What Counts as Borrowed Material?

What Counts as Borrowed Material?


Four years ago, I wrote a chamber orchestra piece called Dayglo Attack Machine.  It wasn’t nearly as good as its title.

The piece explored territory that I’ve come back to many times:  intentional cheesiness, shiny orchestration, references to 1960s advertising and film music, and the blurry line between cheerful and alarming.  It even included a percussionist popping  colorful balloons with knives.  But in the end, it wound up seeming pretty tepid and uninspired, and I was left wondering whether I should pursue a different direction in my work.  Discouraged and frustrated, I asked a bunch of friends for their honest opinions of my music.  Reading the criticisms I got wasn’t always pleasant, especially since I agreed with some of them.  But the response I wound up thinking about the most is actually one that I didn’t agree with.  It was from a composer who said that while she liked my music’s collage-y, turn-on-a-dime syntax, she wished that I would use my own materials rather than borrowed ones.

I can see why someone would react that way to my work.  I make a lot of allusions, and often very obvious ones.  But here’s the problem:  what kind of material wouldn’t count as borrowed?  If Dayglo Attack Machine had used atonal harmonies rather than major seventh chords, nested tuplets rather than 4/4 syncopations, and sul ponticello string overpressure rather than doubled flute and vibes, most people wouldn’t describe that as using “borrowed material”—but it would be.  I didn’t invent that language any more than I invented the language of 1960s advertising .  And in fact, those materials are further removed from me culturally than the ones I used:  not only do all of them go back at least to the 1960s, but they’re also European rather than American in origin.

I’m not sure why so many people can hear young American composers using mid-century European avant-garde ideas and not think of it as borrowing.  It’s as if people think of the European avant-garde as something like an “indigenous culture” or “native language” for contemporary classical music.  But few if any of us grow up surrounded by Stockhausen and Penderecki.  I first heard them as a teenager, long after my brain had already been filled with the shiny, cheerful/alarming sounds of American TV and movies—and many people don’t hear them until later than that.

I don’t mean to pick on the composer who made that comment.  She was responding honestly to a question I had asked, and she actually wound up changing her mind after we talked about it.  But over the years, I’ve continued to think about that conversation, because I keep running into the same ideas.  For example, Garrett Schumann recently posted on Twitter that composers who use common-practice tonality should do so “thoughtfully” and “deliberately,” and be aware of the “historical and socio-political assumptions” involved in making that choice.  I’m all for thoughtfulness and historical awareness, but what strikes me is that I never hear anyone calling on composers influenced by Saariaho or Lachenmann or Ferneyhough to be thoughtful and deliberate in their use of pre-existing ideas.  It seems to be taken for granted in many new music circles that anyone who composes in a European modernist idiom is doing so because they’ve thought about all the possible options and made a historically informed decision to go with that one, but that anyone who composes in a tonal idiom is doing so naively.  The funny thing is, the assumptions that people make actually contradict each other.  If atonality, extended techniques, ultra-complex rhythms, and non-repetitive syntax really are the “native language” of contemporary classical music, then you can’t take it for granted that anyone who uses them is doing so after years of rigorous aesthetic soul-searching.  They might just as easily be doing it because it’s the norm in their musical subculture.

Just to be clear:  I’m not disparaging modernist music, and I’m not saying that American composers have to use materials that originated in America.  What I’m saying is that the whole question of what counts as borrowed material is a red herring, because any material you use already has a history.  It’s not that there’s no such thing as an original artistic voice;  it’s that having an original artistic voice has less to do with creating materials from scratch than with which pre-existing materials you choose and what you do with them once you’ve chosen them.  So let’s not perpetuate a double standard that asks tonal and pop-influenced composers to justify their language, while assuming that modernist ideas come pre-justified.  As any future historian will some day be able to tell you, we’re all building on what we’ve heard.


Alex Temple

Alex Temple

A sound can evoke a time, a place, a cultural moment, or a way of looking at the world. Alex Temple writes music that distorts and combines iconic sounds to create new meanings, often in service of surreal, cryptic, or fantastical stories. In addition to performing her own works for voice and electronics at venues such as Roulette and Constellation Chicago, she has also collaborated with performers and ensembles such as Mellissa Hughes, Timothy Andres, the American Composers Orchestra, Fifth House Ensemble, Cadillac Moon Ensemble, and Spektral Quartet. Temple earned her bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 2005 and her master’s from the University of Michigan in 2007; she’s currently working on a doctorate at Northwestern University and writing a podcast-opera about TV production company closing logos and the end of the world.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

82 thoughts on “What Counts as Borrowed Material?

  1. Reinaldo Moya

    AMEN TO THAT!! So glad someone has pointed out this double standard. This is a great article, Alex. Congrats!

  2. Kyle Gann

    Very well put and always timely. Grad students get their knickers in a knot because I use chords that sound like Scriabin or Bud Powell, but the alternative is to use chords that sound like Schoenberg or Babbitt. In a 12-pitch-equal system, every possible chord has been used. Every chord has associations. Every possible chord has been borrowed from somewhere. And you’re spot on about the asymmetry: remind someone of Ligeti and no one will notice, but remind them of Copland and they’ll look at you funny. Novelists don’t have to come up with words no one has used before. Painters don’t have to come up with colors no one has used before. That we all grew up with a learned correlation between musical materials and historical periods is an accident of music history that we can now put behind us. Composers need to all realize that it’s not what materials you use, it’s what you make out of them.

  3. John Borstlap

    Some good points…. Most modernist languages are very conventional and conformist. It is the psychological dimension, what the composer DOES with the material that appeals to him/her, what counts. Even Beethoven merely used the materials he found elsewhere, he absorbed them and synthesized them into a personal mix. A personal signature only becomes apparent against the background of a tradition, i.e. against the background of the common means of a language.

    By the way, I liked your ‘Baptism’, which seems to sum-up your relationship with musical tradition:

  4. Alex Temple

    John — That “Baptism” video is actually by a different Alex Temple. (I can think of at least four of us in the music world, including a harpsichord expert and a composer who does virtual-instrument orchestraton.) It’s also not something I would ever do, and not at all how I feel about tradition!

    1. John Borstlap

      What a terrible misunderstanding! But well, good for you, as far as ‘Baptism’ is concerned.

  5. Christian Hertzog

    I asked John Cage after a concert (1982 or 83) what advice he would give to a young composer. He thought about for at least a minute, and then earnestly told me, “Do what you believe in.” Best damned composition lesson I was ever given. Do what you believe in, Alex!

  6. Marek Poliks

    This is a great point, and one that isn’t often made. However, a lot of the objections I hear voiced (and voice myself) to ‘borrowed material’ outside of the ‘modernist canon’ so to speak are /ethical/ objections. For example:

    a) ‘borrowed material’ from non-Western cultures appropriated into unfortunately Eurocentric art music with the intention of exoticizing this material.
    b) ‘borrowed material’ from popular music communities as a demonstration of modernism, that is, the ‘updating’ or ‘making-art’ of something not readily affixed to the context of (A)rt.

    I think it’s fair to say that appropriating the tropes of Sciarrino doesn’t quite colonize something in the same way as appropriating Gagaku music, not simply out of a lack of ‘thoughtfulness,’ but because of a power relationship that pre-exists the music itself. I could say the same thing about referencing hip-hop, or writing an opera about Anna Nicole Smith for that matter. This isn’t to say that stylistic modernists aren’t guilty of colonization, but rather that ethics have something to do with delimiting what we call a ‘canon.’ Often I find that the style of modernism is just a residue – the beast instead permuted into the postmodernist neoconservativism by which all styles and references are equally up for grabs.

    Cheers, though, Alex – you’re absolutely right to insist upon the fact that any relationship to a canon, no matter how ingrained one is inside it, is always referential. I’ve really been enjoying the things you’ve posted over the past few months.

    1. Joshua Cheek

      Bravo, Marek Poliks! Brilliantly put and it does raise some of the “ethical” issues that often accompany cross-cultural appropriations/collaborations.

