imitation, theft and innovation: maturing as an artist

"One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest." - T. S. Eliot


Recently I purchased some music from an artist who is becoming more widely known in his particular genre of music.  He is known for writing forward thinking compositions and utilizing unfamiliar instrumentation and arrangements.  I was excited to see what he had done.  However, before track one had come to a close, I was torn as to what I felt.  On the one hand, the artist had in fact created some pretty unique arrangements that held my attention and caused me to listen more closely.  On the other hand, I seriously thought I was listening to Jonsi.  I don't mean reminiscent of Jonsi.  I mean, I played the Jonsi track back to back to this album and it was almost identical even down to the key signature.

The more I listened through the album, the more I found myself having a similar experience. Song after song not just borrowed from other artists, (particularly Jonsi and Sufjan Stevens) but adopted phrasings and instrumentation that felt like he just learned their songs and thinly remade them as his own.  But my feelings were torn because despite this, the music was really well done, produced well and born of a lot of talented musicians.  


Now, to be fair I should probably point to myself before I go ripping somebody else apart.  I recently wrote a piece of music that I absolutely loved.  I presented it to my band mates only to have them inform me that I, myself had heisted an exact melody line from... you guessed it... Jonsi.  except "not as cool" as they affectionately put it.  Ha!  You've got to love the blows of a friend.  It's like bitter medicine.  But I took the medicine, went home and re-wrote the melody.  


It used to be that I wasn't skilled enough to steal someone's melody.  I would try but it would come out different and so by virtue of a failed copy, my music appeared more original than even I intended.  But a little bit of maturity made be better at imitating and thus more responsible to blend my influences into something different or hopefully, "even cooler".  


If you listen to the solo album I did back in 2006, Closer To The Burning, you will undoubtedly find noticeable Sufjan influences in some of the music.  Of course nowadays, every band in America has a banjo and a glockenspiel in their music.  But not all of them sound like Sufjan.  Hence the T.S. Eliot quote, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."  To "steal" in this use of the word means to take it and make it your own.  Imitation as used here is merely a parrot in a cage repeating what it has heard with only a hollow similitude.

Originality is such a fickle term.  What is originality?  Truthfully, everyone is influenced by others and there is nothings to be shamed in that.  Yet as artists, it is a sign of maturity to grow beyond our influences into an expression of our own unique voice.  

Sometimes what makes one tempted to imitate is beyond having an affinity for another artist's style and approach.  It is often due to seeing something work for another, and thus assuming if we do that same thing, it should work for us as well. However, that subtle shift in motive begins the breakdown of originality. You are no longer reaching for artistic authenticity but for the success the imitated artist's work has achieved. 

There seems to be a difference between music that is a derivative of other styles as opposed to a music which lends to the current cultural conversation in music. (My band mate Greg and I were discussing this. Lest I steal his words without mention. laugh.)

The first looks on from the outside and takes from it. The latter steps into the conversation and contributes to it, both giving and receiving.   This is an in depth subject worthy of much further consideration.  For now, I leave you with this.  Let's make it our aim to grow beyond the acceptable imitations of juvenile art into a unique voice of our own coalescing.