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Interview with Erik Bosgraaf

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or ripp-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, leading Dutch recorder player Erik Bosgraaf stresses the importance of authenticity over originality and describes how this perspective informed recent recording projects and his 'comprovisations'.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

Of course, every serious musician has a long road in education behind him / her. Finding your own voice is too simple because it should come with the criteria: when exactly have you found your own voice, or, to put it more strongly: when do you know you have found your voice? And, suppose you have found ‚your voice’, does that mean there is no more searching? I think it it is clear from my answer to your question that I find the quest for the own voice wrong in itself.

In the first place because it suggests an absolute notion of ‚own voice’ and not one that is in constant flux. I believe that an own voice, or looking for a purer (musical) expression, is daily bread for an artist and at the same time a never ending story. Look to Stravinsky, he changed in his compositional style numerous times, not bound by any fear that his music might not sound ‚individual’ any more. It is mostly the public, trying to pigeon hole the artist, identifying Stravinsky with the Rite of Spring. 

In the second place it is important to know that everybody has a different voice by itself. Or according to Loesje (Dutch aphorism cartoons): 'Be yourself, there are already enough others’. You are yourself with your own voice, regardless of what you do. In fact: trying to look for your own voice often leads to artificially trying to sound like someone (else).

To sum up: I think my development to my own voice as it is now has benefited mostly from the consideration that I might find something when I’m not too consciously looking for it. I have developed a certain taste for sound which is a rich, wide array of sounds which I can use flexibly. Sometimes it is beautiful and sometimes it is ugly. I am looking forward to more years in the quest for sound together with instrument builders, composers and sound artists.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it? What's your own definition of originality?
I think the idea of originality comes in early puberty. A child is not hindered by this idée fixe of unwritten rules. Ironically enough developing ego in trying to be different in puberty leads to enormous group behavior where literally everybody looks exactly the same. In puberty I was struck mostly by artists who seemed to sound authentic, not merely original. Originality to me is doing something new, authenticity is conveying a sense of realness. It is this realness which is what I am looking for. Later, during my musicological studies, I found that the one philosopher putting in words in the best way was Arthur Schopenhauer (who was also a flautist). In his view music is a kind of meta-world on top of Plato’s World of the Ideas of which we ordinary humans try to grasp a shadow. This illustrates best my view on music, as an earthly touch of heavenly magic, and as close as we can get to ‚salvation’ or, to put it in Schönbergs, words: ”Die Musik soll nicht schön sein, sie soll wahr sein". Influential albums, in this respect: Miles Davis: Kind of Blue, Joni Mitchell: Blue, Nick Drake: Pink Moon, French harpsichord music by Gustav Leonhardt, the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Originality, as I said before, is not so relevant. Authenticity is relevant. As an artist you can be original and authentic but originality, at least for me, is not a goal in itself.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
The internet has created the biggest platform ever for exchanging creative views. However, the medium should not be confused with the message. My most creative moments are definitely in long periods without internet! So the greatest area for creativity that I see is in an internet-less space in which mental and emotional connections can be made between everything that one has felt and learned.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
Well, for my latest project I am making a version of Boulez’ Dialogue de l’ombre double and so-called ‚comprovisations’ with Jorrit Tamminga. I notice, again, that originality is hardly a criterium on which I choose takes. Also when I work with Jorrit the need of being original is only blurring working process which has only one goal: simply ‚good and authentic music’. The choices are therefore are highly intuitive and the inspiration is the instrument. The working process can be compared mostly to so-called ‚écriture automatique’. In the same way that surrealists were trying to find subconscious ways in creating art (one quote that I just found on Wikipedia illustrates this best: ”Placez-vous dans l'état le plus passif ou réceptif que vous pourrez... écrivez-vite sans sujet préconçu, assez vite pour ne pas vous retenir et ne pas être tenté de vous relire”, André Breton (1924).

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
The whole CD can be seen as an hommage to the instrument. There are no outer-musical inspirations or themes, this doesn’t mean that you cannot view the music in this way, just that it wasn’t the starting point for me.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
I think that this question is irrelevant because the word ‚composition’ already contains the meaning; the composing of something new out of the combination of already existing parts.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
The use of live electronic manipulation by Jorrit Tamminga highly interests me because it allows to create a kind of ‚meta-world’, either to go deeper into the acoustical sound itself or to expand on it and create a wholly new world.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
I think originality can blossom anywhere. Obviously a totalitarian regime might not be the best…

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Not yet…;-)

Erik Bosgraaf interview by Tobias Fischer
Photo by Marco Borggreve

Homepage: Erik Bosgraaf