A Pluralistic Spectrum of the Mimetic

A Pluralistic Spectrum of the Mimetic

Commentary for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy | December 19th, 2017 

Abstract  | Table of Contents | List of Figures | List of Compositions

Chapter 1 – Background

Chapter 2 – Unravelling the Mimetic

Chapter 3 – Making the Mimetic Plural

Chapter 4 – Initial Concepts in Practice 

1.0 Aims and Motivation

When I began this PhD my compositional output had reached a point where there was a significant amount of stylistic divergence from piece to piece. The degree of variety in my music was a result of a compositional approach that consciously sought to explore specific material for the duration of a given piece. Additionally, it was common for me to compose with the aim of exploring a certain musical technique or style. However, once having done this, I often found myself moving onto a new work, and one that was typically concerned with exploring a different set of aesthetic interests. By itself this was not an issue, but as I developed a larger body of compositions I began to recognise that embedded within this approach was a certain imitative tendency. An approach that was not necessarily reverential towards achieving exact imitation, but more often than not, seeking to instead reveal, undermine, and call into question accepted norms, qualities, and tendencies characterising specific musical materials or styles. Given this, I came to recognise how my creative practice depended upon my own understanding of various expectations, especially those associated with certain musical material.

Results from this compositional approach were pieces that were often labelled, by others, as ironic. This observation led to a certain amount of research and self-reflection. From this I became aware of how this categorization was a consequence of an interest in purposefully re-ordering, taking apart, and thwarting many of the cultural expectations implied by both my choice and treatment of musical materials. And in light of this content, the artistic research I proposed for this PhD was focused on expanding this trajectory of composing; however, it was also focused on composing singular works, ones that would unify a plurality of my mimetic abilities within self-contained pieces. This was done intentionally, to stand in contrast to compositions composed prior to this PhD which were more homogenous in musical style and material. It is from this stance then, that I now wish to use this commentary to document how a substantial and specific body of artistic research (ten compositions developed between the years 2012 to 2016) articulate this research position, as well as build upon many other interconnected issues. 

In short, this written work seeks to discuss how a range of imitative techniques are present and have come to exist and emerge within my music. Moreover, regarding source material and musical models, this PhD research has been used to formally investigate how composing can engage with a wealth of mimetic behaviours – thereby detailing how such comportment can be manifested in original musical works. Lastly, while this commentary seeks to provide an overview of compositional approaches I have taken during a particular period of my career (2012-2016), it also has been conceived as a document allowing for the emergence of new avenues that I could continue to explore in the future. Such future directions will thus be recognised throughout this commentary, especially when discussing works which clearly open the door for the creation of multiple interpretations and new versions.  

1.1 Relevant History of the Composer

During my Master’s study, I first began to see imitation in a non-pejorative way. Overall, this was because this period involved a re-evaluation of the term, and I mention this experience only due to it being an important starting point for exploring related themes that are present throughout this PhD. Essentially, this period of musical exploration led me to examine the notion of imitation, which has now brought me to comprehensively study the concept of mimesis within the creative arts. In view of this, the theme of mimesis, stands as a central pillar to this discussion and one I will repeatedly link with my creative work. Yet before moving onto this issue I need to first examine ideas surrounding imitation more closely; specifically, the way I have encountered such ideas in the field of musicology. One “discovery” (leading to my present artistic research) was the notion that a composer can anachronistically engage with the musical past; doing so by treating source material from other periods in ways that can be seen as being either: eclectic, heuristic, reverential, or dialectical[1]. Essentially, Hyde’s model articulates how composers evoke the past whilst utilising musical models for the purpose of either combining them with a wide range of sources (eclectic); working with them in a method developed by one’s own intuition (heuristic); remaining predominantly faithful to an original (reverential); or by presenting opposing forces inherently contained within a work itself (dialectical). From this position I began to conduct research around the concept of imitation, which then led to the more central theme of mimesis in the arts. Additionally, as a term — mimesis — became a far more comprehensive concept to articulate my engagement and influence from musical models, both as they occurred in my older work and the way I have researched models and their impact on composing new compositions for this body of research.

[1] Martha Hyde, Neoclassic and Anachronistic Impulses in Twentieth-Century Music (Music Theory Spectrum 18.2, 1996).