  7. Joshua Cheek

    The most surprising revelation for me from your thoughtful essay WHAT COUNTS AS BORROWED MATERIAL? is that such a debate is still even meaningful in our post-modern, late capitalist/hyper-capitalist society. I mean, isn’t it a bit like John Ruskin wagging a scolding finger at Whistler “for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” That battle was been fought long ago. That young composers now find themselves having to defend their decision to use tonal – or God forbid, even POP materials – requires some justification is a bit absurd. This festishisation of the ‘project of modernity’ of course has its origins back in the 19th century, together with the romantic image of the suffering artist. We do well to remember that Bach and Telemann were CIVIC employees and that Haydn was a servant who was under contract to wear a livery uniform. The “Artiste” driven to create new worlds sui generis with each stroke of the pen is the stuff of Hollywood bio-pics, not reality. But back to the present.
    Composers, indeed all creators, or re-creators as the case may be now have access to almost the entire record of humanity to draw upon for use as inspiration and/or raw material. And they should. As Schoenberg famously said, “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.” Perhaps there are even some serial and spectral masterworks waiting to be written? Far be from me to deprive someone else of the pleasure. I feel that the major focus for any creative artist is to “Make It Well” and “Make It Work” (thank you Tim Gunn) . The obsessive necessity to “Maker It New” is pure artifice. Before I end my little rant, there is a particular crusade of mine which I wish to draw some attention to, namely the exclusion of many extraordinarily creative Post-Rock/Neo-Classical ensembles from the contemporary classical music mix. Ensembles such as Kuroyuri Shumai (Japan), Karda Estra (UK), Les Fragments de la Nuit (France), and those led by Vladimir Hirsch (Czech) have created utterly serious, beautiful works
    combining classical influences with pop-song structures. That THESE artists are neglected while
    Ludovico Einaudi is a iTunes Classical chart-topping artist is an obscenity. IMHO.

    1. John Borstlap

      ‘Combining classical influences with pop-song structures’…. The structures of pop music seem, most of the time, extremely primitive… The REAL classical repertoire has more interesting structures to explore, from which we could learn a great deal. There is an entire, rich, sophisticated music repertoire around the corner – why go into pop? Why go into music of non-Western cultures when there is so much just at our doorstep? As is clear from Alex Temple’s text, it is what we DO with whatever material that counts. But not all types of material are the same, there is simplistic and primitive material and sophisticated material and there is no reason why one should consciously choose the primitive from far away or from the entertainment industry instead of the sophisticated and developed that is so close to us.

      1. Frank J. Oteri

        I’m rather stunned that someone posting to this site in the year 2014 could still harbor the notion that non-Western music is primitive, that there’s a superior European way of making music, or that there’s even a clearly definable “us” and “them” and that each group should remain segregated in their respective corners. That’s certainly not the world I live in nor is it the musical world we advocate for on NewMusicBox.

        1. John Borstlap

          No no, you read that in the wrong way. The last sentence: “But not all types of material are the same, there is simplistic and primitive material and sophisticated material and there is no reason why one should consciously choose the primitive from far away or from the entertainment industry instead of the sophisticated and developed that is so close to us.” is meant in a very general way. What Bartok and Stravinsky did, was taking folk material and incorporated it within a very sophisticated personal language. Often their material was, in itself, not primitive: Russian and Balkan folk traditions had their own sophistication. But no doubt there is also folk music which is primitive in the sense of: unsophisticated. One can find the sophisticated and the primitive everywhere, also in non-European cultures. But denying the sophistication of our own musical tradition is, in itself, a primitive idea based on ignorance. Look at the Chinese developing middle classes who now passionately embrace the Western classical tradition, and are very good at it, on the expense of their own musical tradition which has its own sophistication. But there is also a terrible Chinese, primitive communist cantata genre in quasi-classical style, combining superficially Western treatment with quasi-Chinese songs, and it is just horrible kitsch, like Western bad film music. And an example of the primitive from far away is Tan Dun’s operatic music where he incorporates silly, quasi-Eastern sound effects like the bubbling of water, to ‘express’ atmospheric and / or philosophical material.

          So, I stick to my description, but the last bit should be read in a general way, as it was meant. And I particularly stick with the notion of Western tradition as something precious and sophisticated, a tradition which is open to infinite variation and development. That seems to me something of more interest than the attempt to incorporate pop elements.

  8. Phil Fried

    “So let’s not perpetuate a double standard that asks tonal and pop-influenced composers to justify their language, while assuming that modernist ideas come pre-justified…”

    What of Musique concrète? I’m a bit confused as to the problem here, other then it seems that everything on these pages devolves into Babbitt bashing, or most recently European bashing. As a composer who creates work in vastly different styles and mediums and grew up surrounded by free jazz and John Cage I myself have never asked any composer to justify their music.

    I have on many occasions asked composers to justify their rhetoric about music. Thats because it is my belief that when we attack other composers, directly or indirectly, we attack all composers, including ourselves.

    1. John Borstlap

      On the other hand, making distinctions inevitably results in making choices, and making choices means accepting or rejecting things, all according to our own findings (hopefully). Rejecting opinions from others are often a way of finding-out about our own preferences.

  9. Alex Temple

    Marek — I’m actually planning to talk about the ethical/political issues you raised in an upcoming article, so keep an eye out for it!

    Phil — I’m not bashing European composers. What I’m objecting to is a double standard that I run into every now and then — as you said, to a certain kind of rhetoric about music, not to the music itself. If you told me there was a Sciarrino festival in Chicago this weekend I’d be delighted. (But is Sciarrino a modernist? I’ll let someone else answer that question…)

  10. Valerio Velardo

    Great article Alex! I’d like to suggest another perspective on borrowed material based upon the idea of Dr Steven Jan. He states that music is an evolutionary process characterized by a continuos competition among musical patterns which compete with each other in order to survive and spread in the musical space. These musical memes are replicators that undergo mutation and selection.
    As a consequence, I think that the borrowing process is a natural aspect of music. Joung composers use the ideas, tools and structures of older composers in order to build their own new musical outputs. This process determines a continuous evolution of music, and therefore the continuos mutation of the musical memes.

    1. John Borstlap

      But this is merely a description of an artistic tradition. We don’t need a theory of ‘memes’, copied from evolutionary theory (with all the overtones of natural, blind processes, which is inappropriate in the cultural field), to understand how a musical tradition works. The taboo upon ‘borrowing’ has evolved from the 19th century onwards and found its apotheosis in postwar modernism where every composer tried desperately to write a music which was different from anybody else’s, with the result that all modernist music began to sound the same and eventually got stuck in convention. A normal cultural tradition uses the craft and materials which are ‘given’, and if an artist has some personality, it will express itself while he/she uses the given material following his/her taste and inclinations. Read Roger Scruton, who states in his ‘Modern Culture’: ‘Meaning in art does not arise from conventions or rules. On the contrary, conventions and rules arise from meaning.’ And: ‘Originality is not an attempt to capture attention come what may, or to schock or disturb in order to shut out competition from the world. The most original work of art may be genial applications of a well-known vocabulary, like the late quartets of Haydn, or whispered meditations like the Sonnets of Rilke. They may be all but unnoticeable amid the fanfares of contemporary self-advertisement, like the trapped interiors of Vuillard or the tucked-away churches of Borromini. What makes them original is not their defiance of the past or their rude assault on settles expectations, but the element of surprise with which they invest the forms and repertoire of a tradition. Without tradition, originality cannot exist: for it is only against a tradition that it becomes perceivable. Tradition and originality are two components of a single process, whereby the individual makes himself known through his membership of the historical group.’ This last sentence is inspired by T.S. Eliot’s essay ‘Tradition and the individual talent’…. and may not be to everybody’s taste, particularly in America.

  11. David Wolfson

    Hmm…one possible justification for the sideways glances at pop-referencing music in the concert hall is, again, the power relationship implicit there. Since commercial pop music has such an overwhelmingly larger share of the public attention than…whatever it is we do…the use of its materials in the concert hall could be considered to smack a bit of pandering. Or, perhaps more disturbingly, to being colonized—the parallels to the invasive influence of the Western canon on all kinds of indigenous musics seem apparent to me.

    Not saying I entirely agree with this—I’ve used pop materials in pieces of mine before, and I assume I’ll do it again when occasion warrants. But the assumption of a level playing field politically and perceptually *for the audience* among all musics, especially including pop, seems to bear further examination.

