Friday, May 11, 2007

Writing Outside One's Time

Kyle Gann posted a long, thoughtul piece called "Composing Outside One's Time," in which he discusses a music student who "was blown away by 16th-century counterpoint early in his education, [whose] music has remained intransigently tonal." Gann has had lengthy discussions with a colleague about this student, and Gann has come down on the side of supporting the student in his work without telling him that what he is doing is not "modern" enough: "If living composers as disparate as Pärt and Picker can become incredibly successful staying within a single diatonic scale, who am I to tell my student that what he's doing isn't 'modern' enough?"

I'm trying to imagine a creative-writing teacher telling someone who has immersed himself in writing works in the style of The Faerie Queene something similar.


mrjumbo said...

I think Borges had a story about this, about Pierre Menard writing Don Quixote.

Whether it's music or words (or visual art, or cooking), you hope the artist will use his own voice, will create. But whether it's Pynchon slyly mimicking the idioms of Mason & Dixon or whether it's Dylan strumming a traditional blues or whether it's Vikram Seth composing a novel in sonnets, each artist establishes a relationship with those who have gone before.

Even for an artist attempting to be historically faithful, it's hard for me to imagine any work of today not including some of today's perspective. At the same time, I'd ask whether Mozart's little pieces composed today would be less brilliant. If David Mamet chooses to write in Shakespearean pentameter, do we judge the work by the form? Has the sonnet been completely used up? Has the novel?

Whether a talented person feels more at home writing science fiction or writing heroic couplets, I suspect their particular genius will shine through. If the piece is good, we'll give them credit for re-enlivening a stale genre (Raiders of the Lost Ark?). If it's shallow and derivative, maybe that person would sound shallow and derivative in any form.

A minor distinction, which might not matter anyhow: A person who wrote a symphony that sounded like Beethoven's next is somewhat different from a person who writes a symphony that sounds like a great classical composer. In the same way, a writer who attempts to be Mark Twain reborn is different from someone who writes in the manner of 19th century American humorists; a person who tries to write War and Peace is distinct from a writer who sounds like a Constance Garnett translation of an epic Russian novel. It's one thing to pick a historic form, a genre, a type. It's another to try to rip off a specific artist.

Even so, if the old forms are so dead that we can no longer innovate in them, I wonder why we bother keeping around all those older works.

Interesting question.

Anonymous said...

Wow, when you put it that way, I see what you mean. On the other hand, one of my favorite 19th-century poets is A.S. Byatt's Randolph Ash, and he didn't even exist! Maybe poets who want to write in antique styles should consider writing novels about dead poets.

Andrew Shields said...

The Pierre Menard story is a perfect comment on the vagaries of using "anachronistic" styles!

What has since crossed my mind is that Gann is talking about past styles in music that are still "marketable" today. In poetry, it's hard to consider out-of-date styles (Swinburne, say) as marketable in any way today—although perhaps I should keep in mind that greeting cards, for example, use "out-of-date" styles in a marketable way.

Andrew Shields said...

My first comment was on Mr. J.'s, as I had forgotten to publish Kyle's comment!

It's worth noting that both Mr. J. and Kyle refer to fictional writers in order to address this issue: Pierre Menard and Randolph Ash.

Could it be that there is something about "composing/writing outside one's time" that makes the composer/writer somehow "fictional"? Or at least, involved in a "fiction" of a sort?