The End of Creativity

© Stuart Vail

They say that all possible melody-note combinations have been used up. Nothing is new anymore. Every motif that any composer writes has already been written -- everyone is merely a hack stealing and using old material. The only way to claim ownership anymore is to homestead a melody in the public domain and register it as one’s own. Under copyright law, 75 years after the death of an author, his works are P.D., up for grabs; they can be pilfered by anyone. For years the collected output of Beethoven, Mozart, Holst, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Stravinsky, and Copland has fueled the feeding frenzy known as Hollywood film composing. In fact, many composers don’t wait until the body is cold. They even steal shamelessly from each other.

Nothing is original. At what point did the creativity clock run out? Could it have been in the reign of Johann Sebastian Bach? His oeuvre alone could have exhausted the melodic combinations forever, sadly deeming all future composers “thieves.” If that is then the case, since Bach, the art of music composition has been doomed to the role of recycling. There are only so many notes. At what point in Johann’s career did the possibilities run out? Could it have happened in the middle of the “Well-Tempered Clavier?” Or could it have been somewhere in the “Goldberg Variations”? Did J.S. know when he crossed that threshold? Did he have advanced warning? Before reaching that point of no return did he begin to miserly dole-out the last remaining notes of originality as did Scrooge with pieces of coal? As he came into the home stretch, the final coda of creativity, did our Baroque master try to postpone the death of original musical thought with reruns?

By conserving his last remaining new notes, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig could have watered-down his exposition, thematic development, modulations, and counterpoint, and finish his career with predictable recapitulations. Not Bach. There was nothing timid or hesitant about him. He charged right through the finish line and never looked back. He plowed and tilled the fields of lands he had previously visited in countless innovative ways as if they were virgin soil. Brilliant, new fruits flowered where, under the quill of anyone else, rotten crops would have immediately festered. No Pomp and Circumstance for the Last Note as it flew by. No special award either for the runner-up, the penultimate semi-quaver. As with the indistinguishable break in the diva’s voice, Bach crossed over into his creative “falsetto” undetected. He could have announced the grand event, held a press conference, gathered witnesses to record for posterity the passing of the final original note. Instead, he worked by stealth, under the cover of darkness. While the world slept, J. S. Bach was the supreme cat burglar, robbing us for all time of any chance to compose something original.

No longer could anyone lay claim to the notes “A-G-A” in the key of D-minor. Johann Sebastian hit that shore at full speed and planted his flag. He is forever sovereign of that toccata, but composers since have valiantly tried to cross the twelve-mile limit. Unfortunately, that note combination is so heavily defended, anyone merely approaching it is blasted out of the water and sunk in the sea of Plageria. No, it’s best to turn our seemingly creative backs on those notes and forget about them. (It’s like asking the quarterback’s girlfriend for a date: sheer insanity.) Why even attempt that note combination in any minor key, and risk a big, black eye from the bully Bach? Rodrigo tried it with his “Concierto de Aranjuez,” and even in the safety of many years of separation, suffered a few bruises. I cannot hear the opening guitar notes of his “Concierto” without immediately thinking of the infamous “Toccata in d-minor.” I am supposed to be in Rodrigo’s house, but instead I’m in Bach Land -- not exactly the way one should listen to music. Rodrigo then pulls me back, only to have J. S. tug at me again. But it’s Bach’s fault now, because he selfishly used-up the last of the original notes long ago. What are composers now to do? Music audiences have to suffer listener’s whiplash as they are jerked from composer to composer in every piece they hear.

Writing music has taken a second place to learning computer skills: one merely needs to know how to select a few bars of Schumann, copy and paste, then select 3 beats of Mahler to insert between selections from Stravinsky and Lutoslawski, transpose up a step, save, and violá: the start of my first symphony. Imagine if eternal copyright legislation had been in force in 1650: composers since Bach would have had to somehow find another way to create original music, and we would not be in this “compose-by-committee” predicament we find ourselves in today.