Derivative Creativity

When I write, one of the most difficult things to deal with is the sense that I'm not really creating anything unique—that my music is somehow derivative, either of my own earlier work or of somebody else's. This is understandable—there are only so many notes in the scale, so many chord qualities and rhythmic subdivisions to play with. Jazz mitigates the problem somewhat by pushing the envelope—by allowing more complex rhythms, chord progressions, and melody-bass relationships—but no matter how far you push, the problem is still there. This can be discouraging, but I'm not so sure it should be.

I like Star Trek. Sometimes a little too much. You can tell, because the next part of this post is an oddly relevant dialog I copied from the TNG third season episode "The Ensigns of Command"; I think it frames the issue rather nicely. (For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Data is a Pinnochio figure: an emotionless android who wants to be human.)

Picard
The good doctor was kind enough to provide me with a recording of your concert. Your performance shows …feeling.
Data
As I have recently reminded others, sir, I have no feeling.
Picard
It's hard to believe. Your playing is quite beautiful.
Data
Strictly speaking, sir, it is not _my_ playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trinka Bronkin.
Picard
[shakes head] Is there nothing of Data in what I'm hearing? You see, you chose the violinists. Heifetz and Bronkin have radically different styles, different techniques, and yet you combined them successfully.
Data
I suppose I _have_ learned to be …creative, sir—when necessary.
Picard
Mr. Data, I look forward to your next concert.

I like how this discussion frames the problem. Data is a machine, so he's already lacking in one area typically considered necessary for creative work: emotion. However, he does have drive. Throughout the series, Data's chief drive (maybe even "passion") is to become more human. This leads him to pursue all kinds of artistic endeavors: painting, acting, music…anything he thinks will help him connect more meaningfully with his human creators. Surprisingly, he frequently succeeds, despite lacking the raw, subjective emotional ingredients we typically believe are necessary for such creativity.

In this instance, Data's creative experiment with the violin involves a simple proposition: pick two master violinists, combine their styles, and see what happens. As Picard points out, this, despite requiring no emotion, is in and of itself a creative act. By choosing the violinists, Data has staked a claim in the resulting art; by calculating the best combination of their techniques, he has come up with something only he could have come up with. He didn't have to invent anything per se, only to build out of what had already been invented by others. This kind of creativity, by definition, is derivative…but it is creativity.

Data's approach here is hardly unique. Heck, in the real world, musicians take the building blocks of one anothers' work all the time (often without realizing it), resulting in countless songs leveraging the same basic chord progressions. Not surprising; even jazz musicians (who love pushing envelopes) do the same thing with rhythm changes and the twelve-bar blues.

Given how common this is, I wonder why we so often think that truly "creative" folks are magically extracting brand-new ideas out of thin air. Who has ever done such a thing? Isn't all creativity derivative to some degree? If someone could come up with something totally novel, something that didn't depend at all on earlier ideas, would any of us understand it? If Data, instead of learning to play the violin after the tradition of the masters, had decided to invent a totally original approach to the instrument, I doubt the crew would have wanted to listen to it; it may have been original (maybe even beautiful to those who understood its mathematical qualities), but it would also have been so totally unfamiliar as to evoke all the emotional response of white noise.

Bottom line is this: we have to get our ideas from somewhere, and pushing that envelope will only get you so far. I think I'm going to stop worrying about it and just enjoy the ride.

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What little I know about writing transitions

Yesterday evening I spent a lot of time hammering out some new lead lines for various sections of my jazz arranging project. This is probably the longest piece of music I've ever written, so I'm finding it a bit difficult to keep my eyes on the big picture; instead, I'm discovering I have a tendency to "chunk" things too much, such that each successive section of the piece follows right after the one before it with very little transitional material.

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Everything I know

This semester in jazz arranging, I'm learning the basics of big band writing; in fact, the primary project for the whole semester is a single big band chart. The project is broken down logically into smaller assignments by chorus: for example, one week I might have to bring in the lead line for the head chorus, and the next week I'd follow it up with the melody for my sax soli. I like the approach; I think my brain is hard-wired to think of complex wholes in terms of small building blocks.

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