On being not original (on artistic truth).


I simply love melody. Unlike words, a song’s melody is beyond truth. While it does invoke a deep need to understand, it does so in an almost physical, bodily way. Almost, because the tones always stretch beyond the body or any other object, into – well, beyond words, as the philosophical cliche has it.

Singing a song is physically sharing it and everything it brings about in our mind. Sharing with whom or what? Even when singing alone, the sharing seems to be with the ‘origins’ of the song. With those who made it, perhaps. Or sang it or listened to it through the ages.

Folksong and liturgical song, especially, carry this ‘aura’ for me. An aura I know well in the case of songs from traditions that I know. An aura that I (re)construct in other cases. Studying the context of these songs (often consisting of other songs, other textual variants) helps.

But never as an intellectual exercise, mind you. The truth of the song’s history, its use and textual variants and so on, is a means (at times) to arrive at some sense of the song’s aura.

In another jargon: these truths help us to delve into the ‘historical experience’ of the song. Which, for me, ultimately resides in that bodily experience of singing-listening.

I have learned that such, well, mentally as well as physically embracing a melody sets my musical mind on fire. It makes me long for a marriage of minds. It sets in motion an act of discovery, a voyage of exploration of the possible links between me (my cultural ’aura’) and that of the song.

It makes me forget myself, on the one hand. But on the other, and at the same time, it makes me aware of myself in a way that I could never have derived purely from my self alone.

Mind you, this has got nothing to do with ‘imitation’, even though imitation may be a valuable tool to get to know your model better. Rather, it has to do with ‘information’ in the transitive sense that I allow myself to be formed into something by the study of an original.

I suggest that the more honestly I allow myself to be so transformed, the more ‘truthful’ I am, as in a dialogue with a friend (or maybe a therapist).

I may not be ‘original’ in the sense of ‘sticking to your own’, of deriving something from ‘within’ the self. On the contrary – I am sticking to trying to understand the model and to the information that originates in this process of confronting the self with the model.

That might mean that in the first sense (which today, it seems, is the original sense) I am not original.

Nor am I ’true to self’.

But I do try (without possibly ever succeeding or being able to decide if have succeeded) to become true to the effect of this outside object.


I started with one of the most tangible of musical whole objects: a melody.

But information in the above sense may of course be derived from many other types of musical ‘originals’ and in many grades of abstraction.

Writing a mass on a Gregorian chant’s incipit is one way (or on any other original’s incipit). Writing a parody mass on someone else’s polyphonic example (common practice in the Renaissance) is another. In both cases the information is rather concrete. But using a folia (or any other melodic-polyphonic model) is another, or writing a pavane or a minuet – where the rhythm and architecture is basically a second derivative, that from the underlying ‘aura’ of the dance’s tradition.

Obviously, music is full of such models (…)

Now, how do I know that the aura that I seem to explore is not something that I made up myself, that it is not a creative fiction? A selfish re-creation, an act of self-indulgence or, worse, of cruelly misleading appropriation?

I must admit that pure aesthetic enthusiasm may be misleading here.

In my humble view, much of the ‘world music’ folklorist (or exoticism) of the past age is an enthusiastic misappropriation of music that for selfish reasons was deemed interesting, often in the sense being interestingly alien from one’s own tradition.

But as the example of that arch-folklorist Belá Bartók shows, to understand even a culture that is seemingly close to one’s own requires hard work and decades of study.

There is no recipe for arriving at the truth, in science nor in art.

I know the tradition of Protestant liturgical chant in as far as I was part of it as a child and youngster. I know the tradition of Gregorian chant in as far as I, as an adolescent, sang in a choir that was partly meant to help revive the Latin Mass (which was a strange position for a Protestant to be in). I know the tradition of bebop-drumming in as far as I sat with drummers and listened to recordings for years. I know the tradition of blues playing in as far as I listened to blues players for decades and had blues on my mind and keyboard for years. I know the ‘tradition’ of Renaissance popular song in as far as I closely witnessed musician-friends in Early Music study and perform it. I know the tradition of Classical and Romantic music in as far as I played the piano pieces, went to numerous concerts, studied the scores, did the courses in theory and rehearsed the chamber and orchestral music for years and years.

All the same, that does not give me access to ‘the true meaning’ of these traditions, to the ‘real aura’ of models in these traditions. But this does hint at the possibility that such traditions can be helpful in discovering truths, that is, real, tangible, physical-and-beyond meanings that we find rooted in the tradition’s histories. In another language, it hints at the possibility that truths are not he products of our selves, but of the way we have deliberately opened up to traditions and allowed our selves to become immersed in them. So again, that originality is [a way] to be better aware of the origins of a model.

It may explain why the real originals (the Beethoven, Debussy, Monteverdi) are those most steeped in tradition.