Creativity and Genre

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In a comment on my last post, Chris Rowbury made the following point:

Re: listening to other people's work. I agree up to a point. An analogy: when play writers want to get stuff onto Radio 4, they are encouraged to listen A LOT to the afternoon play. What then happens is they end up writing stuff that sounds just like all the other stuff in that slot. You can spot a Radio 4 afternoon play a mile off. I can spot a barbershop arrangement a mile off. But I sit up and notice when something is REALLY original.

I started to reply to him there, but his point is so interesting that I decided to focus on it for a whole post in its own right.

There are several – related but distinct - aspects to this that invite reflection. The first is to what extent genre expectations/conventions are antithetical to creativity. Chris’s example of barbershop is a case in point: he can recognise a barbershop arrangement a mile off because they are purposefully designed to fit certain explicit style criteria. Indeed, those of us who arrange for barbershop ensembles maintain a very clear distinction between the purist form (for contest purposes) and other music. The latter will still be shaped by the purist form, though, since the specialist skills and emotional habits the singers bring to the music have been forged in their focused work on contest material.

But is to say that a genre has very clearly recognisable thumbprints the same as saying that it stifles creativity? The way that those arrangers in the barbershop world most known for their creativity push up against the edges of the style might suggest that they are being constrained by it. But at the same time, the discipline of working within the style definition is part of what drives their creativity. Classical music has its disciplines too, such as species counterpoint and fugue, and the emotional impact of the music produced by those who master these forms derives to a significant extent from the resistance the forms provide. Creativity needs something to push against.

This raises the question of how we recognise creativity. In genres where we are expert, we can spot a new voice with a distinctive vision a mile off. But will somebody with only a casual and intermittent relationship with the genre perceive the novelty of that voice, or will they just hear the genre markers? Deke Sharon’s response to a barbershopper who complained that he ‘hadn’t heard a tune all night’ in a contemporary a capella show is instructive here. He pointed out that when you first encounter Thai food, your first impression may be that it is overwhelmingly spicy. But when you’ve had a few Thai meals, you start to discern that there are lots of different flavours in there, not just chilli heat. When something is unfamiliar, all you notice are the primary genre markers, but when you have enough experience to have a sense of the usual range of possibilities you are much more able to make distinctions between the inventive and the formulaic.

The question of how we recognise creativity is also an issue for the creators themselves. Anyone who is serving a performing community has that sense of working for multiple purposes: of producing music that behaves in sufficiently normative ways to be meaningful to those performers and their audiences, but which nonetheless speaks with its own voice. You want to produce things that are surprising enough to excite people but not so surprising as to baffle or repel them. I’m sure that most of us would take it as a compliment to be told we had really captured the essence of our idiom, but would be less pleased to be told we’ve produced something that sounds exactly the same as everything else the genre has produced!

And the only way I can think of to develop a sense of the horizons of expectation a particular community has is to engage with its other cultural products. Chris may be right that steeping yourself in an idiom can lead to a loss of your individual voice, but I think it is also the way you can discover what you can contribute to that community that nobody else can. Interesting question: does the road to originality necessarily pass through pastiche on the way?

Of course, none of this dilutes Chris final point – that sometimes you hear something that just stops you in your tracks in the way it speaks to you. There’s a kind of sonic shock when something quite unlike anything you’ve heard before is instantly meaningful; a kind of musical love-at-first-sight. Our personal internal musical autobiographies are punctuated by these encounters – the musical experiences that changed us into the people we are today. For me, hearing Duran Duran play ‘Planet Earth’ on Saturday morning children’s tv is the first I remember, with Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and the première of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil as other memorable Damascene listening experiences.

And my guess is that the memory of those kinds of encounters is what drives most creators. Wouldn’t it be great to give somebody one of those experiences?

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