“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed from one another.” – Voltaire
So it goes with music, too. We start out learning ‘Cripple Creek’ on the banjo, for instance, then advance to learning other songs by rote. Next comes learning various licks, runs and techniques and how to arrange them to the point of being able to improvise, then on to defining our own style and trying to make a statement to the world: “This is what I’m all about musically”.
From humble beginnings to lofty heights, we have to pay due respect to those who have assisted us along the way. I believe this process of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as it is described in another context, is more an unconscious that deliberate thing. It involves more unknown musicians than those known who have helped us.
So is anything ever truly original? Is anything really new under the sun as the Bible talks about in Ecclesiastes? Of course, Solomon had no banjos in his court that we know of, so maybe we have a case to make here.
I think originality is an incremental thing. We have something in computer programming called a spiral development lifecycle. What that means is that you don’t try to complete everything in one go-round. You basically break it up into several spirals, or phases, each building upon the previous cycle. I think such a spiral cycle also describes well a lot of what we do artistically with music. We start with whatever base we wish to and further build upon it, adding our own interpretation to it and in the process not only revising what exists, but also adding our own extensions to what exists. We build up and add to what is already there.
Actually, Solomon wasn’t talking about such things as artistic originality when he said there is nothing new under the Sun. He was talking about man’s penchant for constantly getting into trouble. Here, we see that we do have originality, in the artistic sense, that we can add to the mix.