Reflections on Influence

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The concept of ‘influence’ is central to both academic and informal discourses about music. It serves as an explanatory narrative to make sense of how a particular artist’s work emerged with the particular traits it did. There’s quite a lot written about what it actually means, and how it might work, though in fact most people who talk about influence haven’t read much if any of that literature, and still manage to make sense to each other.

I am going to try not to get too distracted by that bigger-picture stuff today as there is a specific thing I want to reflect on: how discourses about female composers often talk about who influenced them, but rarely seem to credit them as having influence on other composers. Just as women are in the west traditionally named as adjuncts to men, taking their father’s then their husband’s names, our stories about female artists are patrilineal.

One of the more developed approaches to the concept of influence is Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, which contends that early-career creators are anxious about whether they’ll be able to contribute anything new or worthy to their artistic tradition given the volume and quality of what comes before. They deal with this by creatively misreading the works of their predecessors in order to create imaginative space for themselves.

I first came across this through Kevin Korsyn’s classic article in Music Analysis which transferred the theory from poetry to music, and used the various species of misreading as ways to consider intertextual relationships between pieces. It wasn’t until I followed through and read Bloom’s original that I realised how Freudian his concept was. Korsyn brought across the idea of the need to create imaginative space, and used it for close reading of musical detail, without making so much of the Oedipal drama that underpins the original theory.

As I so often think when faced with male theorists explaining stuff in terms of phallic dominance displays, my main response to Bloom’s work was: well, maybe that’s how life looks from a bloke’s perspective, but I find it hard to take it as seriously as you do. I mean, maybe a lot male creators have experienced their artistic lives in terms of having to assert their masculine authority; the ones from the Western tradition have of course grown up in the same patriarchal culture that brought us Freud, and indeed Bloom. But it’s not the only way to be, and it certainly isn’t as impressive or heroic as some guys seem to think.

(My personal shorthand for this response is, ‘Meh, I feel a bit Shania Twain about that’.)

Theorists of female creators have posited instead a dynamic of ‘anxiety of authorship’ in which women are assailed with self-doubt in their creative endeavours due to combination of paucity of visible role models and everyone telling them that what they’re doing isn’t possible for women. Clara Schumann is a much-quoted example, and I may yet want to reflect on the ways in which Robert managed to simultaneously encourage and undermine her as a composer.

But I’ve come back to thinking about the Anxiety of Influence recently, for the following reason: if blokes feel all threatened in their masculinity by the work of other blokes, how are they going to react when they find women doing the stuff they aspire to?

Well, of course a lot of the time they ignore it of course. Or claim it’s no good. But there are three other specific responses that one might expect, based on masculine behaviour in real life, and which I have been speculating about musically.

The first is appropriation. Men just help themselves to women’s ideas all the time, in a dynamic nicely summarised in this Punch cartoon. I have a friend who, while on maternity leave, had someone she had trained up promoted over her, claiming some of her work as his own in his interview for the job. I have another friend who has had to challenge male scholars who have published ostensibly ‘new’ editions of works she has transcribed and edited without acknowledgement that theirs was copied from her primary work and intellectual property. We all have these stories; I thought about sharing a couple of my own but couldn’t be bothered to write them down as they weary my soul.

I have been thinking a lot about how much Robert Schumann helped himself to Clara’s themes in his compositions. Sometimes these were acknowledged, but a bunch weren’t; there’s quite a lot of musicological mileage indeed to be made out of finding them. And this is usually couched in terms of his love for her, and admiration for her, and the interchange in their creative partnership. But it also looks like, well, we’re married, what’s yours is mine. And it strikes me as presumptuous.

The second is territory-marking, aka ‘correcting’ or ‘improving’ the work. This is a milder form of appropriation, in which the woman’s authorship is left intact, but a man feels the need to make changes to it, because it doesn’t go how he himself would have done it. This is in a way the act of creatively misreading as theorised by Bloom, but without going to the trouble of actually creating a new work, just scribbling over what’s there to drown out the unsettling presence of a distinctive voice saying something new or unfamiliar.

I’ve had this happen to my arrangements a lot, especially when I just getting established, less so now, as I’ve spent two decades training people to talk to me collaboratively about potential changes. And I know this in some ways normal in the particular world I work in, and happens to the work of both male and female arrangers. (I occasionally suggest changes to other people’s work these days too if a group can’t sing what’s there and I think it would take too long to teach them as written.) But there’s ‘making a tweak for a pragmatic purpose in a particular context’ and there’s ‘gratuitous wholesale re-writing’ and it’s usually quite obvious which is which.

The third is obliteration. We know what this looks like in real life. In online discussions, blokes will come along and write huge essays in response to women’s comments, especially those with a feminist slant, though just being intelligent or authoritative can be enough to trigger it. In in-person interactions it takes the form of mansplaining at great length. It looks like a panic and/or rage reaction: a completely disproportionate volume of response to drown out the horrifying experience of independent female consciousness.

What might this look like in a musical context? Here is where I get speculative, but even if this particular example is unprovable, it doesn’t mean we can’t be aware of the dynamic in case we notice it elsewhere.

Have you ever listened to Robert Schumann’s Toccata, Op7? It’s a total monster; my first impression was: wow, no wonder he over-practised himself into a career-ending injury if this is what he was writing to showcase himself as a pianist. When it came out in 1832, there weren’t really any toccatas in the current or recent piano repertoire – it’s a genre that had its heyday in the Renaissance and Baroque - and it’s kind of intriguing to wonder where he got the notion to write one.

Around about the same time, Clara Wieck wrote a Toccatina (and, yes, this is one of the reasons I have been interested in the dating of that one). Robert was at the time studying with her father in what turned out to be a somewhat desperate hope to make a career as a pianist, and here is this 12-year old girl already out there doing successfully what he can’t yet achieve. Of course, if Clara’s Toccatina were earlier than Robert’s, we’d have the same question - why pick this genre out of the blue? Indeed they may even have talked about the idea together, as they saw each other all the time.

But when you consider the two pieces in dialogue with one another: Clara’s is sparkling and nimble, but pianistically unambitious in the context of what she was performing professionally at the time. Robert’s feels like it is shouting hers down: it goes on and on, and bangs and crashes all over the place in a largely unrelenting musical rant, as if he won’t let her take the credit for re-introducing the genre to the modern game. You can read Robert’s as an obliterative response to hers much more readily that you can read hers as any kind of response to his.

I’m sure she didn’t take it personally, not least because, in one of life’s little ironies, Robert never got to perform this in public due to his hand injury, and it was premiered by the fourteen-year-old Clara in 1834. And then as she grew up their friendship developed in new ways, and he stopped trying to drown her out, and took to appropriating her ideas instead.

Anyway, my categories of response don’t have the fancy Greek titles of Bloom, but they’re more comprehensible for all that. Your task henceforth, when you hear the music of a female composer, is to ask yourself who had the opportunity to hear her work and go look for evidence of her influence in theirs.

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