Some musicians have an unmistakable sound. It only takes a few seconds to audibly recognize Billie Holiday in her penetrating rendition of “Love for Sale,” Glenn Gould and his emotive interpretation of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or even the Punch Brothers in their progressively intricate compositions for bluegrass ensemble. What makes these artists so distinct? This question lies at the center of every musician’s creative journey. As an artist, one is always seeking a more unique self-expression through his or her medium. Unfortunately, this search is so ambiguous and esoteric, it drives many to give up before that desire can be fulfilled. No musician is born fully realized—creative self-discovery is a rite of passage for all artists. However, by examining the elements of creativity, it is possible to demystify the process and practically cultivate one’s own distinct musical identity.
Those elements can be condensed to two broad categories: tradition and originality. Every creative output inevitably traces back to some combination of these two aspects. The specific utilization and appropriation of each strongly influences the formation of one’s musical identity. One without the other leads to stagnation and artificiality. In contrast, the artists who experience the most distinct creative success are the ones who stand firmly on the experience of past tradition in order to step forward into new original territory. Let’s unpack this a little.
First, what really is tradition, aside from that catchy song from Fiddler on the Roof? Unfortunately, as Tevye alludes to in the musical, tradition can often be misrepresented as a stale, uninformed, and vain attempt to find identity in the distant glory days of the past. Even more sadly, this misrepresentation seems to have driven the current younger generation towards the opposite extreme of finding identity in the rejection of tradition altogether. Both mentalities are detrimental for the creative artist. In contrast, musical originality must start with a deep appreciation for true tradition. And a deep appreciation for tradition starts with a proper understanding of what tradition truly is. In essence, tradition is a living and growing entity; a rich display of our current place in history. Moreover, tradition is an ever-growing wealth of past original experience and practice available to help the artist understand and express himself more fully in the present.
Tradition is an ever-growing wealth of past original experience and practice available to help the artist understand and express himself more fully in the present.
The funny thing is, tradition never starts out as tradition. In fact, without originality it would never be established. Tradition arises over time from a natural progression of innovative ideas. In the 1940s and 50s, Bill Monroe experimented by combining his deep roots in Appalachian hillbilly music with African American blues and the performance practice of early rock and jazz styles to create what we know today as bluegrass music. When Monroe was first presenting his work, this progressive amalgamation of current sounds must have made some waves. However, the test of time has now labeled bluegrass as a “traditional” style of its own, from which new traditions have sprouted—for example, the Punch Brothers mentioned earlier.
The history of music is brimming with many parallel stories. Great artists from long ago were first and foremost extraordinary students and practitioners of past and present musical standards. Yet they allowed their deep-rooted appreciation and study to inform a forward tilt in their own musical identity. Joseph Haydn and the formalization of the structure and practice of the classical symphony, Charlie Parker and the age of bebop jazz, or Bob Dylan and the folk rock revolution all point to the innovation, vivacity, and significance of the body of work that is now considered to be “traditional.” Musicians today can study these previous outliers and their work to better understand their own present musical identity. However, as tradition is always a rich display of our current situation in history, further original contribution to the formation of tradition now seems ever more difficult in light of the vast catalog of past music and expended possibilities.
At this point, one must pause and ask, “What exactly is originality and how does it differ from tradition?” Simply put, the only difference between the two is our specific point of reference in the unfolding events of history. As stated above, tradition is simply an ongoing series of original developments. Therefore, originality is and always has been a personal, educated extension of what has come beforehand—tradition processed and sincerely expressed in one’s own artistic melting pot.
However, being original is easier said than done in this day and age. After looking back down the exhaustive corridor of music history, one might despair that originality has reached a permanent dead end. For example, in the 1960s, jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman already supposed that the language of improvisational jazz music had nothing new left to say. At this mature point in jazz history, previous artists such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane had stretched the limit of musical coherence nearly to the breaking point for the sake of expression. So for Coleman, the only rational artistic step left to take was incoherence. In his monumental album Free Jazz, he displays this notion with a double quartet and a 40 minute, unrelenting, freely improvised piece, with little to no guidelines for key, melody, chords, lyrics or tempo. Just listening to this work makes one ponder if there is any hope left for the future progression of modern musical art.
Yet there are still artists today who continue to make fresh sounds through a cultivated and sincere self-expression. Originality is a very personal thing. In fact, one’s creative voice can be reduced mostly to an appropriation of the particular artists and styles one loves. While no one is born as a fully realized artist, everyone has a unique taste in music. This distinct pallet inevitably evidences itself in one’s own music. And a loyalty to that taste helps cultivate and inspire one’s own musical identity through study and emulation of those artists and styles.
The Power of Emulation
Widespread emulation of tradition is the most practical way of developing one’s own creative and innovative voice. It might seem backwards to think that the way to sound original is to “copy” others, but a great host from past tradition instructs otherwise. When J. S. Bach was first studying music, he was to known to copy older scores of Handel note for note by hand, just to understand the process and practice of a great composer. Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker claimed to have practiced 13 hours a day during his formative years in order to transcribe countless jazz solos and popular melodies to inform his own improvisations. Originality doesn’t happen in isolation.
It might seem backwards to think that the way to sound original is to “copy” others, but a great host from past tradition instructs otherwise.
However, emulation can be dangerous if one’s sources of inspiration are too narrow. The great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday warns against this pitfall in her book Lady Sings the Blues, “You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music.” Unfortunately, the world is full of copycat artists—musicians, who whether knowingly or not, plagiarize the specific sound of someone else. Narrow-minded copying is cheap and easy, but developing your own creative voice requires a lot of time, listening, and study. In this sense, a musician is what he or she eats; a balanced diet of music from all genres and time periods leads to healthy output. Sincerity combined with hard work and broad emulation seems to be the most effective formula for developing one’s own unique musical identity.
For the Work’s Sake
And identity leads us back to the point of all this fuss with tradition and originality. Why does it even matter? What is our motivation in either? Perhaps if we are honest, artists who are Christians can recognize the aspiration to be a master of tradition or someone recognized and admired for their originality as often nothing more than a desire for an autonomous identity outside of the finished work of Jesus Christ. While neither tradition nor originality are moral requirements, they both point to the root of the human condition. Since man was created in the image of a loving, inimitable, and glorious God, everyone comes pre-programed with a desire for unique belonging, beauty, and greatness. However, in the reality of the Fall, this desire has become twisted. Now, everyone is grasping for a false sense of affirmation from self and others by either trying to fit in or trying to stand out. As a result, artists in particular spend much of their time vacillating back and forth between considerable self-doubt and vain conceit. Yet this unstable mindset doesn’t promote tradition or originality, nor does it accept the freedom found in our identity with Christ.
However, there is another way to respect and utilize both tradition and originality; it grows from a deep love for the work itself. C. S. Lewis cuts to the chase in his book The Weight of Glory, “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” The true key to a unique musical identity lies in the right motivation. If the only drive to be creative springs from a desire for fame, fortune, acceptance, or pride, one will never experience true unique success. However, those who create out of love for the “work’s sake,” who stand firmly on the experience of tradition, and who pursue sincerity and excellence, are on the right track. An artist who is also resting in an identity that is already complete in Christ is free to recognize that “the work’s sake” is intimately connected to emulating and displaying the glory of a creator God—a bright artistic future indeed.
Originally from Clemson, South Carolina, mandolinist David Benedict is a Nashville-based performer, composer, and instructor seeking to blend tradition and innovation through his music. At an early age, David was intrigued by the distinct sound of the mandolin. This fascination eventually led him to delve deep into the rich aural music traditions of the instrument and set him on a lifelong path in pursuit of this music.
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