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Interview with Noah Creshevsky

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, Noah Creshevsky expands on his personal challenge to find originality in timbre in a time when our ears are constantly bombarded with the most diverse sounds. 

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 was drawn to music from early childhood.  Every method of infantile persuasion was used to gain entrance into houses of neighbors, friends and relatives who owned pianos.  Hoisting myself up onto a chair, I picked out the popular tunes of the day, as well as some of the classical pieces my family had on 78 rpm discs.  I also improvised my own “compositions.”  Those consisted of unwritten (but fixed) pieces that showed no awareness at all of originality.  One day I “composed” a theme that seemed to be my own, only to hear it on the radio the next morning.  “My” theme was the opening four measures of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”  Even a child can imagine such a simple theme as that.  My coincidental connection to Mozart was not (as it may seem) an early example of appropriation, but of two musicians coming to the same result through independent means.

Rochester, New York is the home of the Eastman School of Music.  At five, I was enrolled as a student in its preparatory division.  I continued my studies at Eastman for nearly all of the twelve years that preceded my graduation from high school.  At Eastman, I had lessons and classes in piano, ear-training, theory, sight-reading, music history, and (eventually), composition.  Howard Hanson was the director of the Eastman School.  Hanson composed music in the “mainstream” tradition. New music as I knew it consisted of solo, ensemble, and orchestral music in the tradition of Hanson and Copland.

I do not think that prodigies exist in creative arts such as painting, literature, and music composition.  Prodigies exist as performers—actors and instrumentalists.  If there are creative prodigies, I was not one of them.  I was a noticeably gifted child whose mind, tastes, and techniques matched the derivative world of the very young.  I played the piano well, but did not want to be a concert pianist.  I wanted to be a composer who conducted his own symphonies and performed his own piano concertos. 

I was no more original than the next gifted child.  I needed to be shown that there was a progressive, experimental world outside of my immediate environment.  At 17, I left Rochester for the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo.  With no early exposure to genuinely new music, I finally encountered it in Buffalo.  Once I discovered that there was such a thing as new music, I knew that I would be a part of that world.

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?
During my first months in Buffalo, I encountered Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes” for prepared piano, Cowell’s piano music (especially “Aeolian Harp,” “The Banshee,” and “Sinister Resonance”), Cowell’s “Ostinato Pianissimo” (for string piano, rice bowls, xylophone, woodblocks, tambourine, guiro, bongos, drums, and gongs), and the opening movement of Boulez’s “Le marteau sans maître.”  These pieces influenced me immediately, most notably through their use of fresh timbres, and also because of their brevity.  My interest in new sound sources and brevity inform my music to this day.  I do not very much mind long pieces of new music, but my usual preference is for fairly brief works that pack a maximum of power into a relatively short space. 

What's your own definition of originality?
Quality is more important than originality.  The perception of quality develops over time.  As various piano pieces unfold, we form judgments that one piece is better than another.  Time allows us to distinguish a schematic Czerny exercise from a richly inspired Chopin Nocturne.  

On the other hand, decisions to listen or not listen to a piece of music can be made in a split second.  As we scan a radio dial from station to station, a flash of sound is enough to tell us if we are interested in hearing the music that is being played.  Timbre (like taste) seems to be a subjective matter, varying from person to person.  One listener may love plucked instruments like harpsichords and guitars, while another may not.  Choral music is not for every taste, whether the piece be ancient or new.  For those who do not respond to opera, hearing more or less of “Tosca” or “Einstein on the Beach” will not make a difference.

I am interested in originality as it relates to timbre.  While I recognize that great new pieces can be composed for traditional instruments and ensembles, I try to steadily create new sounds (like Cowell’s “Aeolian Harp”) or unexpected combinations of instruments (like “Le marteau sans maître”). 

Additionally, I prefer sound palettes that change often—certainly from composition to composition, and often within the same composition.  I call the idea that music can be made from an ever-changing medley of diverse sounds “open palette.” 

Once music moves from the social, dramatic, and economic conditions of live concert settings to the open-ended freedom of the recording studio, a flexible, expandable world of infinite sonic possibility becomes a practical reality. 

While we routinely (and rightly) expect a new sonic and visual experience each time we see a new film, live concerts coerce us into a full evening of piano music or string quartets (but not both on the same program).  An evening of string quartets can be a satisfying, thrilling experience, but electronic music allows a full range of sound that excludes nothing (including pianos and strings) and includes everything under the sun.  Freedom is a responsibility to be taken seriously, but access to many sounds is no messier than the composition of a piece for solo violin by a composer with little talent or craft.  Frugality of means does not assure quality anymore than extravagance of means assures quality, but it’s exciting to hear a fresh sound and not know what other fresh sound will come next.  It’s no small challenge to excite our contemporary ears because we have already heard and seen so much of what can be heard and seen.  Still, our ears perk up to timbre.  It’s an important tool in the pursuit 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?
Hyperreality in my music is created either through the expansion and variability of sound palettes or by pushing traditional instruments beyond the mental and anatomical capacities of live performers.  The value of originality is neither more nor less important to me today than it was 40 years ago.  Given an ideal world, I would wish to have access to high-quality samples of every possible sound.  I look to an age in which the sum of human knowledge is freely shared.  Art and the human spirit thrive by giving, receiving, and sharing.  While everyone is entitled to economic compensation for labor and services rendered, current intellectual property regulations do little to protect copyright holders.  Open access to the bounty of our collective histories and cultures can open doors to an unprecedented golden age of creativity. 