1.2 – Mimesis: Conscious and Discreet

From this perspective, the main premise of this commentary is the notion and presence of mimesis in musical composition, and in particular, how it can be seen as a behaviour that operates either consciously or much more discreetly. Highlighting this awareness — or lack thereof — is vital for the purpose of this commentary, primarily to distinguish ways in which mimetic interaction with source material occurs. The latter has consequently prompted my invention and usage of the terms conscious mimesis and discreet mimesis. Using these terms is my attempt to distinguish activities involving ‘conscious borrowing’ and ‘less conscious’ imitative behavior; but to further clarify this, I propose that these terms should, for now, be understood to infer approaches towards the degree one takes towards an instance of mimesis. Namely, one either carefully aims to imitate a subject within a certain spectrum of obliqueness or exactitude (conscious mimesis); or — to the contrary — one goes about making music that only discreetly sounds-like a source(s) that one has encountered. Additionally, the latter involves a form of less or unconscious mimesis of source material, regardless to the degree of similarity or difference eventually manifested.

In this regard, quoting — or other sorts of behaviour — are methods that re-work pre-existing material and thus fall into the category of conscious mimesis. Whereas, discreet mimesis, implies activities have less conscious engagement (or even an unconscious engagement) with source material, or a certain type(s) of musical model(s). Therefore, when talking about my own music in this commentary I use this distinction to specify, distinguish, and clarify how certain manners of mimetic behaviour refer, or infer, to a given source or a body of musical conventions.

1.3  Stepping Beyond Irony

As I mentioned earlier, a weighted critique once made of my music, was that it was ironic. Although, at the time, such a comment — which was both complimentary and critical — piqued my interest, and it did so in true ironic form, given that I was largely unaware of my own musical irony. And, in a slow response to this critique, I began to question how my music, or even music in general, could be considered ironic. This was especially so given music’s abstract nature as well as the wide range of historical definitions connected to the concept of irony. In light of this and other questions, the topic of irony remains on the periphery of this discussion; periodically being mentioned in order to clarify issues raised by my artistic practice. In this respect, touching upon the notion of irony means I need to deconstruct the claim that I wrote ironic music. Unravelling how this trait characterised my own musical personality — especially prior to beginning this PhD — is embedded with ideas, approaches or methods I normally have used to bring forth my musical compositions. In particular, I would suggest my use of ‘creative musical games’ often resulted in this ironic categorisation. Additionally, the latter encompassed a certain proclivity to use personalised interpretations of other sources, as well as my own reaction to a much larger musical meta-narrative.

Overall, I have now come to recognise certain mannerisms as being central ironic features in my music; specifically, proclivities towards inverting many musical conventions. These especially include tendencies connected to parameters such as harmony, rhythm, form, and style. However, upon gaining more self-awareness of this ironic approach, I realised I was taking this type of aesthetic stance as a means to primarily distance myself from more authoritative or dogmatic positions on how music ought to be composed. This position can thus be seen as an ironic approach to using musical material within ‘a later 20th century interpretation of the word’, which is a point I mention only to clarify that my connection to irony was not based on the Romantic or the Socratic notion of the term.

Moving on from this self-analysis, I now see my music’s ironic implications resonating more with Richard Rorty’s stance: irony as a private attitude, whereby a composer (author) is deeply aware of the fact that their musical language is just one among others[2]. Additionally, as Claire Colebrook suggests, my approach towards composing appears to be one that compliments Rorty’s standpoint. And, in short this implies that any ironic quality in my work — prior and up until now — remains as an effort to free up space for my own creative explorations.

… adopting a tone of irony would allow for a plurality of stories and, further, that we would value a world in which competing accounts were possible. We would not be troubled by, nor would we violently react to, other narratives and language games. Irony allows us to inhabit our own context, acknowledge the existence of other contexts and enable our own context to be open, fluid and creative. [3]

