Why Pastiche Has Taken Over Music

Why Pastiche Has Taken Over Music


“Mashups of the Mona Lisa” created by Dave Winer, via Flickr CC

The predominant ideology in composition today, across all genres, is rooted in pastiche. Most composers in the new music community aren’t consciously thinking about this, but we’re involved all the same. I mean, just look at the names: new complexity, neo-romanticism, post-minimalism—three of the broadest trends in contemporary music, all with echoes of pastiche baked right into their labels. Of course not everyone is writing “in the style of” or explicitly quoting other pieces, but the desire to build perceptible bridges between musical traditions is nearly universal.

And it’s not just in classical composition. Virtually all of the most celebrated new art of our time, across genres and disciplines, whether high art or populist entertainment, relies to some extent on pastiche. You will find a healthy serving of the stuff in everything from the music of Jennifer Higdon to Nico Muhly to Thomas Adès, not to mention Taylor Swift, the Star Wars movies, and the memes in your Facebook feed. Pastiche clearly strikes a chord with the cultural zeitgeist of the moment.

Now before we get any further, pastiche is a broad term and there’s certainly disagreement on what it should mean. I’m most interested in the sense of “appropriation designed to be recognizable.” That is the type of pastiche that has taken over art, with an emphasis on “recognizable.” Clearly artists have always taken ideas and materials from other sources—how could we not?—but never before have we so celebrated the attribution of those sources.

In previous decades, society’s archetype of a great artist was the solitary genius who creates strikingly original work (supposedly) out of thin air. To expose one’s sources was frowned upon, because it gave the lie to the myth. Today, society seems to have the exact opposite set of priorities: art that borrows liberally and obviously from other sources generates the most praise.

Christina's world meets UFO

Image created by AK Rockefeller, via Flickr CC

A changing of the ideological guard

What we’re witnessing is essentially an ideological shift. Music critic and composer Kyle Gann got me thinking about this with the accidentally incendiary update he posted to his blog in late 2015. In it, he complains that young composers today produce nothing but tepid, middle-of-the-road work devoid of ideological backbone. It’s just “kids these days” nonsense, but he does manage to demonstrate just how far society’s priorities have mutated.

All artistic ideologies (or at least those that make an impact) arise as a response to the values of a society. Consider, for example, the rise of serialism (as a way of understanding music, not just as a compositional technique). Although today serialism is often associated with rigidity, its success stemmed from its flexibility, from the many ways it resonated with the concerns of Cold War-era composers. It was, among many things, a reaction against fascism, a reflection of democratic ideals, an outgrowth of 20th-century scientific optimism, and a way to professionalize music and bring it into academia.

During its heyday, serialism and its ideological relatives allowed composers to create music that harmonized with their views of the world and how they saw themselves within it. But the world is always changing, and the ideals of serialism eventually became disconnected from the concerns of a majority of composers. Slowly, gradually, other ways of understanding music took over in a messy, overlapping process that is hard to see in action but that becomes visible in hindsight.

It’s important not to oversimplify this narrative: serialism was never the only game in town; it was always one strand within the larger modernist project, which in turn faced competition first from traditionalist and neo-classical ideas, then from postmodern philosophies as well as paradigms arising from jazz, folk, rock, and other popular genres.

So just as we can’t pinpoint the exact moment that serialism lost its dominance in new music, or bebop in jazz, et cetera, et cetera, it’s hard to say exactly when pastiche became king (as a way of understanding art, not just as a technique). But king it is, and to an extent rarely seen for past ideologies. Its dominance holds true across an extremely wide swath of art making, from the most commercial Hollywood movie to the edgiest new music concert.

On the makings of a blockbuster

Let’s start with film, since the rise of pastiche is especially visible there. One of the most straightforward tests is to look at whether the top-grossing film of each year is an original story or relies on references to past work, then compare the relative numbers of “original” vs. “derivative” films over time. This should tell us something about broad societal preferences.

