Highway of the New

Highway of the New

Now that we no longer have a common practice in music, novelty moves in different directions and at different speeds, all depending on the context.

A lot of commentators on an artistic scene wonder why originality and novelty seem so obsessively necessary to creative artists – when the search for innovation itself can lead an artist towards flippancy and narcissism. Indeed, a lot of the criticism of new art work settles on the complaint of ‘novelty-seeking for its own sake’. And this argument must inevitably proceed to ‘why can’t the artist use an agreed common language as was the case in previous centuries?’ But what exactly is an artist to do about the totality of behaviour of all the others? After all, once the common practice – for example, tonality in music or representation in painting – broke down, there was no pouring it back into the bottle. It seems that about 150 years ago the urge to express individuality broke the social boundaries that sustained common practice.

The linguist Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought, writes that a successful poem uses fresh imagery to communicate. Not unlike a joke, an unexpected leap in the logic – such as an ellipsis – excites a listener, where the use of cliché would dull him or her. Then style moves forward, because today’s insightful new expression quickly becomes yesterday’s tired cliché. Pinker implies that unrolling novelty is a constituent of efficient communication.

Instead of a single-lane common practice we now have a highway with composers moving along in separate streams, each individually propelled by novelty and slowed by contextual consideration. Yet supposedly the slower-lane composer who eschews fashion has greater moral integrity, while the trendy composer is flaky and fated to be forgotten. Neither history nor logic supports these positions. For a given work, integrity and novelty are quite unconnected.

Integrity, for the individual work, means an object – for us, a piece of music – of more than a few different parts existing together, in a complex of perceptible and intended relationships. These can be any kind of relationships, so novelty alone does not dictate the degree of integrity. It is better to think of novelty as a moving part of the communication mechanism. So a work can have integrity without novelty, and novelty without integrity. The frequent confusion over novelty and integrity has to do with the difficulty in separating form and content in abstract work, even though each is a separate quality.

Published on 1 February 2011

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.org

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