Colebrook’s discussion of Rorty positions an ironic stance as inclusive, yet it also states that it is idiosyncratic to one’s own creative games (e.g. a part of one’s musical practice). In personal support of this, I saw the success of my ironic approach — prior to beginning this PhD — as a productive period with numerous pieces being written in a range of musical styles. However, the consequence of this was that such a pluralistic approach was harder to define and explain to others. Simply put, the fact that my music was not easily reducible to a sentence or two, interfered with the comfort of being an ironic composer. In connection to this, any satisfaction derived from knowing my music was ironic was short-lived. Thus, striving for irony soon became an interest superseded by the concern that a pluralistic musical identity was hard for others to categorise, and therefore comprehend. Perhaps though, some acute anxiety from the latter realisation was then amplified by another critique I received, whereby my “composerly-identity” was compared to that of a musical chameleon.  Naturally, any comparison to a camouflaging reptile prompts significant self-reflection, however, what I took from the comparison was positive: that being a musical-chameleon implied I had a knack for blending, changing, and being adaptable. All of this essentially suggested I was able to mould my musical practice into a variety of environments. Moreover, this ability to imitate, adapt, or take on aspects of musical styles was not negative, as the comparison did not imply a plagiaristic or uninspired aping of stylistic conventions.

[2] Claire Colebrook. Irony (London: Routledge, 2004).

[3] Claire Colebrook. Irony (London: Routledge, 2004). 155.

1.4  Positioning Processes of Imitation

Yet, this ironic-imitative-chameleon-like association was (and still remains) hard to summarise. And within a competitively professional world — where sound-bytes are favoured over nuanced discussions about the complex nature of musical influence and one’s mimetic reactions to it — the subject matter for this PhD inherently evolved to a place where I felt I needed to provide clear justifications for wanting to continue to explore processes of musical imitation in my work. With this in mind, the main difficulty in pursuing what is inherently central to this approach (as it was alluded to earlier) had much to do with clarifying the shades of meaning pervading the word ‘imitation’. Certainly, I found Kant’s championing of genius, and consequent denigration of imitation, running counter to my interests:

Even if a man thinks or invents for himself, and does not merely take in what others have taught, even if he discovers many things in art and science, this is not the right ground for calling such a (perhaps great) head, a genius (as opposed to him who because he can only learn to imitate is called a shallow-pâte). For even these things could be learned, they lie in the natural path of him who investigates and reflects according to rules; and they do not differ specifically from what can be acquired by industry through imitation.[4]

Although it is important to consider the ramifications of merely being a “shallow-pâte”, I also feel Kant’s view on imitation is very removed from the reality pervading the early 21st century. My personal opinion would be one that regards this period in history as a time that invites a myriad of ways for creatively producing and re-producing musical materials, nevertheless this contemporary experience of our current historicity needs to be clarified and defined with respect to how such a perspective towards the past affects one’s overall artistic activity. And, perhaps it is inevitable to say, that the lingering legacy of Kant’s above critique is that the word imitation has been tarnished to such an extent that it often seems best to avoid its usage entirely. Yet regardless of this potential perception, I remained interested in the topic of imitation; however, I instead shifted my focus towards better understanding the mimetic impulse(s) within the ever-expanding genre of contemporary classical music. Hence it was from this perspective that I began to examine imitation as being embedded within the larger and more expansive topic of mimesis. Furthermore, I also wanted to re-position my research so that mimesis could be studied and would allow me to move beyond a more “limited” discussion of style and musical influence. In short, I had already begun to view mimesis as a series of actions that could more closely account for the musical parameter of style in my music as well as my overall approach towards composing. Moreover, the term better articulates an evolving and subjective position — one that suggests that the surface of a work, when being composed, can never be wholly or firmly fixed.

However, before elaborating on this point, I must also state how I see style as an essential parameter to the creation of my own music, and one that remains critical to the discourse of my activity within contemporary music. This is also a corollary I recognise between contemporary music and visual arts. For instance, Arthur C. Danto’s notion is a relevant one, as he states that there are no more period-styles, or a at least no more clear master narratives in art, and instead less a style of making art than “a style of using styles”.[5] From this, looms the persistent and rather titanic notion of mimesis; however, despite its apparent ambiguity, applying mimesis to define and articulate my own creativity has nonetheless been a more flexible and inclusive way to discuss my own style of using styles. Personally, composing with an awareness of style as a parameter is also a concept that is distinct, although embedded within, the concept of stylistic influence. And expanding upon this, I believe that if I were to only use stylistic influence to explain my music, then, consequentially I might convey that the parameter of style was something more settled — and thereby, my growth as a composer was a matter that was closed, “mature”, or even at some point of unobtainable completeness.

