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Interview with James Aikman

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.

For composer James Aikman, a piece of music does not need to be original to sound fresh. The abundance of music available today, too, need not be an issue - for a good composer, the toolbox can never be too big.

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?

I believe we all use our own aesthetic filters, storing what we like, remembering it, however vaguely, for future use.  Donald Erb once told me that good composers have to be at least a little forgetful, and not too damned studious, or else we would spend our lives listening and studying the daunting, great works of music history instead of learning how to create it ourselves.  Emulating compositional ideas, rather than particular style, is what should take place while composers are learning, and we learn throughout our lives.  Ideas inspire, and when they do, a decent composer's experiential wisdom shines and the work becomes his or her own.

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?
I've never really sought originality for the sake of being original.  Some composers do that, to varying degrees of success.  I'd much rather work intelligently with the notes that come to my ear.  I've found that the idea of each piece and what is done with it throughout is what gives it life, what gives it character and the stamp of its composer.  Some of the artists that have stood out: Louis Andriessen (relentless pursuit of maximizing an idea), John Eaton (unique, musical use of quarter-tones, electronics, his innate sensitivity to the human voice and its effect within his works of art), Donald Erb (immediately recognizable sonic landscapes and bold statements, Joseph Schwantner (an elevated lyrical/harmonic voice with an elegant, haunting overall sense of timing), Ligeti (his actively static concept is novel, and then there are the Etudes for Piano!), Messiaen, Lutoslawski, others. In my teens: discovering the 3 B's, Mozart, Debussy, etc., and jazz, McCoy Tyner (novel use of quartal harmony in jazz), Oscar Peterson (the extraordinary double octave flourishes and truly awesome, flawless technique), John Coltrane (spiritual seeking within modes and music) rock bands who have made some lasting music (The Beatles, Yes) … the beautiful renaissance choral music of Morales, Josquin, Obrecht, etc., there is a very long list of music I love which has born influence.

What's your own definition of originality? 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?
In music, a piece which has distinctive character.  Whether sublime, passionate, rhythmically intriguing, whatever, the main thing is: you know it when you hear it! Each pathway through this life allows each composer musical experiences which are unique in their total combination to anyone else alive.  This spawns style, when drawn upon during the process of composing. But essentially, quality means more than originality.  Bach was not known as original.  He studied many musics of his day and before, and during his time, was known as old-fashioned. Yet we know his work as highly original, having used the forms, methods, and various styles so well they became fresh in his hands, immediately recognizable as J. S. Bach, a gift to us all.

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?
Most of those pieces are amateur-hour works at best.  The art of seriously studying works that inspire is necessary.  Composing is far more than putting together pre-fashioned materials, beats and patterns and cliches.  But I do believe it is good that many are getting their feet wet in the sea of compositions being put out.  Doing it yourself yields a different angle on the process, and concept, of composition.

I believe that the vast amount of music at our fingertips will manifest itself into composers' styles, based on their taste.  Awareness of the vast library of great music is most important to a good composer.  As Hemingway said, at the least, you need to know what you are being judged against!

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.

The most challenging aspect of composition is making one's self disciplined enough to make steady progress, everyday, no excuses, no exceptions.  Once sitting down at the work space, it is not a problem.  The mind games before sitting down for the day, "better check my phone, email, just one more cup of coffee, I wonder what's happening on Facebook, in the news?,"  etc., have to be kept in check!  Nothing else for a composer is more important than making progress every day.  The rest of the day then falls into place. 

A recent recording was made of my first piece for the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, where I am now in residence.  It is a Triptych including a Prelude, a Fanfare and involves the merging of electronic music in the central movement, The Particle Garden.  The title, I stole from my colleague in the Society of Fellows, Gordon Kane.  Prof. Kane is the notable theoretical physicist who bet Stephen Hawking that they would see the discovery of the Higgs Boson (the "God" particle) during their lifetimes.  (Prof. Hawking lost $ 100)   Gordy gave me his permission to lift the title and even bought me a lunch to celebrate my promoting the field of physics! 

My current project is unique in that the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra will begin premiering sections of my large-scale piece, Peacemakers, this season.  Three or four excerpts will take place on different concert programs during the 2014-15 season, the same for the following year, and in 2016-17, the entire multi-media work will be presented on its own program.  This will involve sections of speeches by notable peacemakers (Gandhi, JFK, MLK, RFK, Sadat, Rabin, Mandella, Angelou, etc.) shown with audio while the music is playing, some of their words at times being sung (chorale and individual soloists), and the incorporation of sitar, electronic Tambura, pre-recorded electronic music taking place as well.  In essence, Peacemakers is becoming a large-scale piece for chamber orchestra with singers, video projections, dancers, and electronic music.

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?
I don't know where the ideas come from. What I do know is that when it is going well, it is not me.  With some pieces, it is like pushing a boulder.  At first, that thing seems very heavy and doesn't want to budge.  But after it gets rolling, it rolls by itself.

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?
What I know, is that when ads now generate far more money than the musicians ever see who have created the musical content people are curious enough to hear, which led them to the site in the first place, something is terribly awry.   Those who control the means of getting music to you have taken over the fees paid to the musician pawns for our recorded work.  I've heard just about every kind of horse shit justification, including that copyright stifles creativity.  What??  You've got to be kidding me?  It only stifles the one who does not know how to create anything from the ground up in the first place because copyright prevents them from stealing something, changing it a bit, so they can put their name on it!   In an age where everyone seems to think music should be free, how does it make sense to become a composer?  Just because I found it online does not mean that I can spend a month in Tahiti and not pay the airlines or resort tab!  With regard to a composition being the composer's work, that speaks for itself.  If we say that an invention can be patented, the same concept applies to works of art.  It takes years of true study, refining one's abilities, and in this current world, few have the talent, drive and patience it takes to achieve. The experiential wisdom called upon in just one decent piece of music is more than most wish to put into it.  Those years, and the current ones, of productive composers should be adequately rewarded.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality? 
In the field of electronic music, it is most clear.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
The combination of "live" acoustic music played by great musicians merged with electronic media, audio and visual, to create a spectacle in the listening environment interests me and has for decades.  But the opportunities for charlatans abound in this arena. Let's face it, composing is a profession with a millennia of those few who have really done it well. That minute percentage of greatness will not change, no matter how many exponentially growing technological developments take place. 

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 admire Bach and Brahms for seeking those classical ideas they felt compelled to use in their works: attention to form, symmetry, design, economy of means, craft, etc., and for going against the grain of the then hip whom they surpassed in the arch of history. On the other side of the coin, we are indebted to Debussy and Stravinsky, who made quantum leaps forward by relaxing some rigor (functional harmony, for instance) while magnifying others (the rhythmic domain). Beethoven could have been seen in both camps.  Charlie Parker thought to solo on the harmonic design rather than to decorate and ornament the melody, which was the custom. That idea, and his use of it!, changed jazz. These are just a few examples, but all of the greats push boundaries by seeking and often attaining perfection in their work. Quality does trump all.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
A few of my large ensemble and choral works have not had a professional premiere and recording.  I am sure they eventually will.   I have been very fortunate, surrounded by great players throughout my life.

James Aikman interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: James Aikman