I went out on an errand yesterday and left the radio on. I was only supposed to be gone a minute or so, but gave in to gossiping, so by the time I returned my provincial play had been replaced by an American voice I vaguely recognised. Time to get back to my paperwork, I thought, heading for the off-switch.
‘I had no idea what kind of composer I wanted to become,’ the man was saying. Kerry Shale, I thought, can’t mistake him. But who is he being? Fact or fiction? It was a fatal hesitation.
‘My study of the orchestra’, he continued, ‘came through a time-honoured practice of the past, copying out original scores. In my case, I took Mahler’s ninth symphony as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full size orchestra paper.’
I was hooked. One of the little cartoon characters racing round in my head gave the attention bell a resounding ping. Musicians did that too?
Shale continued, ‘This is exactly how painters in the past studied painting. Even today, some can be seen in the museums, making copies of traditional paintings. This business of copying from the past is a most powerful tool for training and developing a solid tool for orchestration technique.’
The cartoon character in my head stopped ringing her bell and turned to cartoon character two. ‘You see?’ she said triumphantly. ‘You see? Isn’t this what I’ve been telling you all along? It’s not just painters who need to keep a sketch-book: all artists learn by studying the work of previous generations.’
‘He didn’t say study,’ objected character two.
‘But you must see that’s what he was doing,’ said character one. ‘How could an artist copy out a work of art and not learn something about the means of its construction?’
‘Sounds like plagiarism to me. And what about innovation?’
‘Surely that comes from an understanding of the past.’
‘Well,’ said character two, ‘I don’t want to have my writing infected by someone else’s style and ideas.’
‘Mmm,’ said character one. ‘It’s not an exercise that suits everyone.’
Meanwhile Kerry Shale read on, and I looked up the schedule to see if I’d correctly guessed the author. I don’t know much about music, apart from whether or not I like the sound of it. But I do know a well shaped story when I hear one. It was the memoirs of Phillip Glass, Words Without Music.
Time I widened my musical horizons, I think.