    1. John Borstlap

      But isn’t the invasion of pop music everywhere in our life something to deplore? Isn’t the existence of concert halls as islands with a totally different atmosphere a necessary compensation for an infected public space? Why should pop music ALSO need to invade THAT space??? There is nothing against entertainment music, but it should remain in the field where it belongs: that of entertainment. If a serious composer uses pop material, the best he can do is transforming it somehow into something of greater sophistication, so that it becomes more than it originally was, as Bartok and Kodaly did with their folk music. But that seems to be very difficult with pop music.

      1. Alex Temple

        John —

        I’ve been listening to pop music for almost as long as I’ve been listening to classical music. All of that stuff is just as much a part of my ears and my brain and my heart as Scarlatti and Schubert and Stravinsky and Sciarrino. I couldn’t choose between them any more than I could choose between my left and right ears.

        To be clear: when I say “pop music,” I’m using that phrase in its broadest possible definition, including everything from songs calculated to be number-one hits to music that’s explicitly and aggressively anti-commercial. I’m talking about music as varied as the abrupt, disjunct alt-rock of Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record; the reverb-soaked surreality of the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You”; the terrifying manic art-pop of Kate Bush’s The Dreaming; the absurd genre-melding virtuosity of OutKast’s The Love Below; the chaotic counterculture manifesto of Frank Zappa’s Absolutely Free; the cryptic neo-madrigalisms of Julia Holter’s Ekstasis; the dreamy loneliness of the Ink Spots’ “We Tree (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)”; the playful skittering electronics of Gwen Stefani’s “Bubble Pop Electric”; the violent tradition-smashing of Henry Cow’s In Praise of Learning; etc etc ad nauseam. If you can hear all of that and come away thinking, “Eh, that stuff is nothing but entertainment,” then I have to wonder if you’re really listening.

        Now that I’ve gotten so rhapsodic that I’ll probably be embarrassed by this comment for years, I guess I’ll stop.

        1. Joshua Cheek

          Alex, thank so much for turning me on to Julia Holter’s Ekstasis. Listening right now and enjoying immensely. Low-brow that I am. ^_^

      2. Alex Temple

        (I realize that using “pop music” this way doesn’t totally make sense… but it’s pretty common and generally understood in composery circles. And really, using “classical music” to mean everything from Machaut to Mincek doesn’t totally make sense either.)

        1. John Borstlap

          Whatever social or otherwise critique pop music may have, aesthetically it all stems from a couple of musical norms which are fundamentally meant to entertain, including Zappa: his quasi-modernist sound clouds are there for fun (modernism being neither for fun nor for aesthetic aspiration). In musical terms, pop music always struck me as being aesthetically unambitious…. hence the lack of sophistication. But if someone can make something more serious out of it, well, great! I know of only one composer who is inspired by pop but without overt inclusion: Van Nieuwkerk ( ), rather an exception proving the rule.

          1. John Borstlap

            I patiently listened to the first two tracks on this site and put aside, as much as possible, any preconceived ideas about art music:

            01. War (Anthony Moore / Peter Blegvad) – 02. Living In The Heart Of The Beast (Tim Hodgkinson)

            and what I hear, apart from the text which is unintelligible, is a mocking scorn, a nihilistic ‘I don’t care’ meandering going-off in all directions without any aesthetic aim. If this is supposed to express something, it does it quite well, but it has nothing to do with art music. In this sense, these tracks (I could not stand listening to more) if anything, blatantly support what I said in earlier comments. To take this sort of thing as an orientation point for the creation of serious art music, seems to me based upon a misunderstanding: it belongs to the world of pop, of cosy clubs or lounges, of smoke-filled rooms with bored youngsters hanging around, full of frustrations about spciety, and their parents’ intentions for them (among which joining them at classical concerts). It’s all right, but it is so lacking in artistic ambition and seriousness of purpose. Couldn’t the creative instinct be better directed at something more interesting?

            Please do understand what I mean: if we are talking about art music, pop does not offer enough interest, even the quasi-subversive kind, as the mentioned tracks. Don’t forget we are all influenced by the postwar idea that ‘youth’- i.e. immaturity, underdelopment – is a value in itself. When youth culture began to install itself in the American fifties, it answered a need, and since that time it has become a structural part of society. But that is a recent phenomenon, there NEVER has been a youth culture, in this sense, in the history of mankind. When you are young – in modern times, you see so much that is downright awful in society, in the world, in culture: all right instincts. But after that, we have to find ways to somehow contribute to culture with something better, and sticking to something so aesthetically underdeveloped as pop, in whatever form, does not seem to be enough.

          2. Marek Poliks

            Hey John, I also believe in making distinctions between the regimes of popular and ‘art’ music. I’d love to see you try and flesh out your definition of the latter /not/ in contradistinction to the former, /not/ based on some binary of immature:mature or the more reactionary (and Eurocentric) binary of simple:sophisticated (unambitious:ambitious, unserious:serious). Otherwise this argument consists of /seriously/ dated binary reasoning (alongside some similarly dated world-historical Hegelianism, – “there has never been a youth culture.”).

            (For example, one can draw a political distinction between commercial music and non-commercial music, or a stylistic/genre distinction between those sounds and signifiers that typify the respective musics – these to me are the only grounds upon which a useful distinction can be made. This conversation gets tiring quickly, but I really think that such distinctions are useful as long as one doesn’t turn them into prescriptions.)

          3. John Borstlap

            OK there we go…. Imagine one visits a garage, and straight after that one enters the cathedral of Chartres, the famous one with the stained glass. And then one is asked to define why the cathedral should be something of a more ‘elevated’ nature than the garage. If one does not see and feel that, and needs a definition, visiting the Chartres cathedral is quite pointless. Then someone comes-up with the notion that the garage is part of a consumer/producer capitalist society, result of free enterprise in a free society, while the big pretentious church is a product of a hierarchical, exclusive culture dominated by religious orthodoxy and strict social control, thoroughly undemocratic and part of a suppressive system where literacy was in the hands of the dominating class. Then this person claims that the garage is a superior structure to the church for all these reasons. How to explain that the church is also a work of art with a spiritual meaning, and – in terms of structure – infinitely more sophisticated than this miserable practical garage? In this way, classical music is often treated, as a phenomenon discovered by some alien. The classical repertoire carries much more meaning than the mere notes or the sound of it. When you have entered that territory as a listener, got used to its language, then gradually this meaning becomes a real, emotional experience, which carries more meaning than can be defined by language (if we could fully describe what this music expresses, we would not need it). Pop music is, as a genre, very nice and interesting if you don’t know of the other stuff.

            As soon as you have experienced the inner nature of what has been called the ‘classical repertoire’, you become aware of its superb qualities: aesthetic, structural, emotional, spiritual, psychological – you name it. Pop music or sonic art is, in comparison, so much poorer. And all theory of ‘modernism’, ‘postmodernism’ and the like is a waste of time when confronted with the really true and great. Why reject something that offers such riches? And this is not merely a personal taste, I claim it to be an objective quality of this type of music which is superior to any other, including non-western classical music. This is not necessarily Eurocentric: it can just be true, you know. Why should a beautiful woman, looking into the mirror, deny she is beautiful? She better accepts it, to be able to rightly understand and to cope with the reactions of people around her – imagine she would, out of a feeling of modesty, deny her beauty: she would not understand people’s reactions and she would get into a lot of trouble.

            The reluctance to accept the greatness of Western classical music is a result of a) our modern egalitarian society, and b) the crimes which have been committed in the past by Western imperialism. But we should somehow be able to get back to reality after that. Claiming something is great does not mean that something else is worthless. Everything has its meaning and qualities but they may not be the same.

            Maybe this could be an attempt at an incomplete definition which avoids any hierarchical notions in relation to other musics: Western classical music is the creation of a tonal space which is capable of expressing / communicating a wide range of life experience, but abstracted: non-conceptual, and only the essence of life experience, so that it can speak to us, living in a totally different time and place. It is like the perfume (music) distilled out of thouseands of rose leaves (life experiences) and stylized into works of art which make use of the interrelatedness of tones to create a three-dimensional aural and emotional experience (foreground, middle ground, background) that can give the strong impression of ‘something’ speaking to the listener. THAT is the real reason why pieces written by dead white males from thoroughly undemocratic times are still so popular in music life. In fact, they are not old at all but contemporary for ever. All the ‘fences’ created around this repertoire are made by people who don’t understand it, both outsiders reluctant to enter the territory, and a type of its practitioners, who made a business out of it or a kleinbürgerliche entertainment for narrow-minded bourgeois.

