Off the Shelf

The other day as I was driving I found myself meditating on an image that I first heard in graduate school in reference to music composition: taking something “off the shelf.” This was a most heinous sin. To take something off the shelf meant to resort to a cliché, something that was easy, ready-to-hand, done before and known. This is the sort of thing that we might do reflexively, unthinkingly, automatically, without perhaps realizing it. The aim was to maximize one’s consciousness of precisely what one was creating. I imagine this can apply to any other art form. Something “off the shelf” is not yours; it’s ready-made and lacks your stamp of originality. Originality, of course — its unquestioned superiority, its being the greatest desideratum — is the unstated assumption behind this thinking. That idea itself, one could argue, comes right off the shelf. The Romantic shelf.

The bugbear in this scenario is the unconscious. Or perhaps it is the subconscious? My high modernist post-Second-Viennese-School teachers strove to be in control of their “material.” You can only be in control of what you know (or think you’re in control of what you think you know). Your being unaware of something in the music you write was a Bad Thing. The more aware the better. So you must be aware — beware! — of those little unconscious gestures that creep into our thinking inevitably, which compromise our authenticity. It is not authentic for one to use something “off the shelf.”

I would prefer the idea of authenticity to that of originality. The more I think about it, the greater a sham it seems to me, the sacralized idea of originality. There are extremely few things that are truly “original” — that form an origin. I cannot think of any development in music that did not arise from the mixture of previous ideas. Everything we call “original” was actually a brilliant synthesis of two or more already existing ideas. Pope Gregory, Machaut, Josquin, Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi, Debussy, Stravinsky, Reich — you name ’em — I will show you what the “stroke of genius” (now that I can believe in!) put together that had not been put together before. And com-posing means putting-together.

I belabor this point because to some extent, what these great composers were doing was “taking off the shelf” ideas that pre-existed. That is all the mind ever seems to do: combine and recombine earlier thoughts. The new amalgam then becomes itself something on the shelf for future composers and artists to avail themselves of, and if they are really brilliant, they will hit on a new combination that stirs their contemporaries’ imaginations — that strikes a chord, dare I say.

A trap in all this is the idea of progress in art, what Taruskin calls historicism — I am two chapters from finishing his History of Western Music! Can’t wait to see how it all turned out! — the idea that new developments in art must be “bigger and better” that what came before. This is another “off the shelf” axiom, and the most conspicuous way to achieve this has been maximalization: longer, louder, more chromatic, more colorful, more unified, more, more, more. Even minimalism is an offshoot of this maximalist idea. Certainly this trend has led to some fantastic developments, but it is false to think they are better. It seems to be more of an Oedipal dynamic, frankly.

This image of the shelf is one that has haunted me — a “buttstix” (see a previous post) — and I have had to process it, digest it, and make my own. I don’t reject entirely the idea insofar as it refers to authenticity, but authenticity is earned, won, wrested, by other means. That thing of the shelf  — that shelf-consciousness — is a red herring, just one part of a bigger picture.

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