Inherently critical to this discussion then is my position that the matter of style is a parameter that actually remains open and ought to remain unfixed; one that is best contained by understanding one’s own interaction with the notion of mimetic comportment. This compensates for the apparent impossibility of grounding such a fluid parameter as ‘style’ or ‘stylistic influence’. Yet, out of this proposition, is the fact that any composer, who (like myself) deals with ‘a style about using styles’, must also deal with important ramifications of mimetic modelling. In fact, much of this commentary sets out to examine ways composition becomes an emergent property and dialogue with our mimetic faculties. Furthermore, given this perspective, the relevance of mimesis remains all the more able to activate and articulate a broad range of imitative behaviours, a fact too that is continually encompassed within my own musical practice. For instance, the inclusivity of mimetic concepts inhabits mirroring and more oblique refraction of musical models, but also simultaneously accounts for the use of quotation, variation, and close-copying. In this capacity, mimesis — as opposed to a more limited discussion about stylistic influence — is more applicable for articulating and critically understanding such an artistic practice. Secondly, mimesis (at least its usage as a word) is somewhat buttressed by Adorno’s employment and reference to mimetic comportment, which, according to Michael Cahn’s analysis, has a certain semantic and philosophical appeal:

The attractiveness of Adorno’s approach consists in bypassing the conventional understanding of mimesis as representation or imitation. For him mimesis is ‘a process of making oneself similar to the environment’ and in it ‘the outside serves as a model onto which the inside moulds itself’ (anschmiegen), but this does not imply … that ‘mimesis is an imitation of the environment.’ [6]

The word anschmiegen, thus appears to denote that mimesis can be understood, via Adorno’s approach, as an act that is more closely equated to matching the contour of something. Personally, this view on the mimetic, which connects with a greater artistic aim, is useful to me in order to help me contextualise the origins and compositional processes operating in my music. And from this point of departure, I posit that my music results from a response to a certain cultural stimulus: namely, the culture of contemporary music and my general understanding of how my music is embedded within this socio-cultural phenomenon. This perspective also aligns well with the field of cultural studies, specifically, as Susan McClary describes it — claiming that cultural studies ‘ought to make it possible to investigate the syntactical conventions that grant coherence to our repertoires and also to examine the ways music participates in the social construction, gender, desire, ethnicity, the body, and so on’.[7]  Furthermore, I would posit that inherent to what is definitive within McClary’s notion of social construction, lies the mimetic aspect of one’s own creative creation. Furthermore, Max Paddisson adds to the appeal of mimesis by suggesting that it is ‘a concept that has been largely eclipsed on the one hand by the widespread use of terms like “representation” and “resemblance”’, whilst also being overlooked due to ‘the persistent and long-standing conviction that music above all arts is concerned with the expression of emotions’.[8] 

Naturally, this is just the introduction to a commentary of artistic research where these issues are very much present, however, a full philosophical debate and argument about their relevance is not entirely possible within the confines of this document. Despite this, I still wish to conclude this introduction by saying that the term mimesis, and the wealth of material written on the topic, has proven to be a very effective and fruitful way of articulating how I continue to respond to my past and ongoing encounters with stylistic models — as well as being surrounded by a seemingly endless abundance of musical content. Additionally, the inevitability of moulding oneself — in response to a given environment — implies that casts are continually forged and adapted. This is something that in turn manifests hybridized and more fluid identities, standing in contrast to the idea that one’s approach to music-making ought to be a ‘mature’ or a rigidly set thing. Finally, mimesis, suggests a significant space for this creative process to occur, allowing ample room for viable creative space which fosters an ongoing level of personalised artistic differentiation.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement. Translated by J. H. Bernard. (Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, New York: 2005). 115.

[5] Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1997).198.

[6] Michael Cahn, “Subversive Mimesis: T.W. Adorno and the Modern Impasse of Critique.” Mimesis in Contemporary Theory an Interdisciplinary Approach. Volume 1. The Literary and Philosophical Debate. Ed. Mihai Spariosu (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1984).

[7] Susan McClary, Paradigm Dissonances: Music Theory, Cultural Studies, Feminist Criticism, (Perspectives of New Music, vol. 32, no. 1, 1994). 68–85.

[8] Max Paddisson, Mimesis and the Aesthetics of Musical Expression (Music Analysis, vol. 29, no. 1/3, 2010) 126–148.