To simplify things, let’s look at sequels and remakes, which by definition fall into the “derivative” category and can be spotted without doing too much cinematic background research. Yes, you could reasonably argue those don’t count as true pastiches, but they do undoubtedly fall within an ideology of pastiche—a pastichism—where people prize references to past art over original artistic expression. Sequels in particular are telling, because Hollywood’s decision to continue investing in a pre-existing storyline, as opposed to striking out with something new and fresh, is a good barometer of our collective appetite for derivativeness.

Commercial film has always been a derivative format, so we would expect to see a certain baseline number of sequels, remakes, and dyed-in-the-wool pastiches. However, we see a virtual takeover starting in 1999. In the 17 years since then, only one of the #1 blockbusters, Avatar, has not fallen into the sequel or remake category. And of that exception, Avatar director James Cameron has described the film as a pastiche of sci-fi stories he read as a kid.

By contrast, if you look at the previous 17-year span, there were only 6 remakes or sequels. Everything else was original drama. And the trend holds true no matter how you slice the data. Look at the decadal average from 1965 to 2015, and we see more or less equal numbers of original vs. derivative top-grossers, with a slight uptick in originals in the 1980s. If you look in 15-year increments, it’s even more clear. At the turn of the millennium, boom, everything changes.


So is pastiche just a corporate marketing ploy?

I doubt it. Marketers in the commercial arts sector have certainly picked up on our newfound obsession with pastiche, but they didn’t create it. Why would they bother? Commercial art marketing isn’t about artistic expression, it’s about the path of least resistance to your wallet. There was no clear trend toward pastiche in previous decades (in fact, the ‘80s saw a trend toward original work, at least in film), and especially given the powerful analytical tools provided by online streaming, it’s never been easier for the commercial arts to follow rather than lead.

Turning to pop music, this is exactly what we see. The major labels invest a lot of money into streaming data analysis, looking for the next big hit or rising indie band. In interviews, major label execs speak to a strong listener preference for pastiche. All of the most popular stuff is derivative-sounding music that combines elements from other well-known sources, whether in the form of genre fusions like “country rap” or stylistic tributes like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”

Most listeners today are not that adventurous: they like music that sounds familiar. But perhaps more shocking: most listeners are less adventurous than even the record execs used to believe. Prior to the streaming data era, Top 40 radio played twice as many unique songs per day. The commercial music industry has reduced the variety in its radio rotations as a response to online streaming data.

That’s certainly not the story of payola-style boosterism foisting ever more crappy music upon us. It’s the story of a listening public that wants to hear the same thing repackaged over and over again with slight variation. Of course, none of this is to say that people can’t appreciate unfamiliar music given the right context, but our default preferences have moved more strongly than ever toward pastiche.

Spotting pastichism in art music

An ideology of pastiche is equally present in new music, although often in more subtle forms than we see in Top 40. Nevertheless, “appropriation designed to be recognizable” is a visible trend for a wide stylistic range of composers, in contrast to Stockhausen’s “always waiting until I’ve found something that I had never imagined before” or Lachenmann’s “rigidly constructed denial.” I present for your consideration a few choice excerpts from music reviews:

[Jason Eckardt’s] piece ‘After Serra,’ a musical response to the sculpture of Richard Serra, moves toward a reconciliation of uptown and downtown. — Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe

Fausto Romitelli’s 2001 “Amok Koma”… Rock elements merge with the timbrally sweeping tactics of the French “spectral” style, to coolly entrancing ends. — Josef Woodard, Los Angeles Times

Stylistically, the Philadelphia-based [Jennifer] Higdon comes down firmly on the side of tonalists, but she also knows her way around a spiky dissonance. Reminders of many a 20th-century composer may float to the surface of the concerto from time to time… — Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

