A few weeks ago, I was driving back to Davis from Sacramento with a friend when a hit song from 2011 came on her car radio. It was “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele.
“She has a great voice,” I said.
“I guess,” she replied, “but it’s imitation. Adele heard too many Mahalia Jackson gospel records growing up. She lacks originality.”
“Still, she’s gifted,” I said. “Even with Auto-Tune, few singers have Adele’s depth of sound.”
Then Sunday morning, getting ready for a bike ride to the top of Cantelow Road, I was listening to NPR. Host Rachel Martin was interviewing married performers Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks about their new album, “Made Up Mind.”
The discussion turned to Tedeschi’s strong, Mahalia Jackson-like singing voice. Martin applauded Tedeschi’s depth of sound.
That is a reflection of her influences, her husband responded.
Tedeschi listed the singers who paved her way: Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke.
Then I got to wondering: Is everything now imitation? Is Art dead?
By Art — with a capital A — I don’t mean there could be no one capable of producing enjoyable new works.
I mean to ask, have we reached a point in music — and maybe also in painting, sculpture, poetry, film, dance and so on — where no one is able to break new ground? That maybe there is no new ground to be broken in the arts?
In order to get at that, it’s worth defining what art is.
Art begins with craft. It’s not just the ability to make noise on a piano or splash color on a canvas. An artist first has to be a craftsman, a genuine master of his instrument(s). Craftsmanship requires innate talent and relentless practice.
But craft alone is not art. It must explore something new. A master carpenter who is an expert with all his tools and who can reproduce in finest detail the creations of Thomas Chippendale is not an artist if his desks, tables and chairs are mere copies. He is an imitator, not an artist.
How creative an artist can be is influenced by — or perhaps the result of — the times he lives in.
To understand that, imagine a far more limited world, where, say, there is only one musical instrument: a drum. In the period just after the drum is created, there is space for drummers to pound away, master the beats and create new music. One will come up with something. Another something else. And others will invent new techniques to strike the drum.
But eventually, every possible drumming song will have been composed. The room for musical creativity will dry up. New and talented craftsmen will come along and play the old songs, or slight variations of what came before, but until new instruments (or technologies) are developed, the musical arts will go into a deep slumber.
That, I think, is what happened with classical symphonic music. The strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments that form an orchestra evolved over centuries. But by the 18th century, the key instruments had reached a mature form, were standardized and made expertly.
The result was new space for classical composition. After the Baroque period had concluded, classical music genius exploded from 1750 to 1820. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Rossini and many others originated the form. They were artists.
They were skilled in the craft of music composition. And their times and talents afforded them an opportunity to create something original and brilliant.
With the spread of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, a new, Romantic era created space for more composers we still know today: Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Strauss, Brahms and more.
It is not the case that classical music composition came to an end in 1900. There are still a few compositions written for orchestras today, 70 years after the death of Sergei Rachmaninoff, the last of the Russian Romantics. But the space in that art form shriveled up. There are only so many avenues to explore with a symphonic orchestra.
After World War II, the explosion of teen culture and new technologies (especially electric amplification) opened the door for rock and roll. Although in 1979 Neil Young wrote a lyric that said, “Rock and roll can never die,” the best of the rock era was over by the time his song, “Into the Black,” was released. Hey, hey, my my.
Popular music has moved on as rock and roll faded away. Hip-hop (or rap) music won the airwaves for years, beginning in the mid-1980s. But, as every area of that genre has been explored, its demise, too, seems near. New hip-hop acts are unable to find fresh ground to break. The most popular rappers are getting gray.
Most pop singers today appeal to girls ages 12-17. That itself is not new. The Beatles were adored by young teens, too. But acts like Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are not musical artists. They are performers enhanced by skilled recording engineers. None of them is creating new and original sounds.
Even if new spaces in the arts don’t open up in the next 20 years, I won’t conclude that Art is dead. But it may be in a long slumber.
Eventually, though, as our economy and way of life transition into something new, Art will awaken again.
— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]