Original vs. Non-Original Music

On May 6th, I sat down with Josh Grossman, artistic director of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. It was part of a series of live interviews Josh is hosting called The Artistic Director’s Guide to Jazz.  We had a great discussion about four artists performing solo shows at the festival:

The interview was video recorded, but I’d like to clarify, develop and embellish some of my answers (as well as promote these shows!).

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Original vs. Non-Original Music

One of Josh’s questions was about performing original compositions:

JOSH: What is your take on performing original compositions vs. performing standards or cover tunes?

For some reason, this reminds me of that funny saying: “There are two types of people in this world, those who divide the world into two types and those who do not.” (Jeremy Bentham, I believe)

The dichotomy between original compositions and non-original compositions is helpful for reference and classification. But in the performance arts, things are more complicated.

Matt Anderson may be writing original music on one level, but at the same time, there are aspects of his performance that are very non-original.

The guitar, for example, is a familiar instrument.  The blues is a recognizable feeling, or style. Most people attending Matt’s concert will be familiar with the English language.  Many of the chord structures and combinations Matt uses in his music have been used millions of times before.

Matt’s performances, and his music are actually very non-original.

But they ARE original – his audiences have never experienced them before.


The nature of this conflict may rest in a language paradox, better observed here. Nevertheless, this is how I address it:

One cannot separate the music from the performance.  They are one of the same.  Nor can you classify a performance simply as being original or non-original. Experience lies on a wide, complex, micro, macro, multi-layered, multi-dimensional spectrum.

So, lately I haven’t been differentiating  between original compositions and non-original compositions.  Every performance, at its core, is original.  Every INSTANCE is original on some level or another.

The best way to classify a performance, experience, and associated variables is in “common ground.”  Common ground is the foundation on which any relationship rests.  Without common ground, any relationship or ritual would fall apart.

(It may seem that I’ve played a trick on myself. I replaced the term “non-original music” with the term “common ground” in which case the conflict described above still applies and I’ve committed some kind of fallacy. But I don’t think this is the case. The term “non-original music” classifies a noun, or a thing. “Common ground” refers to a relationship. It’s the difference between a sheet of music and performing that music.  It’s the difference between what music is and what music does.)

Common Ground in Music

Here are some examples (assuming you’re familiar with Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer):

  • I perform the published version of The Entertainer, note for note.
  • I perform The Entertainer with slight note variations and inflections.
  • I perform The Entertainer, with a rewritten B section.
  • I perform The Entertainer in 3/4.
  • I perform The Entertainer as a bossa nova.
  • I perform The Entertainer very, very slowly.
  • I compose and perform a tune based on the Entertainer.
  • I improvise a tune in the ragtime style.
  • I improvise a 12-tone tune in the ragtime style.

Hopefully these examples demonstrate some kind of spectrum, and various explorations of common ground in music. But these examples only consider the music – common ground is experienced in all aspects of a performance. Consider these examples:

  • I perform the published version of The Entertainer on the guitar.
  • I perform The Entertainer on the spoons.
  • I sing The Entertainer in English.
  • I sing The Entertainer in Gibberish.
  • I perform the published vision of The Entertainer in the dark.
  • I perform the published version of The Entertainer with a gorilla on stage.
  • The person next to you isn’t wearing pants.
  • The concert is scheduled to begin at 4:30am.
  • The concert features the local symphony at the local pub.

Some of these examples make no mention of the music.  That’s because circumstances and environment are equally important to the overall experience of a performance or ritual.

Common Ground in Society

I say “ritual” because these ideas of originality, non-originality, familiarity and common ground apply to activities other than music, concerts and performances.

Consider the ritual of going to a restaurant.  All restaurants follow similar patterns – host greets you, host seats you, waiter takes drinks order, waiter brings drinks, waiter takes food orders, waiter brings food, waiter asks “how’s everything?” etc.

This isn’t just robotic behavior, it’s maintaining common ground.  Going out for dinner would be impossible without it.  Events and circumstances need to unfold in some familiar fashion in order for everything to function.

Of course, every restaurant has variations, which could be considered a creative exploration of common ground. Think about what happens when you order bacon & eggs. No two restaurants make bacon & eggs the same. But reading “bacon & eggs” on the menu will give you an idea of what to expect.  That’s common ground.  Hopefully they’ll meet or exceed your expectations!

Now think about what happens when you order the chef’s signature dish.  Even the most unfamiliar dishes are probably derived from ingredients that you’re familiar with. To establish common ground, a restaurant may list those ingredients in the menu.  If they’re NOT listed in the menu, then common ground may be established through the chef’s reputation. Or perhaps common ground is inherent in government food & safety regulations.

Common ground is inherent in all these things – interacting, playing and feed backing off one another. They’re all part of a complex system that forms our routines and rituals.  The dichotomy between original and non-original music is too simple and inconsistent to explain such a system.

Of course, the irony in this discussion occurs every time I introduce my music: “Next, I’d like to perform an original composition I wrote…..”

I suppose this dichotomy has its uses…  😉

Joan Osborne Acoustic Duo / Matt Andersen
Mainstage Concerts
Date: Sat Jun 30 8:00pm
Ticket Price: $42.50 includes HST
Buy TicketsTicketmaster

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