, as did the jazz of New Orleans. Likewise a musical form such as flamenco, although it had complex origins, came about in a way that depended on the separateness of Spanish culture.
The originality of these forms was in part the consequence of an isolation that allowed them to flourish as unique forms. In the Youtube era, such isolation is no longer possible.
Originality is not the only determinant of what is good in music. And in a sense, all great melodies are, by their nature, original and unrepeatable in a way that harmonic or orchestral innovation is not. The advance of digital technology will also lead to the development of entirely new sounds, never before heard.
But we are in an era of superfluity. Music is more accessible and more listened to than ever before – just walk down the street or catch a train and observe how many people are listening through their earpieces. It is having the effect of reducing the amount of space available for new ideas. The musician looking for undiscovered countries to explore has to look very hard indeed.
David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.