Monday, February 27, 2006

In Defense of Pastiche

"I can not stand pastiche." He laced the word "pastiche" with such contempt that I cringed. Once upon a dinner party, he had chosen "postmodern" as the evening's derogatory term. Others at the table had laughed when he mock-snarled, "I hate it: postmodern," but I couldn't help retorting, "A word! How can you hate a word? Postmodern is just a word, and you can't hate the word." So now, today, it's "pastiche." At least his aesthetics show some consistency. This time, however, not feeling particularly feisty, I could only peep like a tiny bird, "I like it. Pastiche. It's how...I think." [peep, peep]

Pastiche is not satire. Pastiche is not homage. Pastiche is a matter of preference, a way of making and creating. Pastiche combines elements of like and dislike: by placing my personal tastes, my favourites, with and against material that I might otherwise avoid, I perceive counterpoint and contrast and am often forced to reevaluate. The annoying sometimes becomes likeable while something I love dearly appears boring.

Pastiche is sitting at grandma's huge kitchen table choosing fabrics for her next quilting project. Though she prefers classical patterns, the "crazy" quilts always fascinate me. I love tracing my finger from the scrap of a first-day-of-school dress to a dirt-colored piece of corduroy (mom's bachelorette bell bottoms) to oddly shaped filler pieces of old black velvet. Had this come from one of the daguerreotyped relatives' dresses? Had she worn it while playing piano at a parlor concert, while wooing a beau at a ball, while mourning a love lost to war? Curious as the quilt makes me, I can put aside thinking about all the references and evocations as I dive underneath it: the function of the new form is definitely not lost on me, compulsive snuggler.

Pastiche could care less about the pedigree of what it steals and borrows. It is cooking coq au vin one weekend, with a Hoffman Hen Farms Chicken, wild mushrooms from the coastal forest near Mendocino, Pretty Patsy’s Organic Pearl Onions, and a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir. [the francophiles gasp] Each ingredient is singularly spectacular: as independent stories of location and farming practices and deliciousness, perhaps they deserve solo performances. But in the end, no one argues at my combining and reducing the components into a viscous velveteen gravy. To think: this is pastiche—a wonderfully rich and savory gravy!

These are "crafty" examples of pastiche, and yet they illustrate how active a practice it is for both the creator and the appreciator. In pastiche, one disentangles a jumble of meanings and inferences; the many beginnings and ends demand constant investigation. One makes sense of the structure in a wholly different way than in a symphonic or sonata allegro or other classical form: the activity of putting together and figuring out a pastiche, or simply stepping back to appreciate the whole, personalizes the interpretation. There is no one, textbook way of "making sense." At the heart of pastiche is an individual's engagement.

In that way, I understand my composer friend's irritation. He admires pure music and probably prefers being engaged in a more ... cerebral way, in a way that fits comfortably into discussions and lectures that use widely recognized and agreed upon terms, whereas I lean towards pastiche because I like music that activates my imagination and reflects my unique reality. The trick is drawing the outsider into that reality with me. Performers know this because we put together recital programs, and programming, in its best form, is essentially a pastiche composition. The selection of pieces, the order in which they are performed, the breaks between sets, the placement of the intermission (or choice not to) and even the flavor of the encore are all materials, durations and key regions requiring proper arrangement.

From thinking "compositionally" about classical recital programs, it's an easy leap to a more innovative way of working with existing repertoire and pastiche. Splicing and dicing the old grand warhorses of the piano literature, and then combining and performing them with electronic snippets, beats, and environments, elicits skeptical outcries ("what are you, a satirist?" "copyright infringement!") as well as sincere curiosity. People wonder if I* can get away with mixing some measures of Webern with a Gershwin refrain, all against the sampled sounds of an orchestra tuning, mousetraps springing, and tree branches breaking. The result is not meant to spoof or ridicule those composers, nor does it aim to elevate itself through the use of their masterpieces. Rather, it’s a formal rendering of the music I hear in my head all day long, whether waiting it out in a traffic jam, dropping mail into the mailbox, or carefully considering a shelf of great wines. (I definitely record the clink-clink-clink of bottles being restocked behind me onto a second track in my musical mind.)

What I love about pastiche, and why I think it is a valid compositional form, is that it reflects reality but, when handled with great finesse, it invites sleuthing. It keeps everyone engaged, from composer to performer to listener, in multiple ways. Yes, pastiche runs the risk of being campy or gimmicky, but done well, it can rise above that and present the old in new and interesting ways. The purists may never be convinced, but ... I’m ok with that. For now.

*One of the perks of creating this way is that I am a collaborator as much as I am a solo pianist.


Excellent post. Just excellent.

By Anonymous The Incurable Insomniac, at 1:30 PM  

It strikes me that pastiche might be more a way of reading than of creating. Or to put it another way, perhaps all creation is pastiche. Can we ever create anything new, or just new configurations of old experience?

By Blogger calm sea, at 2:46 PM  

Very good, provocative post.

Our experience of life, given the sheer amount and varying intensity of "information" we receive and filter at any given moment (the touch of the keys on this keyboard as I type, the George Crumb orchestra piece I'm listening to, the sound of these keys, the look of the monitor, the smell and taste of the coffee, etc.) is itself a collage/pastiche. There's no reason art can't/shouldn't reflect that back to us and out to others.

By Blogger Steve Hicken, at 5:24 AM  

When you have come to the edge of all light that you know and are about to drop off into the darkness of the unknown,
Faith is knowing one of two things will happen: There will be something solid to stand on or you will be taught to fly.
~Patrick Overton

What a great philosophy on blogging and art and faith and so on ;-)

By Blogger Jozef Imrich, Esq., at 3:35 PM  

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