[Nicole Lizée’s] “This Will Not Be Televised,” is a work for turntablist and chamber orchestra… fragments of old recordings are scratched and pitch-shifted, leading the acoustic ensemble on a merry chase through a fractured but brightly colored soundscape… — John Schaefer, eMusic record review

Mohammed Fairouz’s “The Named Angels” is a smooth cocktail of Middle Eastern dance tunes and film-noirish Minimalism. Ken Ueno’s “Peradam” offers a heady brew of harmonies flickering with microtones, harmonics and vocalizations that draws heavily on the individual talents of the versatile Del Sol [Quartet] players, which in the case of the violist Charlton Lee includes eerily accomplished samples of Tuvan throat singing. — Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times

I could go on and on. Recognizable appropriation is everywhere in new music; the only question is which materials we’re combining.

The death of originality?

To be clear, I certainly don’t think any of this means we are less creative than previous generations of composers. Pastiche sometimes carries pejorative connotations, but those stem from another time when the ideology of “hide your sources” was still dominant. Today’s “attribution designed to be recognizable” is a source of tremendous originality.

To my ears, one of the greatest modern practitioners of this new pastichism is British composer Richard Ayres. Consider, for example, his No. 35 (Overture) for two pianos, euphonium, and timpani, which flits rapidly between a wide range of stylistic references, oversized gestures, and extended techniques:

Ayres’s music is often funny, but it is also strikingly earnest and devoid of irony. His is a complex, nuanced oeuvre: some of it is very intimate and fragile, some bombastic and silly, almost all of it unafraid to show its seams, much of it uncomfortably at odds with modernist aesthetics. And most importantly for our purposes, there is nothing else that sounds like Ayres. He’s one of the most distinctive voices in composition today.

In my own work, I’ve found pastiche-inspired thinking to be a conduit for creativity. It focuses the development of the piece, and it provides an “in” for the audience: a baseline of understanding that helps them relate to the artistic project on its own terms. Sometimes the appropriation itself serves as the main focus of the development, but it doesn’t have to; sometimes it’s just a supporting character that connects the dots.

My Concerto for Mozart Piano Videos falls at one extreme, where appropriation sits center stage. It is a pastiche of concerto form structural elements, Mozart piano music, and the experience of listening to music on YouTube. In preparing the piece, I took Creative Commons–licensed videos of amateur pianists playing Mozart, chopped them into short clips, and mapped a clip to each note of the standard piano range. I then wrote a concerto for orchestra and keyboard soloist that uses this audio-video sampler as the solo instrument. The result is a whirlwind of recontextualized associations, all pivoting around rubato piano figures.

A piece like Who Made the Inch of Grass (piano and erhu), on the other hand, shows the “supporting role” side of appropriation. Given the way the erhu is built, there’s a danger that you just end up writing a violin part that gets played on an erhu, instead of actually writing for the erhu. I didn’t want that; I wanted the music to be idiomatic to the erhu in a way that was also non-idiomatic to the violin. So I focused on the erhu’s tradition of ornamentation, which includes various types of vibrati and glissandi not typical for violin. Nothing else in the piece is borrowed, and the musical development doesn’t specifically reference other artists or styles. However, the ornamentation of the erhu part is taken from the instrument’s traditional repertoire.

In both cases, pastichism led me to new and fulfilling types of musical development I might not have considered otherwise. It also seems to stand out for audiences. Despite the very different approaches to appropriation above, listeners of those two pieces (and others relying on pastichism) have predominantly shared reactions that stem from pastiche thinking. For the concerto, people speak (not surprisingly) about the novelty of the setup but also about how the Mozart source material was completely transformed in their minds. For the erhu piece, people remark on how the instrument seems to fit so naturally within the context of a piano duet, despite its non-Western heritage.

Why is this happening?