            It is the brainwashing of modern media culture and the pollution of inferior entertainment music which creates the barriers to a proper understanding of Western classical music… I really don’t understand why one should choose the clumsy and trivial over something that can produce the experience of something sublime into a listener’s heart. For most people, life is already dreary enough, isn’t it?

            To round-off with an anecdote: I once almost collaborated with a well-known black American jazz musician, a highly gifted and successful one, who had been quite ignorant of classical music. That is: he knew it was there but it did not interest him much, thinking it being stuffy and something for retired whites. Then he unexpectedly was exposed to some Tchaikovsky music, probably from a symphony, and was struck by it as by lightning. He asked me, puzzled: why am I reacting so strongly and emotionally to this music? The answer was, of course, that the music told him something about himself: in the music was a reflection of his own, intimate emotional life experience, and he instinctively recognized it. That seems to me a signifier of meaning and the power of a tradition that has developed over a long time, refining its resources and means, being capable of crossing immense spaces of time, place and genre. This chap had also been exposed to film music, pop, and lots of jazz and hip hop, and all the sounds of modern culture, but that had not the effect mr Tchaikovsky had.

          4. Marek Poliks

            There is literally zero content in the above text evidencing any of your freewheeling aesthetic judgments apart from binaristic (but now poeticized) reasoning or an anecdote about some guy you met who liked Tchaikovsky. (An anecdotal refutation – I’m a conservatory trained composer who feels nothing so powerful listening to Tchaikovsky, not because I’m deaf, nor because I cannot comprehend the transcendental humanist physics through which it ‘communicates’ itself, but because it’s a thing, constantly reterritorialized, to which I ‘communicate’ through signifiers whose meanings are contextual, cultural, and just objectively not in place the same way they functioned historically. THAT’s why classical music struggles, as you put it, because it references different things than it once did – Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ does ‘have meaning’ as you’d say, but it ALSO (and sometimes destructively) means ‘Platoon.’

            “[T]he creation of a tonal space which is capable of expressing / communicating a wide range of life experience, but abstracted: non-conceptual, and only the essence of life experience, so that it can speak to us, living in a totally different time and place.” Sounds like Schopenhauer – kind of a depressing place to stop one’s reading.

          5. John Borstlap

            …. and that is really what I would strongly recommend you doing.

            I’m not a Tchaikovky lover either, but for some musically-gifted people there is something in that music that has something to say to them. No conservatory training can replace that.

      3. Joshua Cheek

        If I understand what Alex has written, “… But few if any of us grow up surrounded by Stockhausen and Penderecki. I first heard them as a teenager, long after my brain had already been filled with the shiny, cheerful/alarming sounds of American TV and movies—and many people don’t hear them until later than that.” the question upon which all of this hinges is whether or not composers can access and utilize the sonic materials that played a formative role in their development. I may be in the minority, but my earliest (remembered) musical experiences were Broadway shows, and “pop” classical music by way of my mother and Thelonius Monk, the MJQ and Japanese Enka by way of my father. My first musical obsession was “What’s New Pussycat” by Bacharach. I have NEVER owned an album by either Aerosmith or the Grateful Dead and the cult of Bob Dylan is an utter mystery to me and I only learned to love Webern and Varese in my teens. How is it an invasion to draw upon my own psychic formation (read: personal experiences and tastes) when selecting the raw material for creation? We are all bound to our time and place and experiences. Genius happens when the raw material is transformed, even when that raw material is insipid and pedestrian. The best of today’s young composers – in MY opnion – embrace the plurality of musical experiences and influences open to them.

        1. John Borstlap

          Good points. But not all types of material are appropriate for the creation of art music in the same way. If one grows-up, or gets used to vulgarity, and lack of taste, and one encouters something that is much better, why not trying to acquire something of that territory? The vulgarity of modern, i.e. American, pop and media culture doubtless has something to do with, on one hand, the abundance of young people trying to be a composer, and on the other, the lack of artistic greatness in contemporary composition. What American orchestras occasionally perform of contemporary American music is often compatible with orchestral performance culture, but they seem to be the exceptions. But great? I have not come across of anything great from that field, but maybe some day…

          1. Frank J. Oteri


            Not to belabor your aesthetic preferences anymore on this thread since you have made it very clear what your viewpoint is here time and time again, but I feel compelled to point out a contradiction in your reasoning that I think makes it difficult to be persuaded by your arguments. At 9:57 a.m., Alex Temple recommended that you listen to a 16-minute track from a Henry Cow album. A mere 33 minutes later you wrote a lengthy response claiming that you “patiently listened” and “put aside … any preconceived ideas about art music.” Predictably, it was not to your taste. But I find it hard to believe that you actually gave it a fair chance given the chronological sequence here. Can you really trust a conclusion you’ve come to in one listening? I rarely do, and if I had would not now have a deep love and understanding for works such as Bach’s B Minor Mass, Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, and other canonical works that I’m sure you would claim are the greatest musical achievements possible. Did you come to your love and appreciation for those pieces by hearing them just once?

            One of the things I treasure most about Western classical music is that it encourages a paradigm of attentive listening as well as repeated listenings which allow listeners to continually uncover new layers when doing so. It is not the only cultural tradition which has this paradigm, by the way, but the fact that it does is extremely important and, I believe, it is a paradigm that enhances the listening of all music. It certainly has in my experience. (I had not heard that Henry Cow recording in over a decade and certainly heard new things in it when I followed the link this morning.)

            I seriously question how we can move forward aesthetically and create a viable 21st century music if we should be making music that is hermetically sealed within some kind of aesthetic fence that we are not allowed to cross. If Western classical music is indeed “open to infinite variation and development” as you claim to believe it is and which I do believe it is, then why couldn’t any sonic gesture be created, performed and experienced in this context?

          2. Phil Fried

            I seriously question how we can move forward aesthetically and create a viable 21st century music if we should be making music that is hermetically sealed within some kind of aesthetic fence that we are not allowed to cross.

            I agree, agree, agree..

            No sonic prejudice

            Phil Fried

          3. John Borstlap

            “I seriously question how we can move forward aesthetically and create a viable 21 century music if we should be making music that is hermetically sealed within some kind of aesthetic fence that we are not allowed to cross. If Western classical music is indeed “open to infinite variation and development” as you claim to believe it is and which I do believe it is, then why couldn’t any sonic gesture be created, performed and experienced in this context?”

            None of my comments have been meant as ‘prohibition’ or ‘prescription’, but merely were observations and conclusions that can be drawn from them, and then argued (at least: an attempt to argue them). So, the ‘aesthetic fence’ is resulting from inaccurate reading, in my opinion…. As for sonic gestures within the context of western classical music: yes, that is possible, and it has already been done quite a couple of times, of which I would like to mention:

            1) Mahler / Symphony nr 7
            2) Strauss / Don Quichote
            3) Debussy / La Mer, and Jeux
            4) Bartok / 1st pf concerto, Concerto for orchestra, and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
            5) Szymanowski/ Symphony nr 3
            6) Stravinsky / Sacre

            But in all these examples, the sonic material is always subordinated to an overall tonal narrative, it is like an open door to a rustling landscape. It is an expressive, atmospheric addition, not a fundamental change of context, it is something absorbed into the tonal context. This sort of thing has its roots in earlier music where the tonal argument is interrupted by pure sound, like in Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll where, somewhere halfway, only a single chord is being arpeggiated in the strings without any motivic / melodic / rhythmic identity, like a wave of sound coming-up and going-down (inevitably, some musicologists have been puzzled over it because it could not be ‘explained’ through traditional music theory). It’s a wonderful moment, though, a reference to the rustling of leaves in the wind.
            If the overall narrative of a piece is created with tonal coherence, sonic elements can enliven the textures, functioning as expressive ornament. There is an example in an otherwise modernist piece where the central structure is a major triad, around which a whirling flow of non-tonal fragments is ‘draped’, and the effect is that the non-tonal material is somehow ‘ordered’ by the triad which forms the centre of the piece: the triad adds a tonal perspective to the non-tonal material. It is the ‘fifth scene’ of ‘Acrostic Word Play’ by Unsuk Chin, a non-European female composer with a determined modernist taste. But in this movement she uses tonality to great effect. It is a pity that she did not draw some conclusions from what she herself had written.