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?
“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”—Mae West

West was wise to say, “can be” instead of “is.”  Too much is not necessarily wonderful; too much can be terrible, harmful to ourselves, to others, and to our planet.  It is clear that we must conserve energy, clean water, food, etc.  It’s a good idea to save a child, a pet, a forest, and the planet, but nothing is accomplished when we save a note.  Economy of means is overrated in art.  Economy of means through repetition of musical motifs, refrains, and recapitulations seems to me to be redundant in an age in which any recorded piece can be heard as many times as we wish. 

On the other hand, a number of composers are creatively devoted to repetitions based on mantras and other rituals.  That strikes me as needlessly economical, but it could also be seen as proof that “too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”  Who can say for sure?

What I think can be said with a confidence is that “more and more musicians creating more music than ever” is not a problem in itself.  Too many marginally talented, poorly trained creative minds MAY be a problem, but overall, music does no harm.  Overproduction in the arts is the same as overproduction in anything else.  Without a social network to provide basic goods and services, our sense of appropriate and inappropriate, and of right and wrong tend to be tied to finding work to provide an income to satisfy basic human needs.  Anyone can see that there is, in fact, not a shortage of labor, but a surplus of labor in order to maintain a high standard of living.  Yet social goals appear to focus on the idea that everyone ought to earn his/her keep.  Something is wrong with this picture.  Art cannot cure disease or feed the hungry, but more or less art has little or no impact on the social, economic, and political realities that shape our lives. 

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 greatest ongoing challenge in my life as a composer has been the acquisition of source material.  Since my work is sample-based, I am dependent on the generosity and kindness of strangers to obtain the raw material from which I make my compositions.

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?
One useful method of composing is to acquire samples, trim and tune them, transpose them within ranges that I consider humanly reasonable (avoiding squeaky chipmunks and growling bass disturbances)…and more.  The aim is to create a palette of sound that can be used to compose.  Once a palette (an orchestration) is complete, it is possible to begin composing. 

Sometimes I have a particular palette in mind.  That was the case in pieces I composed using samples provided to me by singers Ellen Band, Lisa Barnard Kelley, Thomas Buckner and Beth Griffith, guitarists Michael Hafftka and Marco Oppedisano, clarinetists Al Margolis and Sherman Friedland, violinist Mari Kimura, violist Martha Mooke, vocal artists Chris Mann and Tomomi Adachi, flutist Matt Samolis, cellist, Juho Laitinen, trombonist Monique Buzzarté, percussionist Ray Marchica, and others. 

When I do not have a particular palette in mind I sample at will from available sources.  Sampling, like taking photographs, can be a great pleasure in itself.  Sooner or later patterns of timbre, tempo, and mood emerge.  Experience and serendipity come together to create building blocks that form a usable palette.

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?
Although I have not been cautious about expressing social and political beliefs that are beyond my area of expertise, the issue of copyright is fraught with peril.  I tend to avoid the topic since it is so complex (unlike basic human rights), is in a state of flux, and is the proper domain of attorneys and legislators. 

I think it is troubling that we are subjected without consent to an onslaught of background music in shops we visit and advertising billboards as we walk down a street, yet we are legally prohibited from recording, manipulating, and reproducing the sounds and sights of our shared environment.  It’s challenging to have a professional portrait taken on the streets that surround my apartment without including a copy-protected image for Coca-Cola.  There seems to me to be something wrong with the idea of copyrighting the environment or my reality, but this is an issue for experts in fields other than my own.

In one famous case of copyright infringement, Peters Edition threatened to sue Mike Batt and his band, The Planets, for recording a track called “One Minute Silence (after Cage).”  Batt and Peters settled out of court for an undisclosed six-figure sum. 

I do not think one ought to be able to profit (without compensation) for the significant labor of others.  Large quotations from the work of others seem to me to present legal and ethical hurdles.  No one—not even John Cage—can (or did) copyright silence, but attaching Cage’s name to the track represented an illegal—and unethical—case of profiting from the labor and reputation of another. 

