This past weekend, I happened upon an old recording of composer Ted Hearne’s “Word for Word” for large orchestra. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that the piece was premiered by the New York Youth Symphony in 2011 under the direction of Paul Haas, a former composition teacher of mine.
Hearne is known for his unconventional use of form and organization of time. His string orchestra work, the “Law of Mosaics,” is one of my favorite pieces. Its opening movement, “Excerpts from the middle of something,” contains wide swathes of silence. In between these bouts of silence are intriguing complex soundworlds; the lack of connecting material between these worlds gives the movement its unique flavor.
In “Word for Word,” however, Hearne experiments not with silence and chronology but with the very meaning of creativity. He takes simple, two-measure orchestral figures that he claims “could have been ripped from a piece of orchestral music from the 19th century” and repeatedly distorts them using nothing but a music notation program’s copy-paste feature.
He does not evolve this material in the “traditional” compositional sense. He offers no other musical ideas in the first movement that might evolve this opening material. For many of the orchestral parts, he does nothing but repeat the material with different rhythmic offsets. Nevertheless, he plays the role of “composer” in the piece, creating the notation that produces the synchronous vibrations of air we refer to as music.
As I began to think more about this piece, I ran into a question of creative autonomy. Had Hearne composed the piece, or was he aided by his computer’s copy-paste feature? Is there a point at which creativity becomes overly reliant on technology — a point at which a creator must credit technology as a co-creator of a work?
In this specific piece, it was the fact that Hearne had composed the underlying copy-pasted material that lead me to conclude that he was the sole creator of the work. Though this material is 19th-century-esque, a close reading of Hearne’s program note indicates that it is his original music. But what if this were not the case?
For this I turned to another movement of Hearne’s “Law of Mosaics” for string orchestra: “Climactic movements from ‘Adagio for Strings’ and ‘The Four Seasons’,” slowed down and layered on top of one another.” For those familiar with these two works, the movement’s musical material is painfully obvious. It is nothing but the climactic section of the “Adagio for Strings” and a large, tutti section of “The Four Seasons,” with both pieces slowed down considerably.
I found myself asking, yet again, whether Hearne was really the sole composer, or creator, of this movement. In this instance, the answer seemed much more ambiguous. He was definitely the first composer to notate these pieces slowed down at such a rate and packed on top of each other in such a way. But he was not the first composer to create these melodies, pitch classes, or relative durations.
This problem, I realized, is also intimately related to modern technology. Thanks to contemporary music notation programs, streaming services and public domain sheet music websites, composers have the ability to view, listen to and emulate other composers’s music like never before.
To complicate things further, I would ascribe much of the meta-musical meaning I interpret from Hearne’s piece to relate to this modern technology. I think that his piece deals with our post-modern, allegedly post-factual age. As much as modern visual imagery is repeatedly recontextualized and decontextualized at the hands of memes, Hearne is able to strip two staples of the string orchestra canon of their normal musical meaning.
I began asking myself if my preconceptions about the role of a creator in an artistic work were thus somehow outdated. Perhaps this is no longer a valid means of understanding art and the artists that make it. Perhaps other realms of the performing arts had already evolved past this and classical music was slow to catch up.
In rap music, for example, I knew that many producers relied on sampling to generate accompanimental material. While the rapper wrote and performed entirely new material, the producer merely manipulated and organized music written by others — the role of the creative producer, I would argue, had been replaced with the musical curator.
But then I asked myself what had prevented other composers from doing exactly what Hearne had done or what many of these producers do. (This is an argument I’ve frequently heard applied to John Cage’s “4’33”” to great effect.) If Hearne’s work wasn’t creative, what had prevented others from pre-empting Hearne in his non-creative efforts?
And as I thought about my own work as a composer it occurred to me that it probably took Hearne a lot more courage to premiere what he had than it does for me to write the more conventionally “creative” music that I do. If we expand our definition of “creativity” past traditional notational creation and sonic ingenuity, Hearne’s work was far more “creative” than a lot of work by many composers traditionally revered as the tentposts of the Western music canon.
Technology has forced us to radically redefine the role of the creator in the performing arts. It has forced us to allow for new areas of creative expression and new means of non-generative manipulation. But it has also allowed creators to express ideas previously unreachable through methods previously unimaginable. In failing to meet the conventional definition of “compose,” in other words, Hearne had created a whole new area of composition.