“An Inventor’s Mind”: Music and Invention

Poet Kenneth Goldsmith introduced me to the idea of a thinkership as opposed to a readership. “My books are better thought about than read”, Goldsmith mentions in a particular interview. “The idea is much more important than the product”.

Maurice Ravel described fellow French composer Erik Satie’s influence using similar language:

“His was the inventor’s mind par excellence…Simply and ingeniously Satie pointed the way…While he himself may, perhaps, never have wrought out of his own discoveries a single complete work of art, nevertheless we have today many such works which might not have come into existence if Satie had never lived”.

Schoenberg had a similar statement about John Cage: “Of course he is not a composer but an inventor – of genius”.

Not the composer’s mind but the inventor’s mind.

I have just picked up reading The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski. Therein he explores the idea that form does not follow function but follows the potential of past forms.

As he discusses engineers, Petroski insists that those “…engaged in design are inventors who are daily looking for ways to overcome the limitations of what already works, but not quite as well as can be imagined or is hoped. Whether or not improved designs for computers, bridges, or paper clips come to be patented or incorporated into the technological landscape, they are always explorations of the possible paths along which technology can evolve”.

Invention in this case is an evolutionary approach to things we take for granted, from forks to paper clips.

Could this be the merit of Satie and Cage as inventors? Not to say that they are rungs in a ladder proceeding to perfection but have presented in their ideas “the possible paths along which [music] can evolve”. People have taken these ideas and have incorporated and expanded on them, leading to further potential pathways.

Maybe calling composers inventors is not as much an insult. Maybe it could serve as an analogy to what we do in music.


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