‘Who Are You Like?’ – A Blog about Influence

The question of influences in art is paradoxical: any serious artist wishes to carve a personal identity, yet for the public that perceives new art – inasmuch as there is a real public for the modern ‘classical’ arts today – nothing seems to contextualise the artist that people meet like comparison to other artists.

The citing of influence is a veritable lagoon of reefs and shoals, both for the questioner who wades in to ask ‘So - who are you like?’ and for the creative artist who gives in and mumbles a few celebrated names. In the first place, it is humiliating all round, since it is a communal admission that this artist or composer’s work is little known in the public domain. Perhaps since visual artists need only stand in front of their efforts for the question to be laid to rest, it is composers who most often invite this approach, which gets round the cumbersome process of listening to the actual music; novelists and poets seem not to prompt questions of stylistic lineage to the same extent, for no obvious reason.

The ‘who are you like?’ question wounds even as it leads to a reluctant confession of influences, though damage to the creative pride is itself not a disaster when none of us bar a few celebrated names can avoid having our artistic noses rubbed in the hostility, ignorance and indifference of the modern world to most of what we do. Only those few exceptional ‘names’ can expect more – among them a celebrated British artist who was introduced to a friend of mine, only to face her breezy opener ‘so, do you work in music too?’ The rest of us already assume no one’s heard of us, and the stranger who braves any hauteur with such a question does, at least, show a welcome curiosity.

The greater shoal lurking beneath questions of artistic lineage is an aesthetic, not a social sandbank. Even while floundering around for names, the composer is assailed by a sense of how inadequate is the picture they assemble, and there are complex reasons for this. The question of stylistic similarity masks a fatal confusion, between what we love and what we admire, so that while it is absolutely natural to seek a way in to a new composer through other works, the implicit equation, that admiration will lead to identifiable traits, is highly suspect. To listen out for jazz in a composer who listens to jazz is rather like expecting a fisherman to be fond of swimming; we do not necessarily express what we enjoy in direct emulation – nor must we love what we emulate. As a result, the better question would be that more often put to writers, ‘with what is your work concerned?’ – though for a composer the answer to this must always fit uncomfortably into words. The fact is that the composer is really an unconscious predator, on the look-out for technique and handling in a sense that is independent of style and even content – so that in a sense the composer has ears for listening, like the rest of us, but also another set of ears that address a detached process of study.

Though there is little obvious connection between my own sound-world and popular musics, I can acknowledge a texture from a television cop show that translated directly into an ensemble work of mine in 1994. At the same time, though I am of the generation which, if required to run from a burning building containing the sole copies of all rock music since 1959, would snatch up the complete Beatles and Led Zeppelin (and the Doors if I had space), I cannot point to any clear antecedents in my work from the great Jimmy Page, whatever my admiration and however much deeper my connection to what this music does than to a television signature item. It isn’t about love, or about depth of connection.

The corollary of this is that when composers do acknowledge a ‘constructive borrowing’, it rarely appears in anticipated, that is to say obvious or superficial, guises. This is because the composer listening ‘predatorily’ to earlier music is mentally in the zone of his own, rather than of the music being heard (whereas when listening to favourite music as a ‘listener’ the composer is in the realm of that work itself, like any other listener). When Lutoslawski heard John Cage’s Piano Concerto it pointed him to the fertile area of what he was to call his own ‘aleatoric counterpoint’, yet the latter type of music (in works like Jeux Venetiens) is worlds away from Cage, as is the cool controlled elegance of Lutoslawski overall – and I believe the latter admitted that he had hardly ‘heard’ the Cage at all in performance, so absorbed was he in its implications for his own problems. I do not know whether Lutoslawski was an admirer of Cage in the round, or if he enjoyed Cage’s sound world, but this would not matter since the process at work is a cerebral response akin to problem-solving – rather as when the popular detective of fiction leaps breaks into a conversation with a cry of ‘that’s it!’ after some trivial phrase has completed for him a subconscious puzzle. Writing this, I realise that my own composition mentioned above for the television music also has, as its conclusion, a movement that arose directly from the spirit of a set of harpsichord variations by Couperin that I heard performed; I can at least say (since it is my own music) that I have no great affinity to Couperin’s world in itself, but that it was a quality of cumulative reiteration that had its impact upon me – a quality that might be found as powerfully in some quite different area of music.

In short, the aesthetic forces that we do avow do not appear as listeners usually expect, and they would rarely be detected aurally, since something else is at work altogether. If I claim the spirit of Janacek as a prime kinship for me as a musician it does not mean that my music sounds like Janacek but that his sense of unquenchable life-force is to me art’s perfect answer to life. Neither Arvo Part’s processes of isorhythm nor the repetition cycles of Balinese gamelan, upon both of which I have drawn in the past within my own workings, indicates any style connection to those aesthetic worlds. Why would it? Composition is for me a synthesis, a process of absorbtion, while – taking up the other set of ears – it is also a relief to be able ‘just’ to listen to music.