One of the most self-destructive things you can do as a composer is being afraid to write clichés. While there are limitless musical possibilities, if you’ve absorbed any influences at all you will inevitably find yourself coming up with something that’s been done before. In fact, if you’re drawn towards particular ways of expressing certain ideas or feelings or sounds, it’s only natural that other composers will have as well. If you don’t let yourself do this and do this often, what’s the point of having influence? You might as well lock yourself in a 5-by-5 cell and pray for musical amnesia.
So we’ve got to be comfortable writing clichés. Not only is the universe of musical language abundant with them, but one of the most common self-criticisms we make is to say “I can’t write this. It’s been done before.” As I wrote in another article, we need to be free to write terrible music. Similarly, we need to be free to write clichés as well. The trick is to know how to handle them. I identify four basic strategies.
The first strategy is to avoid them at all costs. Good luck. If you find something that hasn’t been done before you’re not listening closely enough or you need to get out more often. If you manage to convince yourself that you’re doing something 100% original, your ego will always be at the mercy of finding out later on that yes, it’s been done before. Keep this up and you’ll stop being curious about the world to protect your self-image. It’s a terrible way to live. Don’t do it.
The second strategy is unfortunately common, and is to try to use the cliché “correctly.” This ultimately means using the cliché with all of its other typically associated clichés, ending up with your marginally personal expression of shopworn boilerplate music. Although this is a post about being OK with clichés, I’m not OK with the approach, unless they are paying me a lot of money and the coffee is flowing.
The most common successful strategy is to try to use your cliché with other clichés that it’s not commonly associated with. Essentially you’re looking for a way to subvert the meaning of the cliché by changing its context. I like this approach, and this is essentially what is done by most people who get credit for “expanding the boundaries of music.” The only problem is that it’s always a race against time. Eventually, any original combination of clichés that catches on will be imitated to the point that it’s no longer original.
Also, anyone with a critical ear is going to eventually figure out where your ideas came from, and what the thinking behind it is. Once they figure out that you’re just putting together an unlikely yet successful combination of clichés they will lump you in with everyone else who has the same approach, even if your music sounds totally different. Again, this isn’t the biggest problem in the world. Just be aware that you’re trading a sonic cliché for a conceptual one. There are worse problems to have.
Whereas the approach mentioned above is additive the fourth and final approach to cliché I will mention in this article is subtractive. Instead of mixing your cliché with other clichés to achieve a novel combination, you remove anything and everything that isn’t derived from your cliché. Reduce your music to the very essence of one cliché and strive to make your music contain nothing that is not that cliché. As you go through this process you will develop a deeper and deeper understanding of your cliché, and eventually, if your go all the way, you find come out on the other side with something that is truly original. Traveling inwards, understanding the cliché and all its expressions, its variations, its history, its tendencies, its shortcomings, you transcend it. You personalize it until it becomes universal.
Naturally, this is my favorite approach. The only downside is that it’s really hard, and most of the time you’ll come up short. But you’ll also come up with a lot of beautiful failures along the way.
So to drive this point home, what better way is there to end an article on clichés then with a paraphrased quote by John Fitzgerald Kennedy? “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”