          4. John Borstlap

            When I listened to the Henry Cow traks, I immediately recognized the tone of cynical scorn, which put the music into a category which I cannot respect very much. If I see a cut corpse in formaldehyde in a museum of modern art (Damien Hirst), I am quite quickly informed about its meaning and know that spending more time on it would not produce more ‘understanding’. This is not superficiality but the result of many comparable experiences. Sorry… but I don’t think I need a scientific examination first before I call a spade a spade. The Cow does not give enough aesthetic information to be interesting in the sense of other, better music giving information. Good music, I believe, gives already at the first listening some signals of its nature, which are then inviting for more and longer listening, on that point I fully agree. I think we should just have to conclude that I find the Cow not very good, and if I miss out something sublime, the Cow should have been able to give some signalling, two tracks would give ample opportunity for that.

            Of course I may be totally wrong but one has only one’s own experiences to carry him through life.

  12. Chaz

    I’d be much more interested in your music if it were more influenced by ke$ha than Fernyhough if that’s the art you want to make. There’s no shame in that despite some of the comments I’ve read.

  13. J. M. Gerraughty

    I understand where you’re coming from Alex, and I’ve struggled with this same issue myself. If we believe the age-old postmodern adage that “all music is borrowed,” then it shouldn’t matter where we borrow from, right? But the truth is, deep down, it totally matters. I have been trying to come up with a single reason why it does, but I feel that there are many different reasons for many different people.

    One issue to discuss is the class system built into our conversation. Borrowed music is most often associated with “other” and “lesser than” music, where when Bartok is influenced by folk music, we imply (as John Borstlap generously reminds us) that he is “elevating” it to classical music status. We call that “influence.” Now consider the other end: when Ellington quotes Chopin in Black and Tan Fantasy, he is still borrowing, because jazz is not an “elevated” music, and one Chopin quote isn’t going to change that. In some cases of people’s issues with borrowed material, it’s time to call a spade a spade: the music we consider “classical” still reigns over lesser music in their minds.

    Another issue comes with the emotional/intellectual connotations of borrowing versus influence. If I borrow something, I’ve already framed it as the “other” in some way. Immediately, I’ve intellectualized it, protecting me from the adverse effects of actual influence, which we use as a signifier for whatever deeper connection the artist has with the subject. And even in this comparison, there is a preference in my language toward influence over borrowing. Obviously, the deeper connection is the better one, and must carry more Meaning.

    To combat this issue, what I consider to be the post-postmodern condition arose. I can “like” something, without actually liking it. In fact, you secretly know that I don’t like it at all, but we couch the conversation as if I do like it. The conflict between irony and sincerity is what fuels the Meaning of the piece. As you might imagine, this strategy lends itself to polemical subjects. It is much easier to get you to struggle with the notion that I believe that this borrowed object is Meaningful than it is for an elevated one: my Debussy influence goes relatively unnoticed compared to my Yma Sumac. I think that many composers and listeners are not willing to encounter music on this hyper-ironic level, because at its heart it points out that the postmodern condition that replaced the Failed Modernist Project may, in fact, be just as much of a failure.

    1. John Borstlap

      A really excellent analysis of the notions of ‘borrowing’ and ‘influence’. Since the modernist and the postmodernist projects both can be considered to have failed – because of not offering any fruitful aesthetic and meaningful perspective that stimulates the creative juices – we seem to be back to the fundamental question which bothered composers already at the beginning of the 20th century: how to create a meaningful, effective but also new music. If we look around to find a meaningful framework that would include both aesthetic, cultural and social relevance, and a performance culture that actually works, where would we find it? I think the answer is so clear that it does not need elaboration. But then the question arises: how could we genuinely relate to a culture that seems to have its roots somewhere else and in another time period than we are ourselves? Could we find examples of similar problems and their solutions? And yes, there are some, but it needs courageous exploration.

      1. J. M. Gerraughty

        @John – I kinda wish that you WOULD elaborate on your answer to where we go from here. I’d like to hear where you think we should be if not right here, because I can’t imagine us being in a different place.

        Alex’s example points out a wrinkle in the optimistic outlook of Postmodernism, but I don’t think that finding this means that it has failed entirely. There are plenty of great ideas that, although not everyone buys into them, remain great. Both her post and music force us to encounter the postmodern landscape without rose colored glasses.

        (My idea of a post-postmodern condition arises from postmodernism, where I think you feel as if it rises up in contrast to it.)

        1. John Borstlap

          A couple of really good points…. I can only give my own experiences. Also being something of an intellectual I studied both modernist and postmodernist theory, conventional music history, Jungian psychology, went to Cambridge University to study with a thoroughly Schoenbergian composer, and found that postmodernism is merely a situation: the awareness that modernism has been a historic period and directly related to a specific time and place (Western postwar culture 1945 – ca. 1980). I found that the only fundamental difference at the beginning of modernism was the break with tradition and its tonal languages (plural!), and that atonal modernism was an art form totally different from music (sonic art). From here it was a trajectory of finding an answer to the question: well, and how to continue? What after all this? The only workable idea I found was the one, amply taboo’d in modern times: that of revival. Studying the artistic climate of the Italian Renaissance provided an answer to the question of how to revive some cultural practice without falling into the trap of mere imitation. Artists in Renaissance Italy were very nostalgic to the art of antiquity which they tried to revive, but not academically so: they recreated an older culture through fantasizing and personally interpreting it and in this way, they created a modern art. I am speaking mainly of architecture and painting, because at the time one knew nothing of the music of the Romans and Greeks but one was surrounded by the ruins of Roman monuments which could be studied and taken as examples to learn from. The opera was, by the way, invented as a recreation of how one thought the theatre plays of the Greek had been performed. And the result was a totally new art form.

          Understanding what a cultural tradition is, liberates from the blindness of our own time, which is dominated by misconceptions about art in the sense that art is supposed to develop along linear lines and is progressive – which is nonsense. The concept of tradition has been misunderstood as something static, stuffy, while in reality it is something dynamic. All the great works of the classical music repertoire were NEVER conceived of as ‘classical’, they were fresh and personal inventions but within the framework of a given tradition.

          In short: I believe that in our own time, after a century of misconceptions about modernity in art / music, the best way ‘foreward’ would be to pick-up the musical traditions as they florished before WW II. The first half of the 20th century shows a very wide range of possible styles, idioms, grammars, interpretations. Why not reconnect with the last period of flowering? As soon as we have understood that in music, there is no linear history but a continuum, we can use any elements of available materials to feed our personal taste. When we learn from examples, as Renaissance artistis did, but in freedom and following our own taste, we will discover the authentic and new along the way: there is no contradition in following an existing or an old tradition and developing one’s own, personal voice. It may be a long learning trajectory but in the end, it pays off, I can assure you. But it needs some courage because one will be accused of conservatism, narrow-mindedness, being out of touch with the times, etc. which is all based upon the mentioned misunderstandings.

          One of the great advantages of picking-up prewar traditions is that the performance culture which is needed to bring them to life is already there: in the central performance culture, fed by a thorough educational system.

          There are already quite some composers working in this direction of which I would like to mention the Englishman David Matthews, and the Frenchman Nicolas Bacri, both successful after a long time of intensive work and refinement of their musical language. Google them and listen to their music:

          (And I hope myself to contribute something to this trend, later-on this year a piece of mine will be premiered in Berlin by a German chamber orchestra.)

          1. John Borstlap

            PS: all this neatly ties-in with Alex’ article which started all this. Renaissance artists, especially architects, freely borrowed elements from Antiquity, which quickly developed into a repertoire like a language with a grammar, and this provided enough material for a couple of centuries of innovative ‘borrowing’…. This also goes for painting where we can clearly observe influences combined with very personal interpretations of ‘the language’. If we are free enough and secure enough about our own identity, borrowing is a liberation from restricting notions of creativity.

