I recently set a poem for SATB a cappella chorus that ended in the word “sun.” This music should have come easily to me, but I’d already set another SATB a cappella piece that ended in the word “sun” just a few months ago. Both sentences used the word to end their respective poems in an uplifting, redemptive gesture. They called for similar music, but I didn’t want to write the exact same music twice.
To what extent, as a composer, are you allowed to plagiarize your own music? Sometimes, of course, we do this unconsciously, realizing only belatedly that we’re repeating ourselves. How do we know when this is a terrible idea, and when it’s a great one? After all, there’s a long history of composers ripping off their own music, borrowing ideas and recycling whole measures—or sometimes whole movements. Even Bach did it. But given that repeating our past ideas can read as flat-out laziness, when, if ever, should we self-plagiarize?
Hitchcock once said, while defending the repeated use of certain filming techniques within his work, that “self-plagiarism is style,” and I think his philosophy holds the answer to when and how we should imitate our past compositions.
Some composers write in a style so recognizable, we need only hear a minute—or even a measure—of their music to know exactly who wrote it. Musicians occasionally criticize these composers for writing music that “all sounds the same,” but it takes skill to settle on a style that works consistently. A composer’s style becomes distinctive not only because certain ideas are present in many of their compositions, but because that composer has made compelling artistic choices deliberately and repeatedly across their body of work.
In the evolution of artistic style, there’s a crucial distinction between “self-plagiarism” and “plagiarism.” Replicating the specific elements of gesture and orchestration that define another composer’s style is a tricky matter; do it without identifying your source material, and your work may be written off as derivative. Perhaps it’s best to avoid the most distinctive indicators—unless expressly doing so in homage—and to seek out whatever will come to define our own work.
There’s a difference between realizing you’re organically writing music similar to what you’ve done in the past versus purposefully trying to recapture the style of your previous work, too. The few times I’ve tried to write a piece similar to one of my older pieces, I’ve found it absolutely maddening; it’s impossible to recapture who you were and what mindset you were in when you wrote an older piece. Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s nearly always easier to forge ahead with a new work rather than intentionally re-create the style of an older one.
Are we responsible for creating our own “style” or should we simply write the music we want to write, let it evolve naturally over time, and allow others to decide what defining factors unite our complete body of work? On some level, our own style may always remain unknowable to us, recognizable only after we’ve written everything we’re ever going to write. We are, though, in charge of how we choose to imbue our music with meaning. Here’s where I think “self-plagiarism” does define style: rather than imitating old ideas or forcefully repurposing them into new pieces, we can view a creative lifetime as a chance to create our own musical vocabulary.
Consider a few moments in Thomas Newman’s film scores that sound similar. In several films Newman has scored—including American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, and White Oleander—Newman favors a sparse orchestral texture, with sustained strings and a simple melody in the piano. He uses this approach in so many different films that the repeated use of this texture must be deliberate. Often, these similar themes highlight moments in each movie when the presence of beauty creates a stark contrast to darkness or death. By writing similar themes for each of these different films, Newman strengthens the purpose and value of each individual theme. This music is recognizably written in his “style,” yes, but beyond that, it functions as a sort of life-long leitmotif within his work.
Even outside of film scoring, it makes sense for composers to use similar music to underscore parallel moments within different compositions. I considered this as I wondered how to set a second poem ending in “sun.” I’d already solved this musical problem once; if I solved it the same way again—with a different approach, but the same harmonic progression leading up to the final “sun” chord—that moment could effectively link both pieces together.
Applied to a life of composing, this intentional repetition could create a library of motives, gestures, and orchestration that defines our work. As we encounter words and dramatic moments similar to ones we’ve scored in a previous piece, we can purposefully link these pieces with the same vocabulary—adapted so that it will reflect whatever surrounds it—so that anyone who encounters both pieces will hear these pieces linked across time. For listeners who take the time to know our body of work, these moments will feel almost like an inside joke: a reward for speaking our language.