Until recently, I hadn’t thought of framing my work or that of my peers in terms of pastiche, but now that I have, I see it everywhere. Which of course raises the question: why is this happening? Broad societal trends are invariably complex, so I won’t pretend to have any kind of a comprehensive answer, but here are a few preliminary theories:

Access. Information technology has given us instant access to more music of more diverse types than at any point in history. As we’ve seen above, this hasn’t translated into broader musical palettes for the majority of listeners, but it has for those of us who really care about sound, like composers. It makes sense then that we would draw upon this diverse cultural history to inform our work.

Noise. Music is everywhere; it’s virtually inescapable in everyday life. That makes the experience of hearing music less special. Nobody today would throw things and boo like they did at the premiere of The Rite of Spring. The bigger problem is that people simply don’t notice music washing over them; everything unfamiliar simply becomes so much noise. And composers aren’t immune. As a reaction to this collective numbing, we are increasingly attracted to the use of familiar elements that can cut through the indifference and serve as a sort of Trojan horse for our artistic ideas.

Biology. There are limits to what the ear can hear and the mind can process. As I’ve written previously, this puts an expiry date on experimentalism in music. We have long since passed the point where composers and instrument-builders could come up with sounds never before heard. Technologies like Max/MSP will continue to improve, performers will gain better fluency with extended techniques, but the sounds of 100 years from now will not be unrecognizable to us in the way the sounds of today would have been 100 years ago. It’s impossible. We’ve already heard all the sounds the human ear can hear. All there is left to do is combine them in new ways.

Plurality. Despite the Donald Trumps of the world, we are—on the whole—much more accepting of the perspectives of others than we were in decades past. It is not socially acceptable to be openly racist or sexist, nor to privilege the Western canon over other musical traditions. As a result, our composing becomes more self-conscious and seeks on some level to be respectful of other traditions, often by giving them attention in our creative thought.

Nostalgia. Perhaps due to a combination of the above, nostalgia is very popular right now. While traveling recently for a performance, I crashed at a friend’s place. He was excited to show me his collection of ‘80s cartoon VHS tapes, valuable because of their kitsch appeal and the obsolescence of the media format. Similarly, the resurgent popularity of vinyl is tied to a nostalgia for a time where you couldn’t access all the world’s music instantly and had to make conscious choices about what you were going to listen to.

DJ Culture. We’ve had at least a couple of decades to get comfortable with the idea that musicians who combine the recordings of other musicians in novel ways are in fact creative artists in their own right. Beyond that, social media memes and other online collage genres have made the act of creative appropriation a common cultural experience. Perhaps these developments make us more receptive to the idea that there are valid artistic paths outside of the 20th-century “hide your sources” mentality.


Who knows whether the current attribution trend will end up being a historical blip or the beginning of a long-lasting aesthetic shift. Regardless, its cross- and intra-disciplinary pervasiveness suggests that we’ve made a definitive break with the ideologies of the 20th century. I don’t think we can “go back” to the values of modernism and “hide your sources” any more than the traditionalists of the 20th century could go back to the world of 19th-century Romanticism.

Half a century ago, Marcel Duchamp stated: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution.” Today, we’ve taken that philosophy a step further by blurring the lines between spectator and artist, transforming the act of spectatorship into a fundamental part of the artistic process.


Aaron Gervais

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at

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.

18 thoughts on “Why Pastiche Has Taken Over Music

  1. George Grella

    Thanks, I find this a nice look at an enormous and important topic. I would add John Zorn’s name to this discussion, because so much of the aesthetic and values of pastiche flows through connections to and through his work.

    I question this statement, though: “Pastiche sometimes carries pejorative connotations, but those stem from another time when the ideology of “hide your sources” was still dominant.” When was that ideology ever dominant? From ‘L’homme armé’ to Mozart quoting CPE Bach through the 19th century to Stravinsky, Rochberg (and so many more, these are just pinpoints), it seems to me showing your sources has always been valued.