  14. Grego Edwards

    I find all the points raised here as interesting and Alex Temple’s initial article as something I do not disagree with. Perhaps I am not in the mainstream of consensus but I do believe that we live in an age where localization by region has diminished as a factor in many parts of the world, including the United States, principally because of the increased number of communication channels. My musical upbringing included more local (regional) aspects than a person growing up right now has, I suspect. What influences you over time now can be almost anything and of course it’s more important to zero in on the qualitative in looking at somebody’s music than the quantitative. So when you are influenced is one thing, how much you are influenced is another thing, and what influences you want to develop consciously is another. Nobody comes out of the womb whistling Mozart of course. And even in his day “classical training” for Mozart meant a specific non-ordinary, more or less unnatural set of aural experiences that the average person was not likely to get. My only point is that someone’s music can be any combination of natural exposure and conscious training. There is nothing wrong with a mix of either or an extreme of one or the other. All music comes out of us based on how we have lived, how we have been trained, and what is most important, the creative spark that may be inside us that allows us to do combinations that work in interesting and perhaps original ways. Everything is available to us and nothing should be denied any of us if we want to make music. Nothing is unlawful. Anarchy reigns and all the better we are for it!

    1. John Borstlap

      I fully agree. And in the midst of the information chaos one could find something that forms an organic whole in itself, something of quality that stands-out, something that one can pick-out and develop following one’s own taste and talents. Within a pluralist field there is room for discernment, considered choice, and creating a personal collection of elements. But in reality, many people do not allow for pluralism: it is stunning how quickly advocates of free pluralism condemn things which are obviously better than their surroundings (as apparant in this blog). In that way, pluralism is understood as egalitarian levelling: anything goes, and damn you if you think that among this nice pluralist field is something that sticks out. Therefore I advocate a pluralism where one can make assessments of quality, meaning, and value; otherwise pluralism is meaningless – where everything is the same nothing has any value or meaning.

  15. Haley Shaw

    Thanks for the read, Alex! Good points here.
    I’d like to add that not all borrowing necessarily resembles the context of its original form. Though I’m generally a composer of exp techniquey / formtastic / noisy music, many of my ideas are borrowed from all sorts of music (OF COURSE including the giant pop umbrella, which I wholeheartedly celebrate) but are then cultivated and spit out in a particular way that people might categorize as modernist. Much like many of the composers writing in a tonal idiom might be taking formal structures from modernist works. Perhaps I misread, but it seems much of the article refers to a more broad stylistic borrowing (using multiple parameters to emulate a certain style) rather than parameter-specific borrowing? Perhaps this is because broad borrowing is more easily pinpointed by the listener and thus more susceptible to the double standard you reference.. Thoughts?

    Also, yes yes yes to Marek’s comment regarding power hierarchies in borrowing. Would love to read an article of yours discussing that. Looking forward.

    1. Alex Temple

      Hi Haley —

      You didn’t misread! I definitely was focused on borrowing multiple parameters to evoke (I think that word covers a bit more ground than “emulate”) a particular style, rather than on drawing elements from tonal and/or pop music in a more limited, single-parameter way. I think that’s just because my own music is so focused on style as a topic.

      My hunch is that the same notion about what’s “native” to new music would apply in both cases, as long as the reference isn’t totally imperceptible. But I’m not sure, because I’m having a hard time thinking of examples of the kind of parameter-specific borrowing that you’re talking about. Got any examples?

  16. Liam Carey

    I think maybe ‘borrowed’ implies that something belongs to someone else, and in this way direct references to things that are specifically associated to other people (the tristan chord, the hendrix chord, violin shrieks from the shower scene in Psycho) clearly brings with it a context and a meaning. But other musical materials that have been used before can be so ubiquitous that they can’t really be said to belong to anyone. One example who be the a perfect fifth, which is used as a drone by Hindustani classical music and Highland bagpipes, as power chords by rock musicians and the parallel harmonies of early organum, as the V-I cadence and the tonic-dominant opposition in 18th century European classical music, and so on. It seems to me that the prevalence of this interval is due to it’s early occurrence in the overtone series, and in this way some musical materials are just naturally there, like air or sunlight, and so common property for all to use and abuse however they see fit.

    Composers that use tonality, or simple triads, or steady rhythms often aren’t ‘borrowing’ these things, but deriving them from what they believe to be the basic elements of the acoustic properties of music and how humans perceive and organise what they hear. This in many ways is what the early minimalist such as La Monte Young and Terry Riley were doing. Perhaps the reason for modernist critiques of this approach is that any recourse to ‘nature’ is essentially ahistorical, and therefore amodernist, as it seeks to ignore cultural and historical contexts of musical materials (which is a fair critique up to a point – nothing is ever entirely ‘natural’ or ‘cultural’, rather a complex tangle of both).

    1. John Borstlap

      This summarizes the subject pretty well.

      Just one possible addition: with “borrowing” it seems to me that one should be clearly aware of the different categories involved: art music, folk music, pop music. They have their own mix of intention, innocence, and vulgarity.

  17. MR

    In terms of culinary tastes, some will only dine on British fare, and have no appetite for cuisine from America, China, India, Indonesia, Africa, Cuba, etc. However, in the relatively integrated world that history has unveiled, this limited approach removes one from a serious intellectual discourse about the music of our time. Even Bach was influenced by the music of Italy and France, considered by some Germans to be trivial and undignified, and that is part of the reason why his work was incomprehensible to many contemporaries.

    Regarding the finest “popular” music, as Bobby Fischer demonstrated in chess, some of the most profound artistic and scientific insights may appear elementary on the surface to casual observers when, in fact, they are deeper than the submarine canyons off the coast of Carmel California.

    1. Grego Edwards

      I fully and totally agree with what John said earlier–embrace pluralism and then of course find what is good in the mix and don’t bother with things that don’t work! Let everybody loose and praise the good! That is what I try to do in my reviews….and my listening….my own music making, etc.

    2. John Borstlap

      It seems obvious that something ‘deep’, i.e. profoundly meaningful in an artistic sense, will not be found in entertainment forms which intend nothing of the kind. There are people who are deeply moved by cut corpses in formaldehyde in MOMA but it is more likely that their reaction finds its cause wihtin their own psyche than in the object. The same with entertainment music.

      Indeed the contemporary cultural panorama is broader than it has ever been, but for the production of meaningful art this does not mean that suddenly artists SHOULD relate to this panorama as a whole, it depends upon individual taste and personality and life history which elements – from whatever cultural sphere – do appeal to him. Interestingly, many contemporary visual artists as well as composers in the West let themselves be influenced by everything under the sun (or moon) EXCEPT their own traditions, as it that is something to lock away, to deny, to be ashamed of. If relating to Western culture, it is at most its pop culture, and hardly something more serious. There is a great taboo hovering over the scenes of visual and musical contemporary art, in blatant contradition with the so-called pluralistic freedom…. which betrays a profound identity crisis, as far as art is concerned.

      In the world at large, there are numerous cultural traditions existing next to each other, some of them can mix, others are mutually exclusive. But this is merely a superficial observation. The differences between Italian and German baroque music were gradual, not fundamental; the difference between Indian classical music and European classical music (to name another example) is so much deeper and the fundamentals of these two traditions mutually exclusive. The outward form of a cultural tradition is the outcome of ages of development and culturation. This ‘deep structure’ of historical background can not easily be transferred into another context. Only superficial influences, which are absorbed in an existing tradition that is otherwise firm in place, can contribute to its development, like Debussy, Messiaen. But for such influences to be productive, the fundamentals of the ‘host culture’ should be clear and internalized…. otherwise composers merely shop in a mall and take what pleases them at the package. And that is exactly what we often encouter in the new music scene – a watered-down mix of misunderstood elements that are not digested or absorbed in a strong, personal tradition.

