Emulate: Ja. Imitate: Ach NEIN!
All animals learn by imitating, even fancy apes like us. It’s the most efficient way to master the basics of a new field of knowledge. Want to become fluent in conversational Italian? Spend a year in Venice surrounded by native speakers, listening to everything and imitating it like a four-year old: words, inflections, rhythms, phrases, idioms, hand gestures, etc. Want to become fluent in chord progressions; immerse yourself in tonal harmony – classes, textbooks, pieces – and imitate away!
Imitation is the first step to competence, which is a good thing, a glue that holds the world together. But most artists are not satisfied with just being competent. The desire to transcend, to make something “more than, different from” lies at the very heart of the creative drive. (And drive it is! As much as eating, breathing, and reproducing.)
Once an artist has attained competence in a chosen medium, does imitation still serve a useful purpose?
Well, if you want to sound like a famous musician or band then imitation is definitely the way to go: assimilate recordings, learn licks by heart, copy musical styles. Cover bands take this route, often with great worldly success.
But there is another, more satisying way to open yourself to the influence of others: emulation.
Imitation is like cloning: a clinical process that yields an almost exact copy of the original. Boo! Emulation is like conception: sexy and creative, with two partners and plenty of passion – an explosive intermingling of DNA that brings about unpredictable results. Yeah, baybey!
To successfully emulate an artist, band, genre, or style you need to dig down to its essence and merge it with your own. It’s a true meeting of minds/spirits, a collaboration in which both musical personas take part. Imitating Bach is an academic exercise; emulating Bach by divining his musical essence and merging it with yours can be an act of transcendent personal expression.
I’m a huge fan of Frank Zappa. I’ve learned a great deal from his music, particularly the early stuff. Imitation was a big part of the process; without it I wouldn’t have had acquired the compositional know-how to create Zappa-esque melodies, rhythms, and harmonies. But if I had stopped there I would have ended up just another Zappa clone; there are plenty of them out there! No doubt Frank would have despised this, seeing as how such a large chunk of his genius derived from emulating (not imitating!) a compositional smorgasbord of different styles and artists: rock, blues, Edgar Varèse, jazz, avant garde, serialism, and Las Vegas cocktail schlock, to name but a few.
The moral of the story? Use what’s out there – everything! – not to copy what others have discovered, rather to discover and compose your SELF. There’s only ever going to be one of you in the entire history of all possible universes, right? Might as well celebrate your uniqueness. :-)