  2. ann

    This is a great article and I am impressed with the observation that pastiche is not just found in music but also in other forms of contemporary art and popular culture. To my mind it really boils down to the post-modern condition and the state of intellectual history / philosophy our society finds situated in. Understanding the context surrounding one’s work, and what’s more, showing that understanding, in other words, a self-consciousness of where one is situated in society’s epistemological project and how that may affect one’s perceptions / work, is a marker of culture and intelligence that it has never been before. You allude to this in your point on plurality, but I’d argue this shift in mindset is really more emblematic of way philosophy or human thought has shifted since the modern era. Thanks again for a great read.

  3. Janet

    Interesting, but the finest composers and improvisers always absorb influences seamlessly within the mantle of their absolute individuality, and there is nothing new in our time pertaining to this other than a greater supply of possible influences due to increased access to information about other cultures and the past too.

    “Pastiche” is a pejorative terminology – there is no escaping this – and has nothing to do with, again, the finest composers and improvisers. However, it is a reasonable term to use for the great majority of composers and improvisers.

    1. Brighton

      Yes. Charles Ives used pastiche, but not to give listeners something they recognize in an effort to become famous. This line makes no sense to me: “Today’s “attribution designed to be recognizable” is a source of tremendous originality.” Bottom line: People who can’t write a tune or an interesting harmony come up with all kinds of justification for boring music.

  4. Evan Tobias

    This extends to even very young people who create music in and out of school contexts that references the music they enjoy. They are often quite articulate about the ways they make direct connections to and are inspired by music, and often in a creative manner. More broadly, the work of Henry Jenkins and others in media studies trace a lot of the forms of appropriation taking place throughout popular culture by the general public through fan culture in interesting ways as aspects of a participatory culture where people find it meaningful to engage with media (and in this case, music) in such ways. In these contexts, YouTube and social media, play a huge role.

  5. Kyle Gann

    A couple of things. The point of my alleged “kids these days” post, which some people remain determined to misunderstand, was that the faculty had taught the students only a narrow stylistic range of music, and then bragged about how diverse it was. Also, pastiche is not inherent in the concept of postminimalism as I have defined it in several books and articles, and with reference to hundreds of examples from the repertoire.

    1. Anthony Cornicello

      I think he kind of missed the point of your article, which really pointed out how younger composers are just not taking chances these days. There isn’t a “rock the boat” mentality as much as “sell the boat”. Whenever I introduce Cage or Stockhausen (or any other experimental musician), students inevitably ask how they made money with that kind of music. As if that’s the only way to judge music.
      This is a separate argument. Modernists mostly wanted to hide their tracks. Before modernism, it was okay to show your influences. (Curiously, jazz musicians are more than happy to discuss their influences!) Every Modernist (especially High-Modernist) work should be totally original. That wasn’t the case before the advent of Modernism. Composers wrote pieces ‘in the style of’ or even as an homage to other composers, and they incorporated musical idioms and actual tunes into their own work. Maybe we’re just returning to that mentality.

      1. F Cox


        So when did Modernism start, in your opinion?

        If you look more closely at the 19th century arts, I think you’ll see that your claims are not accurate. Originality and genius were very important in the 19th century–not everywhere, but certainly in influential circles. You can find Haydn speaking about Mozart’s genius as early as the 1780s.

        One of the problems here is that the Postmodern overturning of Modernism was by and large oriented toward the most recent manifestation of Modernism, namely post-WWII formalism. A great number of misconceptions have made their way into the discourse as a result. Post-WWII formalism is not identical to Modernism as a whole. If Modernist works were not allowed to show their influences, then why did Picasso show his influences? Why did Stravinsky? Why did Schoenberg place himself explicitly in the Brahms tradition? Why did Webern justify his music in terms of Renaissance polyphony? Why is Wozzeck constructed out of imitations of traditional forms from instrumental music?

        Too often a broader and deeper understanding of artistic movements and change over the last 200 years has been lacking in these discussions.

        1. Anthony Cornicello

          Okay, perhaps poor wording on my part. Lets replace “originality” with “referentiality”. (Of course, every generation strives to be original, and even that term’s definition is constantly changing).