      1. MR

        It comes across as pretentious and even segregationist for anyone (not yourself) to proclaim that one who is Caucasian, male, and a composer of European “classical music” is automatically elevated above artists whose music has been superficially limited as “popular” music, especially when jazz, rock, folk, and other popular forms superseded Western classical music intellectually, technically, expressively, and spiritually beginning around the time of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke. Many songs by the Beatles are at least equal to the finest lieder of past German composers, and the finest improvisations of Charlie Parker present a musical sophistication second to none in the history of Western music. There are countless others examples I might site, but before making a career out of this I prefer to have more of a sense of your considerable musical experience, and I am curious to know your favorite song(s) by each of the following artists: the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Laura Nyro, Snoop Dogg, Michael Jackson, Pink, and Bob Dylan, just to name a few random artists who come to mind. Also, what are your favorite individual recordings by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Lee Konitz, Allah Rakha and Shivkumar Sharma, again to name a few random artists that come to mind. If you will be kind enough to supply this information it would be greatly appreciated. I’m enjoying this exchange in the spirit of a friendly chess game, and hope you concur.

        1. John Borstlap

          What is the point of comparing apples with cucumbers? Charley Parker is GREAT but comparing him with the classcial European tradition is unfair to him, the same goes for the rest. When something is singled out as being superior, that does not mean that the other stuff is worthless, or pointless…. it is the comparison that is pointless. I thought this blog is about new serious music, not jazz, pop, hip hop etc. etc.

          The idea that forms of pop or jazz have ‘superseded’ European classical music doesn’t deserve serious opposition…. it’s just too absurd. Accusations of denigration, when the value of classical music is defended (a very basic notion for composers), are the result of an egalitarian world view where nothing is allowed to stick out, a view where hamburgers are not allowed to be considered a bit less than lobsters and caviar, even when the burgers are really of superb quality, and where a coke MUST be considered ‘as good as’ champagne. Maybe that’s an American problem? If so, how could something of great artistic quality emerge within such culture? With all due respect, this confusion of genre is a sign of immaturity….

      2. MR

        “It seems obvious that something ‘deep’, i.e. profoundly meaningful in an artistic sense, will not be found in entertainment forms which intend nothing of the kind.” Intention has nothing to do with artistic quality, and whether or not one’s efforts may be still born, an immortal classic, or somewhere in-between. For example, Little Richard’s recording of Long Tall Sally, and the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell recording of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (both random examples that come to mind at this instant) represent musical creativity of the highest order impervious to the passing of time, while shattering any limiting labels of pop, classical, etc. (Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, Enotris Johnson and Richard Penniman (Little Richard) composed Long Tall Sally, and Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson composed Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.)

        1. John Borstlap

          At the danger of sounding pretentious again: what has this to do with serious composition? At best it is excellent entertainment, which is OK. Borrowing from that territory can only produce good results, it seems to me, if the borrowed material is transcended to the level of art music, which has (or should have) a different value framework. One does not need aspiration to produce something really good, but why reject a framework which presupposes such intention? Don’t we try to organize our life in just such way: the sitting room is for sitting, the sleeping room for sleeping, the dinner table for dining, the car for driving etc. etc…..

        1. John Borstlap

          Excellent American commercial pop stuff, expressive and well-sung, which will make lots of people quite happy (including dentists). In the wider context of CULTURE however, where it is measured-up with other musical achievements, it is cheap and vulgar and thoroughly conventional, even within the genre itself. It has nothing to do with serious composition and it proves my points irrefutably.

  18. Pingback: Something Borrowed » Writing music while distracted in New York City » David Wolfson Music

  19. MR

    “the difference between Indian classical music and European classical music (to name another example) is so much deeper and the fundamentals of these two traditions mutually exclusive.”

    John Coltrane’s recording of “Africa” successfully marries jazz (which had already superseded Western classical music) with Indian classical melodic forms and African rhythms. Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles (rock also superseded Western classical music) successfully incorporates Indian rhythms into its construction.

    Debussy’s music was forever altered by his experience of hearing Indonesian gamelan music. If, by chance, he had heard the classical music of India instead, I have no doubt the French composer’s music would have taken a different, yet equally successful turn, the point being that your assertion about India and Europe applies equally to Indonesia and Europe, and Debussy was thirsting for new vistas.

    To cite another of many possible examples that refute your assertion, Conlon Nancarrow’s music would be inconceivable without his exposure to the rhythmic wealth of India’s classical music, and he formed a new musical hybrid, also fed by jazz, which continues to astonish.

    Your preoccupation and insistence upon European classical music traditions of the past somehow wiping away music of the present, together with “disinfecting” living composers from diverse influences is self-defeating. The music of the great European composers will always be around to teach and inspire us, and is immune from being rendered irrelevant by new forms and different cultures.

    1. John Borstlap

      I was merely deploring the lack of interest as shown by so many contemporary composers in a rich past when really great music could be created. If one thing is obvious, as this discussion amply shows, it is that many contemporary composers have no idea what this tradition could possibly be, hence the confusion of value and meaning, and citing rock, pop etc. as forms of serious music. It is all so unambitious. And as far as Debussy is concerned: he absorbed non-European influences in his own, superb musical language which used all the internal dynamics of the classical tradition. He transformed the material, not just ‘borrowed’ it. Since borrowing is the subject of this thread, this should be an important example of what can be done with ‘foreign’ material.

      1. MR

        “The idea that forms of pop or jazz have ‘superseded’ European classical music doesn’t deserve serious opposition…. it’s just too absurd.” “With all due respect, this confusion of genre is a sign of immaturity….” “When something is singled out as being superior, that does not mean that the other stuff is worthless, or pointless”

        In the context of your belief that European classical music of the past (you refuse to focus on the present time, or the time period I made reference to) is artistically superior (you carefully reject the term Western classical music in order to exclude American composers), or more profound or lofty compared to American musical forms such as jazz, rock (British too), folk, soul, rhythm and blues, and other popular forms, most of which are predominantly African American, including essential contributions from Jewish Americans among other cultural and/or ethnic groups, I am curious about this quote from your 2013 essay, “Was Wagner a Bad Person?”: “Understood as a human being in an extraordinary position – both historically and artistically – he [Richard Wagner] was not as bad as people nowadays want to paint him.” How did you reconcile this conclusion with some commonly known facts about Richard Wagner’s life that are quoted below from Wikipedia?

        “Wagner wrote that the German people were repelled by Jews due to their ‘alien’ appearance and behaviour: ‘with all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews’ emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them.’ He argued that Jewish musicians were only capable of producing music that was shallow and artificial, because they had no connection to the genuine spirit of the German people.” (Of course, it is widely reported that when Wagner conducted music by Felix Mendelssohn, he would wear white gloves, and after the performance, Wagner would take off the gloves and throw them on the floor to be swept away by a janitor because Mendelssohn was Jewish.)

        “Although many have argued that his aim was to promote the integration of Jews into society by suppressing their Jewishness, others have interpreted the final words of the 1850 pamphlet (suggesting the solution of an Untergang for the Jews, an ambiguous word, literally ‘decline’ or ‘downfall’ but which can also mean ‘sinking’ or ‘going to a doom’ as meaning that Wagner wished the Jewish people to be destroyed.”

        “Wagner’s concerns over miscegenation occupied him until the very end of his life; he was in the process of writing another essay, On the Womanly in the Human Race (1883), at the time of his death, in which he discusses the role of marriage in the creation of races: “it is certain that the noblest white race is monogamic at its first appearance in saga and history, but marches toward its downfall through polygamy with the races which it conquers.”

        “Wagner’s son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain expanded on Wagner and Gobineau’s ideas in his 1899 book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a racist work extolling the Aryan ideal that later strongly influenced Adolf Hitler’s ideas on race.”

        1. John Borstlap

          I know it is not always easy to really read what is written down…. The mentioned essay says ‘not as bad as people nowadays want to paint him’, so: it does not say that W was a good person, but that he was NOT as bad as many people seem to think: a matter of gradation.

