“‘What things influenced you?’ Well, what things didn’t? All that variegated music that we’ve all heard; all the things that I reading. I mean, I can’t imagine…And to be specific about it, one would almost be, I think dishonest. So many things have crept in and determined one’s thinking. I don’t have to tell you a composer. You know, as a piece germinates, the form that it takes. If you had to go back and retrace that, it would not only be superficial…you’ve forgotten it”.
Composer Milton Babbit taps into the baffling idea of influence. It is such a verb that leaves more questions than answers. How does one even articulate, let alone know, what enacts influence on you?
Could influence be akin to the body’s immune system reacting to foreign germs?
Take what an immune system does: it has to detect bacteria, viruses, and such, and distinguish those from our own tissue. Otherwise we would be destroyed from the inside. In the face of what one considers repugnant musical material, one might build up preferences as a means of fighting said dislikes. Hard Rock quashing Disco as an example.
As the immune system keeps us alive from distinguishing the good and the bad, the influence that put our work in motion is comprised of both ends in this sort of battle. Sometimes the disease wins out or the immune system thwarts the germs. But either way, the immune system is still fighting or there are still negative agents squirming within us. This dance makes up the human condition.
Perhaps that can be why distinguishing influence in a musical context is so baffling. Like Babbit said, the positive and negative influence us in such a way that we cannot say only good music influences exclusively or vice versa. It is thanks to this flux that influence is ever to shape ourselves as musicians.
A final question: could there be such thing as a neutral influence? Or, to continue the analogy, is anything we take in either interpreted as part of the body or as a virus?