          High-modernism: roughly the post-War/Darmstadt generation. 1950s-era Boulez, Stockhausen, etc., and most of Babbitt’s output.

          High modernists tend to avoid references. That is, every piece is more or less an island. Sure, a piece can make use of a row from another work, or even share some combinatorial properties. But the listen is really not privy to that information, and thus the connection is not made. Music of earlier times (pre-1900, for sure) was full of references: any Scherzo, Aria, Sonata, (and the like) made reference to other works in the listed genre. The audience was ‘told’ this is a Sonata, and there is a point of reference. Of course, no two Sonatas are alike, but the common framework was enough to guide the audience. That which was common provided a relief against the unique elements of the work.
          And, of course, there were folk songs or other commonly-know melodies referenced in a lot of that music. Once again, the audience was given something on which to grasp.
          Perhaps that is the era in which we are entering: one in which the audience is given something to follow – a guide, if you will. I don’t agree with the term “pastiche” because it sounds tawdry, but I don’t have an alternative at hand.

  6. Robinson McClellan

    This is fascinating and perceptive, and points to a frame of reference that is hugely important but often invisible for artists. I’ve noticed this in “new music” for a while, but did not realize until reading this article how much it is part of a broader trend across the arts. Of course most art is about recombining, but as the author says, it’s the explicitness of the referencing that’s so distinctive here.

    I wrote this on my Facebook feed last October:
    “So about this trend in “new music” in which every other new piece seems to be referencing, reworking, reflecting on, etc some old classic like Vivaldi, Schubert, etc etc… It seems to me that “the classical tradition” is going through some sort of self-cleaning process that involves consuming and digesting its own progenitors, in a strangely self-conscious way. This may be a healthy, necessary stage in the life cycle of the tradition, even though it doesn’t seem (to me personally) that interesting, as a project, in itself, when there’s so much new, uncharted territory to explore!

    What I keep wondering is: what will come next? What viscerally new, memorable thing will emerge out from under the remains of this frenzy of cannibalistic feasting? Sometimes, in rare corners, I think I can spy small indistinct signs of what it might sound like.”

    1. Jennifer Higdon

      Okay, that came across too harshly. Sorry about that. I do not feel that I do pastiche…I follow my gut instinct and have always done so (even when being criticized for doing so). But I almost never think about referencing other works (with the exception of 2 pieces where the commission requested it). My style is my style which is me. There’s nothing wrong with pastiche, but I feel it’s an inaccurate description of my music.

  7. Carmen-Helena Tellez

    Very perceptive and well written. Thank you. I have always thought that “pastiche,” in the broader definition you give to it, is present in the great operatic or otherwise rhetorical composers in Western history, including Monteverdi, Bach and Mozart.

  8. Pingback: Greek poetry from the crisis of the 1990s to the autonomism of the 2000s | Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics

  9. David Wolfson

    I think (at least as far as music is concerned) you’re more on the right track with the idea that there are just not that many new sounds to be heard. Imagine trying to find a spot on this planet where there are no signs of civilization; if you do, it’s probably because no one would want to live there for very long. (I’m looking at you, Antarctica.) But it’s perfectly possible to live where there are people already living, and it’s only polite to acknowledge them.

  10. Evan Fein

    Many thanks to Mr. Gervais for his thought-provoking article, which tugs bravely and firmly on one of the loose threads that comprise the new music community’s evolving self-reflective tapestry. While he is expressing earnest reactions to some important realities, I fear that in an effort to share what he himself has found both so fruitful and so troubling, he has waded neck-deep into a swamp of delicately coded pejoratives and historical exaggerations that risk overshadowing the best of intentions.

    Rather than having become the embodiment of collage, I would argue that the new music of today has moved well beyond pastiche into a realm that, at its best, embraces the pluralism that is its primordial soup, and at its worst, obsesses about brand definitions and marketability even over the quality of the product itself.

