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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, July 11, 2004

MODERNISM, ORIGINALITY, DISTINCTIVENESS

By bloggy standards, responding to a post by Kyle Gann that's almost three weeks old is, like, so last millenium, but since my relationship with modernism -- and, I suspect, almost everybody's if not everybody's -- is so riddled with irony, my woeful slowness feels right. It's not as though I just got around to reading Kyle's post -- I read him almost daily.

There's a new biography of Dylan Thomas out, and reading reviews of it sent me back to his poems, and to commentary on them. An essay by the poet Karl Shapiro from his 1960 prose collection "In Defense of Ignorance" made the claim that Thomas's poetry was distinctive but lacked originality. The distinction between originality and distinctiveness knocked over a block I'd been stumbling over while trying to think about modernism.

The line between "distinctiveness" and "originality" isn't hard or fast. But it's there, and it refers to whether the composer (or poet, painter, playwright, and so on) develops what David Antin would call new tools to create the art -- new techniques, new forms. Someone who does that is "original." But one can still make art that is distinctively one's own while using nothing but inherited forms and techniques.

To take examples I've written about recently, Britney Spears's current hit, "Toxic" is distinctive. I don't know her oeuvre, so I couldn't say whether it's distinctively *hers*, but it doesn't sound like anything else I've heard -- it doesn't even *remind* me of any other songs. Or, rather, because it's a masterpiece of pastiche, it reminds me of lots of other music I've heard, but generically -- early '80s Prince, White Album Beatles, Egyptian disco, '60s instrumental spy-surf guitar -- not any song in particular. (Though it shares a lyric with a current hit by Eminem, "I'm addicted to you" -- don't know which song came first.) But I'd say it's distinctive and not original because all of its technical and formal features are inherited (though not, to my knowledge, plagiarized).

Usher's current hit, "Burn," is original. The way he writes melody to the rhythm of virtuoso fast rapping is unlike anything I've ever heard. (Disclaimer: I'd been tuned out of Top 40 radio for many years before tuning back in again a few months ago. So maybe Usher is one of a whole school of fast rap-rhythm singers, and I just haven't heard the others.) You could make a case that he's merely pastiche-ing R&B melody with rap rhythm, and therefore he's not original, but I can't imagine agreeing with you if you did. To me, he's combined the techniques in such a way as to constitute a new tool, a new technique, a new color (if you will), not just a distinctive way of combining inherited colors. To reiterate: the line between distinctiveness and originality is not hard or fast.

With its baffling longevity, the atonal serialist school of composing that Kyle and I have complained about can no longer be considered modernist. It's not forward-looking. Good God, we're coming hard upon its centennial! That its latter-day practioners consider themselves "modernist" is academic self-parody. It's almost as though the members of Gilbert & Sullivan Societies were congratulating themselves for being up-to-date. I suspect Gilbert himself -- if he were around -- could have some fun with today's atonalist schools.

Modernism -- innovation -- is the ideology of capitalism. It should be no surprise that among the most commercial music is some of the most innovative.

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