“Is Originality Undetected Plagiarism?”


I am excited and honoured to be keynote speaker at the 2018 EMS (Electroacoustic Music Conference), next Wednesday, 20 June 2018, in Florence at Villa Finaly, www.ems-network.org/ems18.

Is Originality Undetected Plagiarism?

And, after all, what is originality? It is merely undetected plagiarism. This quotation, which seems to have been uttered by English writer Herbert Paul in 1896, but was echoed well before and long after him by many others, may stress the point that there never is anything new under the sun. What is originality? What is experimentation? Is the invention in art «an opaque process, and the word ‘experimentation’ really does not help to get a clearer picture» [During et al. 2009, 13]? Do we live in a depressing word where creativity has been overtaken by skill and technique? And as the venerable Jorge says «there is no progress, no revolution of ages, in the history of knowledge, but at most a continuous and sublime recapitulation» [Umberto Eco 2014, 426]?

The special theme of the conference “Is Electroacoustic Music still a Form of Experimental Music?” drives me to discuss experimentation starting from traditional definitions of experimental, originality, and research. I will examine one of the main criteria used to evaluate scholarship in the humanities and the social sciences: originality [Guetzkow et al. 2014]. As a reviewer myself, I have been faced many times with this concept. The established sociological literature [Kuhn 1970, Latour 1987, Pinch & Bijker 1984] devoted to science and natural studies defines originality as the making of a new discovery that adds to scientific knowledge. These writings, although not intended for other disciplines, have been largely applied to social sciences and art, without defining the extent to which the definition of originality characterizes them. Authors Guetzkow et al. [2014] define originality drawing on interviews with individuals who serve on funding panels. Originality of approach, method, data used, theory, topic, are the preferred categories: originality as a sign of the moral character of the researcher. In musicology, originality seems to be the relationship between courage, independence, and authenticity [ivi, 204].

But then, to what extent experimentation in art and music is linked with originality? And if originality has to be based on research (of method, data, theory, etc.), to what extent sound based art is to be considered research? In 2015, an article by John Croft entitled ‘composition is not research’ [Croft 2015], has generated a good deal of controversy on blogs and social media, including two responses by composer Camden Reeves and by Ian Pace, and a panel on November 25th, 2015 at City University of London. In my talk I will discuss a concept that opens possibilities of solution: no artistic practice can ever be experimental in itself, or from beginning to end [During et al. 2009, 15]. Experimentation has a local usage, it cannot hold a maximal opening to experimental. It could be recovered from the concept of dispositif (devise, system, framework) where there is a ‘game’ at stake [ibidem; Martin 2014].

Electroacoustic music and sound based art can and should be research towards experimentation. Crucial preconditions are the interest for knowledge, transmission and representation of this knowledge, a deep awareness of the state of the art, and a re-opening to questions instead of answers at the end of the process [Dombois 2009]. These prerequisites also motivate me to introduce the last part of my talk: the concept of archive, an aspect inherent in the very notion of research. Archiving – by artists, composers, musicians, performers, and scholars – is crucial for several reasons. In my experience, I often hear students and artists say disconsolately that everything has already been done before, that it is too easy to make music nowadays, and the means of creation and production are far too accessible. I will propose that the answer is in archiving. I will discuss some of the most salient questions associated with the idea of the archive: not only the archive as a separate entity, but essentially the necessity for the artist/composer/researcher to maintain his/her own materials (that is knowledge, culture and practice) in order to become responsible for their own choices, to conduct themselves consciously as artists, to assess their understanding of their own practice, which is the real way to originality and individuality [Atkinson 2014]. I will have a look back at previous works [Computer Music Journal. The Reconstruction of Stria, Fall 2007, Vol. 31, No. 3] and my collaborations with composers and computer music designers, to reflect on the idea of archive: knowing what preceded in order to mindfully address personal creativity. I intend archiving as a process of self-knowledge, of studying and revealing personal lacks and indicating new possibilities for innovation and experimentation; as an action to find the way through what has been already done.


Atkinson, Karen, Getting your sh*t together. The ultimate business manual for every practicing artist, Los Angeles, GYST Ink Press, 2014.

Computer Music Journal. The Reconstruction of Stria, Fall 2007, Vol. 31, No. 3.

Croft, John, “Composition is not Research”, in Tempo, 69/272, April 2015, pp. 6-11.

Dombois, Florian, “L’art comme recherché. Esquisse d’un mode d’emploi à usage personnel”, in In actu. De l’expérimental dans l’art, Publications des Marquisats / Ecole supérieure d’art de l’agglomération d’Annecy, Bruxelles, Les presses du reel, 2009, 191-202, first published: “HKB/HEAB”, Hochschule der Künste Bern, Berne, 2006, 21-29, http://www.hkb.bfh.ch/fileadmin/PDFs/Kommunikation/HKB_2006_FD.pdf.

During Élie – Jeanpierre, Laurent – Kihm, Christophe – Zabunyan, Dork, In actu. De l’expérimental dans l’art, Publications des Marquisats / Ecole supérieure d’art de l’agglomération d’Annecy, Bruxelles, Les presses du reel, 2009.

Eco, Umberto, The name of the rose, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. First published in Italian: Il nome della rosa, Milano, Bompiani, 1980.

Guetzkow, Joshua – Lamont Michèle – Mallard, Grégoire, “What Is Originality in the Humanities and the Social Sciences?”, in American Sociological Review, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Apr., 2004), pp. 190-212.

Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Latour, Bruno, Science in Action, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Martin, Adrian, “The Rise of the Dispositif”, in Mise en Scène and Film Style, Palgrave Close Readings in Film and Television, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2014, 178-204.

Pace, Ian, ‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’ in Tempo, 70/275, pp. 60-70.

Pinch, Trevor J. – Bijker, Wiebe E., “The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology might Benefit Each Other”, in Social Studies of science, Vol. 14, issue: 3, pp. 399-441, 1984.

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