    While it is clear from the outset that Mr. Gervais’s definition of pastiche is intended to be “appropriation designed to be recognizable,” the meaning quickly balloons to include all works that are in some way—formally, stylistically, or metaphysically—indebted to other works. Such works are then labelled not only pastiche, but also in some cases derivative, and those are treacherous grounds. The definition of pastiche must be narrowed to include the inherent celebration of the works, styles, and genres being borrowed, and the negative connotations the word acquired during the death throes of post-war high modernism acknowledged. Pastiche is more than simply an abdication of the responsibility to cover one’s own tracks.

    Before moving into larger arguments, I’d like to refute a couple of specifics. First, the furore at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was arguably more about the choreographic breaks with tradition than the musical ones. As for other instances of “public outrage” at premieres of groundbreaking works, it should be acknowledged that the publicity appeal of a succès de scandale has on several notable occasions resulted in the peppering of an audience with “professional mourners,” as it were. As for the claim that “we have long since passed the point where composers and instrument-builders could come up with sounds never before heard,” if the mid-19th century statement from a U.S. Patent Office Commissioner Henry Ellsworth, “The advancement of the arts…taxes our credulity, and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end” is any indication, the human capacity to invent, to perceive, and to be shocked may well be limitless.

    The parallels to box-office returns for blockbuster films I find particularly dubious. Even if we are unwilling to cede that self-conscious works are not necessarily derivative, surely it must be acknowledged that creating works that incorporate quotation (in any of its many guises) is wholly different from adding a new installation to a wholly pre-existing franchise. In other words, any new James Bond film might reasonably be argued to be pastiche as it incorporates specific ironic references to spy films of the 1960s and Cold War culture, as well as caricatures of idealized heroic and villainous archetypes, but not simply because it is the next in the (hopefully unending) series.

    By that token, The Marriage of Figaro is derivative of, and therefore a pastiche of, either Paisiello’s Barber of Seville, Beaumarchais’s original plays, or both, and by Mr. Gervais’s broad sense of what qualifies as derivative, all opera is generically pastiche of the efforts of those Florentine pioneers of the late Renaissance, who were themselves, by their own acknowledgment, trying to recapture the Halcyon Days of the Ancient Greeks (who we must presume were so good at exterminating the works they were influenced by that we are left with no choice but to kneel at their altar in gratitude for the Invention of Art).

    It is curious that Mr. Gervais brings up the topic at this particular juncture, at which it seems that post-modernism as an artistic movement has long since run its course. There was indeed a generation of composers, so-called post-modernists (and in using this label, I myself am now the one on thin ice), whose works can be said to be pastiche (or more neutrally, collage). Wonderful composers like Berio and Druckman, Schnittke and Corigliano, who consciously quoted specific works and general styles, forms, and gestures, in order to create a deliciously intricate sense of intertextuality. Composers like Cage and Stockhausen, Glass and Reich, whose chance-based or “minimalist” approaches in their own way are just on the other side of the looking-glass of “maximalist” modernists. I was incredibly confused why this was left out of the conversation, particularly when we seem finally to be moving past self-consciousness into the more spacious realm of self-awareness.

    I furthermore reject the premise that “all artistic ideologies arise as a response to the values of a society,” at least in as far that these “ideologies” are sculpted consciously. Really everyone has a nascent artist inside them. We all observe and evaluate, form impressions and react to current events, to relationships, to our surroundings, other people, and media consumed. The only difference is that artists are moved to make responses from those stimuli. As such, they cannot help but make things that are a reflection of their own times. Even so, the means of expression are often dimly understood, even to the artists themselves, though they may possess great technical expertise. Artists may have goals and values and techniques, which evolve, not ideologies, which do not. Once an artist has an ideology, he or she has ceased to be an artist and has become an activist.

