Originality

The topic of originality has loomed large in my head lately. I recently undertook a challenge to produce two 3-minute pieces of original music by October 31. I failed to meet that commitment, failed pretty hard in fact. The most challenging aspect of this endeavor was the fact that these songs were to be my own art, not made for or with another person. (I am a composer by trade, and have collaborated in many bands, so making music with or for other people comes naturally. But I have never made much art that is strictly mine.)

What came up for me as I toiled for long hours in the studio, hunched in front of the computer and not having very much fun, was the desire to be original. Not just to create an original-sounding piece or to have my material judged as original in the aggregate, but to embody originality in my work down to the finest possible granularity. Every part of every song would need to sound like no other part of no other song ever made! (Don’t worry, as this sounds as preposterous to me as I write it as it does to you reading it.)

And so, after writing a perfectly good — albeit fairly basic — song, I proceeded to add complexity for the sake of originality. And I took a song that would have likely made me happy once it was done and turned it into what felt like a cobbled-together mess that I never want to hear again, let alone perform for other people or release into the world. I left the experience dazed by my failure to create even a simple 3-minute piece after 6 weeks of struggle, but determined to keep pushing through this all-too-familiar issue until I change the script inside my head.

Today, as I sat and talked with my co-worker Andy, something hit me that really made me stop. It occurred to me that by changing parts to death, by adding complexity for the sake of originality, and by comparing my raw, unfinished musical building blocks to others’ polished work was the safe path. Not to say that it is enjoyable, or easy, but it is safe in that I’ve been there before, lots of times, and I know how it ends. It ends in me creating a piece of music that I don’t even like because it’s mutated so much compared to what I made that first moved me. It ends with me quitting halfway through and destroying the work, because who wants to work on music that they don’t even like?

So, in the future, my challenge will be to let the simple part stand. To let the riff I just made, that I genuinely like, be enough. To allow parts to breathe and take on a life of their own instead of smothering them with well-intentioned but ill-fated mutations. To have faith that I can make music I’m happy with despite the fact that I’m using all the same tools that every other composer is using — sounds, chords, notes, instruments, rhythms, ears. And that will feel like the most original thing I’ve ever done.

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