          Racism was an acceptable way of looking upon people from other cultures in the 19th century, which to us – after everything we know that racism has helped to cause – is rightly seen as violating the image of man in general. It is very hard for us to look at 19C racist texts without the holocaust in mind, but for antisemites the European Jews were not victims but conquerers: a very visible force in society because they were quite good in things, they formed an important part of the elite in all fields. It is still puzzling why Jewish people who were so thoroughly assimilated, were – by so many people – not accepted as Europeans, as they should have been. There were also many people who did NOT like or support racist views, as for instance Brahms in the increasingly antisemitic climate in Vienna often protested against antisemitic remarks. W used racist terms to shoot at his enemies, which is stupid and merely the result of his bitterness; I am not excusing it. Read Brian Magee’s ‘Aspects of Wagner’ (Oxford University Press 1990, a thin booklet) where W’s antisemitism is treated thoroughtly and correctly, in my view.

          If you had read my essay more carefully, you would have found the answer to your question already there. ‘Wagner’s antisemitism was a cultural and social critique, and by mistake clothed in racist terms.’ I am certain that, had W lived through WW II and seen the devastation of middle Europe and the holocaust, he would have been shocked and appalled, and have felt terribly guilty about his contribution to a climate where it became acceptable to consider Jews not as human at all. And have felt immensibly embarrassed that his works would always be associated with what could be called the greatest crime of modern history.

          Of course I understand you would like to have my writing be seen as not only reactionary, but also as racist, so that some observations and their arguments can be refuted. A bit weak strategy, I would say… Maybe it reassures you to know that I almost collaborated with a well-known black American jazz musician, and live together with a Pakistani muslem family in multiculti Amsterdam. Artistic quality is really something different from politically-correct egalitarian ideas…..

          See and under the heading of ‘texts’: ‘Was Wagner a bad person?’

  20. MR

    Here is another relevant quote from Wagner specifically about race:
    “Incomparably fewer in individual numbers than the lower races, the ruin of the white races may be referred to their having been obliged to mix with them; whereby, as remarked already, they suffered more from the loss of their purity than the others could gain by the ennobling of their blood […]”

    1. John Borstlap

      Yes, gobbledigock by a confused 19C mind, as so much other nonsense written in that century but which is not read (like Gobineau’s ‘Essay sur l’Inégalité des Races’). Wagner’s nonsense however, is read because his works have become part of the core repertoire, his rantings a source of infinite embarrassment for the musical establishment.

  21. MR

    The idea that forms of pop or jazz have ‘superseded’ European classical music doesn’t deserve serious opposition…. it’s just too absurd.” You give the impression of not having enough personal knowledge and understanding of these forms to even consider them.

    1. John Borstlap

      But many people here on this website seem to never have had enough interest to take notice of Western classical music before they dismissed it as a serious source of aspiration for their own work and instead indulge in emulating fomrs of entertainment, however nice they may be (the entertainments, and the people indulding in them).

      There are phenomenae in life which one can recognize at a distance as being something one does not want to get involved into, like crime, war, etc. etc. So it is with culture: one hears and sees things, and after a while one begins to understand what the genre is about. For instance, concept art (in the visual arts) is a perfectly accepted ‘art form’ by the art community, there are museums full with the stuff, and yet it has nothing to do with art (if everything is art, nothing is). After visiting a couple of museums that present concept art, you get an idea where the genre is about – it’s a genre, with a priori and fundamental norms, implicit in the objects. So it is with pop, jazz etc. etc. There is nothing wrong with these music forms, but obviously they belong to another genre than serious contemporary composition. I have heard enough of the stuff to get an idea what it is about, I don’t need to hear everything before being able to make an assessment – which, it may be stressed, is always made in a general way and may not aply to individual exceptions.

      By the way, I love jazz, especially when played by black musicians, they seem to do it better than the whites, and I do not mean this as a racist remark. I don’tknow enough of jazz to come-up with specialized analysis but have heard enough of it to 1) enjoy most of it and 2) understand where the genre is about.

      But to return to the topic of this lead… Borrowing material is a natural part of any musical tradition, but that does not mean that everything we can borrow is as meaningful as anything else. That seems to me a valuable point to bring into a discussion as this one. And if borrowing is the subject, it is stunning that people involved in writing new music ignore the immense treasure trove which is next door to us, and from which we can borrow things that may teach us some important artistic lessons.

  22. NewMusicBox Staff

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  23. MR

    For those interested in an astoundingly brilliant and insightful look into the influence of Richard Wagner on Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, here is Peter Cohen’s monumental documentary, “The Architecture of Doom.”

    John: I wish to introduce you to the music of Lee Konitz (via an interview I conducted that served as a template for a later book), who lives nearby in Cologne Germany. He happens to possess a melodic/harmonic imagination comparable to Johann Sebastian Bach, as did his late friend, Charlie Parker. The interview, titled “The Miracle of Improvising” may be reached by clicking on “MR” above. Best regards, and no hard feelings.

    1. John Borstlap

      The link did not work, but I listened to some Konitz on YouTube (Jazzwoche Burghausen 2012) and I think that is really good stuff. But it is not art music. Things have their own character, emanation, create their own atmosphere… and this is jazz, whatever elements the musicians use, they transform everything into the charcter, the nature, of their genre. Great pleasure to listen to these guys.

      Re the Doom video: yes, I know all of that… (See Jacob Katz “Richard Wagner – Vorbote des Antisemitismus”, “Richard Wagner im Dritten Reich” by Rüsen/Friedländer.) In contrary to what the video says, was Wagner NOT a politician. In politics Wagner was a dreamer, an amateur, something his contemporaries had already noticed right from the beginning, and which led to his downfall in Munich after his advices to King Ludwig provoked the members of parliament.

      1. NewMusicBox Staff

        John and Michael–
        Please move your conversation outside of NewMusicBox. It is off the topic of this post. Further comments along these lines will not be approved. if you care to address the topic at hand in a manner that respects the other readers of NewMusicBox, and leaves room for others to participate, you are welcome to do so.
        Thank you for your attention.

  24. ryan ingebritsen

    I liken this debate to the debate about interactive or electronic media. For a while, people avoided delay like the plague because that is all everyone used to use in electronic performance and it was considered “passe”. This sounded odd to me as it is just a technique that has millions of different possible uses from self similar sonic layering to phase effects to anything else you could possibly do and express by playing with some exact copy of sound in time and space. In essence, if every idea we can come up with, or any tool or musical device we could possibly use can only be used once for it to be relevant, then those tools and devices were never more than novelty in the first place and should all be abandoned from the time Pythagoras first split the length of a string in half discovering the octave. A wise old visiting professor in Poland once said, “all electronic processes have been discovered. There is no more to invent.” (paraphrasing) “What we need to focus on now is how we interact with it”. (again paraphrasing). I think this kind of goes for all compositional devices, both Modernist, Post-Modernist, and just plain old school. We are WAY too hung up on originality. Or perhaps better to say, there are lots of ways to be original we haven’t even considered yet.

  25. Pingback: Borrowed materials in music or Musical Appropriation | Mae Mai

  26. Deanna

    Praise. Finally someone understands that at least the majority of music has already been done, and that any ‘new’ music has ‘borrowed’ factors.

  27. Dan

    Yes, or at least for those that feel this way, they should be free to express this. i think any musical influence is possible but the most important thing is what you do with it, the nuts and bolts. Sometimes pop music influence is for the worse, and weakens the integrity of the music in my opinion. The worst is when it completely takes over, and we no longer have anything left of the unspoken drive that can be called ‘classical music.’ Where basically the nuts and bolts at work are the same that pop music use and what we are listening to is basically instrumental pop. Take Einaudi or Richter as examples, and standard mainstream soundtracks. This is fine if that’s what you like but if the future of classical music is to undermine what it’s all about, and replace it with the inner workings of pop, where eventually no one is no longer interested in anything close to classical music, they’re more interested in pop music, and everyone’s basically writing instrumental pop, that really sucks. And no, though I wouldn’t call all alternative music in the pop world ‘entertainment’ as deplored in the comment below, even all this music, Henry Cow, Julia Holter, the nuts and bolts behind it, behind all the distortion and weirdness is still the same kind of things that make pop tick. That doesn’t have to be taken as a criticism, but it is what it is. Anyway, unfortunately not all people have pluralistic tastes and listen to pop and classical interchangeably. For me it ultimately doesn’t satisfy me, or ends up annoying me somehow. Not because it’s ‘deviant’ but ultimately because at heart it’s not ‘deviant’ enough for my tastes. There’s something too comfortable about it.

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