Originality Can Be Bad, Professor Says

In the world of classical music, the question of “What’s new?” too frequently supersedes all others, even that of “What’s good?”

At least, that’s the feeling of Bernard Gilmore, professor of music and composition at UC Irvine.

“Quite often, when students bring a piece into my office, they really disregard its quality,” Gilmore said in a recent interview. “They’re (more) concerned with doing what’s never been done before.

“Of course, it’s impossible. No matter how innovative a piece is, it’s beholden to something in the past. My feeling is that they are concerned with the wrong things.”


Gilmore plans to fulminate against what he calls the “obsession with creativity” in a talk entitled “Originality and Other Sins” at noon Thursday at UCI’s Bren Events Center.

“I’m neither an aesthetician nor a musicologist. I am a composer,” he said. “My interest in the subject comes out of composing and, more particularly, having taught music composition for several years and realizing with how obsessed (students) are with originality.”

But Gilmore doesn’t blame his students alone.

“The public also tends to admire ‘originality,’ and I think that admiration is misplaced and is part of the same tendency to venerate a few masterpieces and ‘definitive’ performances,” he said. “It’s an issue blown way out of proportion.”

“We’ve all become enamored with such terms as ‘the cutting edge.’ But the emphasis is all misplaced, particularly with respect to a young composer. . . . It can really stifle creativity.”

Gilmore, 51, has taught composition, music theory and conducting at UCI since 1982; last year, he also was acting dean of the School of Fine Arts. He was reared in the San Fernando Valley, did undergraduate and graduate work at UCLA and received his doctorate in performing arts from Stanford University.

Gilmore insists that preoccupation with “originality” is a comparatively recent phenomenon.

“Basically, originality is a 19th-Century idea--which we’re stuck with today,” he said. “If you read the letters of Mozart, you will never find him worried about being original. Mozart just ignores it. It’s not an issue.


“What he talks about is skill, generally. For example, in one letter to his father, he brags he can imitate any style. His writings tend to be very practical in their orientation.”

But things changed with the “heaven-storming” composers of the Romantic 19th Century.

“The 19th Century develops the conception of artist-as-hero,” Gilmore said, and, to clarify the term, borrowed from the writings of mythology expert Joseph Campbell’s description of the mythic hero: “The mythic hero has to journey to Hades or past the pillars of Medusa, slaying the dragons of the status quo, to achieve rebirth. From the 19th Century on, we tend to look at the artist that way.”

Like many an academic, Gilmore proceeds by defining terms.


“We think we probably have some common understanding when we say a work is ‘original,’ ” he said. “But if we start to pin (the word) down, we reveal paradoxes and incongruities. . . . We think we know what we’re talking about, but we don’t. . . .

“The more we talk about it, the more confusing it is, arriving (finally) at the understanding that it is really an irrelevant notion.”

Gilmore plans to play parts of three works commonly referred to as “original” and ask, “What it is about them that causes us to say they are original works?”

The works include Stravinsky’s “Le sacre du printemps,” Debussy’s “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune,” and Charles Ives’ “Three Places in New England.”


“In my process of defining, the works which we call original are those which reveal new possibilities to us or new relationships. There is a revelatory quality in all those works we call ‘original.’

“For a composer to create such a piece, he has to be open to those possibilities of a child. For an adult, a pot is a pot; whereas to a kid, it can be a helmet or a drum or all sorts of things.”

But Gilmore wonders whether it is even possible to be original any more, “given the fact that every possible sound has been made.”

He plans to draw on excerpts from the works of minimalist composer John Adams (“Nixon in China”) to show that what is considered original and new may merely be ideas whose times have come.


“The point I want to make with Adams is the irony that, just as with representational painting--which we filter through our experience of decades of non-representational painting--these very familiar sounds (by Adams), had they been written in 1940, we wouldn’t have paid any attention to them.

“Now they sound fresh. Here again, it’s a paradox of ‘originality.’ ”

In his own teaching, Gilmore advises his students to follow Stravinsky’s description of composing as “an act of speculative volition.

“I urge my students to speculate, ‘What would happen if I do this?’ To work more out of their head and on paper rather than to realize on paper sounds that they have imagined.


“I think the composer needs to be much more attuned to the process of composition rather than (to) the product. What results, results. If it’s original, fine. If not, is it good? Is it interesting?”

Gilmore sees his approach as “taking pressure off the students.”

‘That was the original purpose of the talk,” he said. “We all value innovation and freshness, but if there were less obsession with the masterpiece and the original masterpiece, we would have more of a comprehensive view of the arts and a more practical conception of creating the arts.”

That is not, however, a process that ends with training in a composition class or at a university, he cautioned.


“If someone graduates from here with a Ph.D. in composition, I hope they would not think they are a finished composer,” he said. “You’re never completely developed as a composer. You learn all the time.

“I remember Haydn’s quote when he was on his deathbed, ‘I have just learned how to write for the winds, and now I must leave this world. . . . ‘ “

As for whom historians will regard as the creators of our time, Gilmore said, “I prefer to avoid speculating.” But he thinks things “are going in a very fruitful direction.

“As Stravinsky (forced us to do) in the ‘teens and ‘20s, we are forced to look at the tradition again and come to terms with it,” he said. “I’m optimistic.”


Bernard Gilmore will lecture on “Originality and Other Sins” at noon on Thursday in the Steward Room of the Bren Events Center, Bridge Street at Campus Drive, on the UC Irvine campus. The lecture is free. Information: (714) 856-8748.