Mechanics of influence are hard to trace. Writers tend to think that the way they write was influenced by literature, and of course scholars make a living by following that same assumption. But a writer’s ideal of a properly built sentence might just as well have been formed when he was still in short pants and watched someone make an unusually neat sandcastle.To which my esteemed friend Johan objected:
I like Clive James. But I don’t agree. What connects syntax and sand castle is structure. That’s all. There is an analogy. But to learn to write sentences, you’ll have to read a lot and write even more.I see Johan’s point: whether in writing, or in music composition, there is technique which one learns by analyzing the literature — you aren’t going to acquire the tools by inhabiting pipedreams.
I don’t think that’s quite what Clive James was at. (Of course, the really responsible thing would be if I could find the context of that citation . . . but I ran across it at random, and although I did have a go at trying to find it again — hopeless. Of course, it’s an anthology which I shall read with great pleasure, and I shall find that errant quote again, some day . . . .)
Reading the citation anew, I think it was the opening word, mechanics, which into the works the spanner threw. It was a word which suggested matters of technique; and yet, when James writes of one’s ideal of a properly built sentence, it sounds to me more a question of aesthetics, of style, of tone, rather than of technique. (Of course, I don’t really suppose that we can hermetically seal technique off from aesthetics, style, and tone.)
Then, too, I suppose that my enthusiasm for James’s remark was partly a matter of it eliciting strong memories from my own musical past. To pay the dues to Johan’s point, I learnt a great deal about compositional technique from studying the music of Bach, of Beethoven, of Chopin. Yet the lessons I learnt from those past Masters, does not particularly yield immediately apperent similarities in my own music. (Thus, the question becomes in part a matter of what one means by influence.)
In short, I think (not that this is necessarily at odds with Johan’s response) that one can learn the tools, acquire the mastery by mastering the literature — and then, in finding one’s own artistic voice, one’s own path, throw the past off.
Which does not mean that one has not emerged from the tradition.