Thursday, 12 June 2014

Between copying and innovation

Variations on the same thought have come my way from separate directions.

The picture of a Circle Dance was taken at St Matthew’s, New Waltham during a parish consultation day we ran there on Saturday.   Kimberly Bohan, the parish priest there, did us a number of favours including listening to us in the morning and then singing with and talking to us after lunch – such was her impact at least a third of the single sentences of feedback we received from each participant quoted one bit of what she said.

Part of what she said was a reminder of Clark Terry’s words about jazz technique – imitate, assimilate, innovate.  First one copies, including the hard work of basic musical practice.  Eventually one is comfortable playing on one’s own, the patterns having become a natural part of what one does.  Only then does one have a secure basis to step out in a new direction, freedom bred from rootedness and security.  The apparent resulting paradox is that the new is effective and true because it is faithful to its points of origin.

Meanwhile, having seen the new statue by Aidan Hart in Lincoln Cathedral we have begun to read some of what he has written about icons in particular.

Part of what he writes is a reminder of the basic Orthodox approach – shunning equally ‘slavish copying’ and ‘unspiritual innovation’.  Only an icon writer who has first laboriously learnt the techniques involved and then allowed them to become a natural part of him or herself would venture to develop the tradition in a manner which the consensus of the church might come to see as inspired (but which, in the nature of things, it is more likely to see as a failure because it is too much a self-expression or too much influenced by the culture around the innovator).

Both begin in the same place – imitation and copying - necessary starting point but not sufficient as a finishing point.  Both come to inhabit a new place – assimilation and that poise between copying and innovation.  Both hold out the possibility that there is more to be found and expressed – both use the word innovation but one warns that even then this remains a dangerous venture.

It all chimes for me the obvious parallel with the dilemma to which I often return caught between the conservative and liberal wings of the church.  We cannot simply repeat an old formula.  We cannot simply launch into new venture.  We have to know the old so well that it is part of us before we can take the still dangerous step of developing something fresh from it.

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