The notion of influence

January 13, 2006

As an artist, being influenced by someone is a tricky confession. I once told ex-Byrd David Crosby that he was a tremendous influence on my compositional aesthetic. I played him some examples of my music where I heard an obvious influence, but he was baffled. Music critics are notorious in their descriptions of new music by referring to other composers or compositions, rather than actually trying to describe the music in prose without such crutches.

In 20th century Classical music, an explosion of musical styles and languages replaced any sense of a common tongue. In science, Thomas Kuhn wrote of a preparadigmatic period where multiple theories are postulated about the challenge of the day, and then one huge discovery is made, say, relativity, and scientists spend then next few centuries working out the ramification of this one discovery. Classical music is still waiting for its Einstein. In popular music, the Beatles would get my vote for the most important paradigm in the 20th century. Rufus Wainwright has many of those similar qualities for me. He combines elements of many different songwriters and composers; he is not simply a collage of styles, but, in my opinion, is becoming a paradigmatic figure.

Rufus has spoken in many interviews of artists the he believes to have influenced his musical language. As a guest host on a KCRW program, he played a bizarre array of artists who were supposedly influential on him, a roster that left many of us baffled. Artists are often blind as to their actual influences. What I am asking your assistance in is offering YOUR opinion of who was influential on him. I ask that you not just say “Jeff Buckley” or “Serge Gainbourg” but cite specific songs or compositions where you hear explicit similarities.

Rufus's Influence machine

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