What interests (and concerns) me personally is the appropriation of small (but how small is small?) fragments of “iconic” musical material.  An example might be a major chord, played beautifully by someone or other, on a violin.  There is no doubt that a performer of great talent and accomplishment played the chord, but if that performer’s name is not attached to the new composition, I wonder what damage has been done to anyone.  In my experience, most artists are pleased by the responsible use of their material. 

Great art can be made from the deconstruction and reconstruction of our cultural history.  YouTube and the Internet are filled with good and bad art based on sounds and images that are protected by copyright.  What a loss it would be if amateur and professional artists were prohibited from creating new works based on the collective bounty of our shared history and environment.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
As a composer who cut and spliced tape until the advent of home computers, I cannot overemphasize the blessing and glory of the undo function!  Guttenberg cannot be adequately thanked for the printing press, and digital technology probably rivals the printing press for first prize in a pointless race for awards to technologies that contributed the most to the improvement of our world. 

Digital tools are essential to my work, and to the work of countless original and unoriginal others. 

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
It is tempting to suggest that my own music depends on relatively simple technologies, but the “simple” technologies I use and have come to take for granted are miracles of design and efficiency.  My toolbox consists of applications to record, trim, tune, normalize, transpose, sequence, mix, and so much more.  Some composers use additional features of the same programs I use each day, while others work with an assortment of alternative technologies.  

I doubt that computers made my music more or less original than my music had been in analog studios, but digital technologies certainly improved the condition of my aching back.  The undo function also stopped my hand from shaking as I weighed the benefits and perils of tricky splices.

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?
“We must cultivate our garden”—Voltaire

While there is little doubt that “we must cultivate our garden,” I think many music students are inadvertently cultivating someone else’s garden rather than their own.  Classical models of music education tend more to a one-size-fits-all mentality than to something simultaneously individual and pluralistic. 

Studying music of the past can be an instructive and broadening experience. Composing music with the same technical, social, and economic parameters that applied to instrumental music of the past may inhibit originality, personal authenticity, and the realization of a happy life. 

If one is to compose music for live players, it is important to examine personal feelings about everything that relates to the composition and performance of concert music (including concert music for laptop computer and live electronics). Does the composer have the professional and interpersonal skills to induce others to play his or her music?  Does he or she enjoy and excel at the social and technical aspects of conducting rehearsals?  Is concert attendance a joy or a burden?  Does one value music as something to DO (performance) or as something to hear (fixed media)?  Since studio music can sound like almost anything, it is important for composers to understand that electronic music is much more connected to a way of life than to a sound. 

“The light which we have gained, was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.”—John Milton

Socrates states the “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but an examined life is never limited to introspection.  The discovery of “things more remote from our knowledge” has many implications, including the inference that self-knowledge is the sum of our inner and external experiences.  When the pursuit of our “true selves” is restricted to the discovery of and adherence to our innate instincts and preferences, each of us quickly hits bottom.  Creative minds want to be expanded to include ideas that do not occur to us “naturally.”  The pursuit of the “unnatural” is not a betrayal of ourselves, but the recognition that man—unique among living creatures—is capable of making choices that rise above instinct.

I think we must simultaneously “cultivate our garden” and look outward “to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.”  To do less than challenge instinct and the cult of individuality is to diminish originality in every endeavor, including art.  The creative mind flourishes through the recognition of new ideas, alternatives, and ethical and creative choices.  It is not enough to merely BE ourselves, but to BECOME more than ourselves.   Being human includes the understanding that “the examined life” looks both inward and outward. 

While the sheer volume of art and the ability to disseminate it internationally can make anyone feel inadequate, outdated, and redundant, it is a joy to see so many people creating and distributing their work.  Again, more is more, even if some of what is produced is less than first-rate.  In my life to date, I have been emboldened, consoled, and encouraged by first-rate work by first-rate artists, second-rate work by first-rate artists, first-rate work by second-rate artists, bad measures in the music of great composers, and wonderful moments in the music of less-than-great composers.  Sharing our vulnerabilities as well as our strengths allows us to flourish as a species. 

The wide availability of computers and information is generally conducive to productivity and accomplishment both original and unoriginal.  The greatest obstacle to the cultural landscape is a concept of intellectual “property” that claims private ownership of a collective history that is our birthright.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
I like to think that listeners tuning in to the middle of one of my pieces on a radio broadcast would not realize that they are hearing an electronic piece of music.  I am interested in the fine line that slightly pushes the limits of human reality.  With that aesthetic in mind, I have long wanted to write an electronic concerto for orchestra.  That project would require quite a lot of money to record performers in a professional studio.  Even if I compose for free (and I nearly always do compose for free), the budget would exceed my personal resources.  Perhaps it is not a bad thing to have a vision of a piece of music that I cannot realize. It is important to recognize and acknowledge the gifts we have received.  To complain of an unrealized dream seems foolishly ungrateful and inappropriate.  Life itself is sweet, rich, and original enough.

Noah Creshevsky Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Dana Bryan

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