When I reflect on my influences, I don’t think it’s just that I imitate things I like, even though that’s a huge part of it. Oftentimes, there are things that I feel the need to react to, even if the reactions don’t sound anything at all like the influence, or are even reacting against it.
In my view, an influence is something I am drawn to time and time again which shapes the way I perceive my own work. The process of studying influence isn’t always about copying the sound of another artist, but sometimes can be about trying to understand which elements of the artist’s work are changing the way I value my own. If this means aping somebody else, so be it. But sometimes the study of influence means readjusting the way my own tendencies compliment one another. It’s sort of like saying “Wow, I love how well this composer’s tendency A and tendency B work together. Wouldn’t it be great if I had the same synergy between my tendency C and tendency D!”
For example, when I got into Arvo Pärt, it would have been far too easy to write a bunch Tintinnabuli compositions and say “Look, I’ve been influenced!” For me it was understanding that the simplicity of the Pärt’s Tintinnabuli technique matches the simplicity of his melodic construction in a way that’s highly personal to him. And it also had something to do with the power of oblique motion, the idea that any line at any moment can rest on a single pitch and through inaction color all the lines around it.
But the most important thing to realize is that the diatonic scale and the diatonic triad hold some kind of deep, personal meaning for Arvo Pärt. So then the question becomes, what sonorities have that kind of resonance with me? And that brings me into the world of Webern and the world of Bartók, because the sonorities which they tend to favor capture my imagination in a profound way. And being aware of the power of oblique motion ended up being the key to understanding Bartók’s use of harmony in a piece like “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste.” So in a way Arvo Pärt’s simplicity helped me understand Béla Bartók’s complexity. Actually, it helped me find the simplicity within Béla Bartók’s apparent complexity.
And to top it off, I noticed that both Bartók and Pärt have a very similar approach to the way they assign function to contrapuntal strands. Whereas Pärt is more explicit about the segregation of roles between the melodic lines and the harmonic Tintinnabuli lines, Bartók’s lines would change roles as a passage unfolds. But the principle was the same. At any given moment, there were foreground lines attracting the attention of the listener, and background lines connecting the registral gaps in between the foreground lines, and generating beautiful sonorities in the process. And with both composers, the harmonic orientation comes from the way the individuals lines unfold through registral space over time. And that brought me to the real lesson, which is that any sonority can sound utterly gorgeous if you can make sense of the melodies that brought it into being.
And then I do some reading, and some studying, and some listening, and realize it all comes back to Pérotin anyway, and the Western world has been in pitiful decline since 1250 or thereabouts. So thank God for Africa, but that’s a post for another day.