    While holdover serialists might justifiably be criticized for imperiously espousing what became to them a dogma, and post-modernists criticized for becoming dogmatic in their rejection of dogma, it is a cold and unfeeling brand of teleology that suggests, for instance, that “serialism and its ideological relatives allowed composers to create music that harmonized with their views of the world and how they saw themselves within it.” That is a streamlining of the details of the narrative—not to mention one that overlooks the very real grappling every artist goes through to crystallize expressive ideas and wrangle a musical language into submission—based on the twin fallacies that people can actually see themselves objectively and that art is always progressing towards something. It would be an uncannily cool composer indeed that said one morning, “I think I’ll ponder my view of the world and place within it for a few moments, then invent entire genres and a new musical language in which to express them. Then, a nice cup of tea.”

    An artist’s first duty is to art itself: to make works, each better and different than his or her last, to think very deeply about the work itself, and very little about its place in the universe. After all, what artist wants to be the next domino to tumble in a parade toward an unachievable horizon? What artist should want to think as if works of art were to be produced simply as symptomatic manifestations of a society’s health or decadence?

    The point is this: To artists, style is a red herring. To marketers, style can be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. And this is where things get hairy.

    For most artists to create work, there is a necessary economic consideration. And I wonder if this is really what Mr. Gervais is responding to?

    In a time where both the artist’s vulnerabilities have perhaps never been as keenly felt and persevering in one’s chosen field never encouraged more, all while the tools of marketing and distribution are becoming increasingly accessible, the Sword of Damocles has likewise perhaps never hung so precipitously over the future of art music.

    The increasing pressure to “make it,” and fast, requires artists to know who they are (or at least who they think they are supposed to want to be) and exactly what they are making (or at least what they think they are supposed to be making) before they begin the creative process, and then, before they know what they’ve done, to shout it from the hilltops. In this regard, Mr. Gervais and I are in perfect agreement: the appropriation of popular musical traditions into concert music is definitely occurring on a large scale, but I contend it is done with the intent of allowing composers and performers to check a number of boxes that ultimately add up to “Cross Genre” and therefore “Hip” and therefore “Fundable,” with categories like “Earnestly Conceived” and “Objectively Skillful” too often rendered optional. This, perhaps unconscious, approach to creation and self-branding is not just insincere, but as any creative individual would say, missing the point, and ultimately detrimental to the art form. We have to be careful to make sure that what we are making and endorsing as creators, collaborators, and audience members checks all the boxes.

    In the meantime, we can all agree that this is one of the most exciting times in living memory to be a composer, performer, or audience member.

  11. Stephen Lockjwood

    Talk about “delicately coded pejoratives and historical exaggerations”; yes, they’re everywhere in this discussion. I’ll dive in and try not to exaggerate or code unnecessarily.
    Being a jazz player for many years, I was quite unhappy about the growth of “tribute” albums in the music. This is how I think about “pastiche”. I felt the music just didn’t really grow with it. Jazz finally found a way to sell units. But at what expense? Call me that modernist that likes to have originality at the front burner of creativity.
    I took my cue from the influence of classical music on my life. Yes, it never really escaped referencing itself, and examples abound, but as earlier stated, there were many new sounds as yet unheard. Now again, there really aren’t. So, what’s new?
    Are we building a new voice that is a totally new and (globally) inclusive concept? I hope that’s the endgame and not just a temporary means.
    The jury is still out on what the 21st Cent. will really say, sure. But whatever we think of pastiche and it’s place, we should agree it isn’t going anywhere. It’s staying right where it is, changing aesthetics or not. Maybe we aren’t as consumed with our individuality in the way we used to be. In that way the composer thinks automatically inclusive on a cultural and conceptual level. Nothing wrong there.
    Pastiche will probably enhance our outlook aesthetically, but it will change it too. Nothing wrong with that either. The change of focus will enhance us all. Art and music and creativity are never really divorced from cultural, social, technological, or even political change nor should they be.
    Steve Lockwood

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