Lone Geniuses or Remix Masters?

"Everything is a Remix" illustrates creative connectedness, and that's good news to this solitary artist!

By , Columnist

Zeus giving birth to Athena, by Rudolph Tegner, 1873-1950

The other day while perusing the ol' Facebook feed, I came across a video link that had my fellow music nerds jumping up and down, responding with comments like "Yes, yes, yessss!!" It was definitely an "I'll have what she's having" moment, so I just had to investigate.

The video in question was part three of the series Everything is a Remix, and after watching it, I immediately went back and watched parts one and two as well. You can easily guess the basic premise from the title, and the filmmaker, Kirby Ferguson, sums it up nicely when he says, "Creation requires influence. Everything we make is a remix of existing creations, our lives and the lives of others."

What makes the series so fascinating are the explanations and examples that illustrate the concept: remixing happens not just in music, but in science and technology, literature, film... in other words, human creativity as a whole. Ferguson's examples include the graphical user interface in personal computing, which Apple made popular but did not originate; the practice of sampling and covering (both properly attributed and not) in all kinds of pop music; and the re-telling and re-imagining of iconic story elements in movies, particularly Star Wars and Kill Bill.

The videos don't delve deeply into classical music remixing, though there are a couple of references to the way we learn by emulating past masters, with a slide of what looks like a young Mozart practicing the violin as his father looks on (a bit menacingly, sad to say!). But it would be easy to find plenty of material for a whole series of videos on influence and borrowing in classical music alone.

A series like that might not sit well with many living composers, though. Classical composers (and other creative artists) don't really like to be told that they are remixing rather than creating great works of timeless genius through the sheer force of their audacious brilliance. In fact, if you want to irritate a composer, just tell her how much her music reminds you of someone else's. (Some composers might find such comparisons flattering, but it's still a risky move which I do not recommend!)

Why is that? Blame our training. Composers learn by emulation at first, but at some point they are expected to leave the nest and find their own voice. Which is as it should be - no one wants to simply repeat what's already been done. The problem comes in when the emphasis on originality is taken to extremes. In some quarters, any resemblance to the past is so frowned upon, you're forced to reinvent the wheel (talk about unoriginal!) and create your very own musical language, which may or may not be intelligible to anyone else. That is, if you're able to create anything at all; the pressure to be totally singular can be paralyzing.

I think we composers tend to labor under the mythic archetype of the Lone Genius, who toils in solitude and produces work that may not be understood at first, but is eventually recognized and celebrated. Beethoven would be the quintessential example of this.

Trouble is, we're not all Beethoven. Even Beethoven wasn't really Beethoven, as in the myth we've made him into.

We sometimes like to pretend like great ideas just come to us, like Athena springing full-formed from the skull of Zeus. In fact, I think it's possible that a creative person must believe that delusion at times, for the sake of summoning up the gumption to keep at it - because if you know you're just producing more of what's already out there, why bother?

However, I think it's also important to recognize that everyone is a link in a chain, and that fact doesn't lessen the brilliance of each individual link. I, perhaps like my Facebook friend quoted above, find the idea profoundly liberating. If I don't have to struggle to be completely original - a goal which is not only unattainable but also, actually, undesirable - then I can relax and create and express beauty, which is why I got into this composing business in the first place!

So, what influences your creativity? Don't be ashamed to admit it!

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Miss Music Nerd is the nom de net of Linda Kernohan, composer, pianist and music journalist. Her music has been played across the U.S. and Europe, and she has performed in a wide variety of venues, from a West Hollywood nightclub to the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. She also writes at missmusicnerd.com…

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