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Cliché Free

All composers have a bag of tricks we dip into when creating music: our favorite tried-and-true forms, sounds, grooves, chord changes, turns of phrase, etc. Thus we rely to a large extent on the old when composing the new. There is nothing wrong with this: we are, after all, the totality of our experiences, and everything we create is filtered through them.

There is, however, a problem that arises when our personal tricks become personal clichés. A cliché, by definition, is a “trite expression whose behaviour is predictable or superficial.” A composition full of personal clichés runs the risk, therefore, of sounding trite, predictable, superficial – without significance.

The only way to transcend your clichés, to break new ground, is to become aware of them. This requires scrupulous self-examination.

Listen to your existing pieces with an ear to routing out your personal clichés. Get to know them intimately, like you know your reflection in the mirror. Pause before composing a passage and ask yourself if you’re about to commit a cliché. If so, force yourself to do something else, something different to anything you’ve done before. Deny yourself the comfort of relying on the known. Do whatever it takes to venture outside of your box, your cozy (and deadly) prison.

Avoiding personal clichés does not guarantee success. In fact, you’re bound to fail at times because you’ll be exploring uncharted territory. What it does guarantee, though, is personal compositional growth and a glimpse of the musical horizons that lie beyond your current limits. And, most excitingly, a chance to put something truly new into the world. What could be better than that?

Posted on December 16, 2011 at 4:13 pm by rachmiel · Permalink

One Response

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  1. Written by M. Ives
    on December 17, 2011 at 11:34 am
    Permalink

    Interesting entry that begs for further clarification as to the distinction between “cultural” and “personal” cliches. With regard to the latter, for instance, would a mere melodic phrase, if used repeatedly across several pieces by a single composer, qualify as a cliche, even if it didn’t elicit a familiar (meaning, hollow) response from an audience? It seems to me that an artist could quite easily repeat himself (Mozart, Sonny Rollins, innumerable others) without necessarily trafficking in cliches. In other words, is it inevitable that a phrase, however powerful and attractive originally, will always, if repeated enough, become trite?

    The will to avoid repeating oneself in one’s own work would seem to have more to do with a modernist (post-Romantic) vision of the questing artist than it does with worn-out cultural tropes.

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