In 2003, the classical music world woke up to Joyce Hatto. Though Hatto was in her late 70s and had not performed publicly since 1976, she and her husband released more than 100 recordings of her brilliant performances in the years before she died in 2006. The Boston Globe, among many others, praised Hatto for her "musical imagination, which finds original things to say about the most familiar music."

But there was a problem. Most of the Hatto recordings were elegant fakes - cut and pasted from a long list of pianists whose work had been swiped by Hatto's profiteering husband. Original? Not so much.

But stolen ideas are so prevalent in the arts and pop culture today that sometimes it's hard to tell. Copying great work, in fact, dates back to the start of recorded history, with alleged perpetrators ranging from the Apostles of the New Testament to Haydn, Vanilla Ice and Jayson Blair.

While the Hatto fraud is more of a case study in pathological deception than a widespread artistic epidemic, it raises an important

question: When billions of great ideas have already been conceived, written about, buried and revived, what on earth is new anymore?

If, as local artist Bruce Adams said, "the big ideas have all been used up," is it even possible to be original? And if not, how do artists deal with the ever-mounting backlog of timeworn ideas that have been replayed more often than "The White Album"?

In an effort to gauge how artists think about originality - in books, films, paintings, plays and music - we tapped more than a dozen local artists for their thoughts. The responses - through e-mail, phone and in-person interviews - ranged from utterly surprising to, well, happily unoriginal.

To get brains churning, we presented the artists with two quotes.

The first, from Mark Twain: "There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages."

The second, from C.S. Lewis: "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of 10, become original without ever having noticed it."

Do what you like

In almost all the responses, artists essentially agreed that there's nothing new under the sun, citing anyone from Ecclesiastes to Ezra Pound to prove that point. What emerged was a new definition of originality that centered on rearrangement and transplantation: originality as the degree to which you can stir the pot of your own experience.

It was also clear that most artists place a huge importance on originality in everything they do and most are almost frightened of rehashing the past.

"There is indeed originality," said Randy Kramer, founder and executive director of Amherst's Musical- Fare Theatre. "Twain is almost right, but what he misses is that when you combine the "same old pieces of colored glass' in a different way, it results in an entirely new color."

At MusicalFare, that color has taken the form of several new musicals on the lives of local Buffalonians, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Harold Arlen and, this season, Father Nelson Baker.

"What you can do is simply tell your story through the lens of your own personal experiences," Kramer said. "By doing that you can create something unique."

Others whose aesthetic approaches are somewhat less accessible find that the drive toward originality comes from a similarly innate need to do what feels right - even if it pulls others out of their comfort zone.

For Robert Waterhouse, artistic director of the New Phoenix Theatre, the key to achieving the spirit of originality lies in engaging with and recasting long-established traditions. It's an act Waterhouse engages in often at the edgy New Phoenix, using experimental techniques and innovative approaches in selecting and directing shows. Those techniques came together in the recent production of "Gilgamesh," in which Waterhouse and his cast shared directorial responsibilities in blending experimental music, multiple forms of puppetry and a new translation of the 3,000-year-old script. The resulting product was the oldest story in the world told in an entirely new language.

"There's always going to be tradition, but what the artist should do is make sure that the tradition doesn't then become a suffocating amount of conformity," Waterhouse said. "I think there's a tendency to gravitate toward something that is reassuring. I think that people want the experience of going to a movie or going to the theater to be like putting on an old sweater on a Sunday afternoon, and I think that's a very dangerous and deadly and selfdefeating way to explore what engaging theater and film is all about."

Following a vision

In the visual arts, creating new work is less about forging some unfathomable new movement - the next cubism or surrealism or even modernism - than about satisfying an artist's own disparate visions of challenging and vital work.

And for two wildly different local artists, filmmaker Lawrence Brose and figurative painter Bruce Adams, these visions have resulted in thematically similar projects. Chalk up another argument for Twain's sentiment.

Brose's ongoing project is called "Film for Music For Film," in which he has commissioned composers (including John Cage and Frederic Rzewski) to write a score. He then creates a film to accompany that score, in a diametrical flipping of the Hollywood approach. Adams recently completed a series called "Paintings of Pictures of People With Paintings," which shows tourists at various museums caught in contemplation over the very form that Adams has chosen to represent them.

Brose's projects, including his acclaimed 1997 film "De Profundis," tend toward the experimental, while Adams says he has "an internal push toward stylistic conventionality." But both are attempting to create a new sort of truth by turning traditional elements or methods on their heads and producing a new way to look at or listen to them.

"I think for anyone to choose to express themselves, at root there has to be the impulse of originality," Brose said. "Otherwise, why do it?"

"Originality is some new twist on an existing big idea," Adams said. "For me, it's a constant struggle. A struggle not to repeat myself, not to be overly influenced by what I see other artists do."

"It's not whether it's been done before, but what voice you bring to the conversation," said Chris Barr, a local artist whose works are normally interactive in nature. His latest exhibition is "The Bureau of Workplace Interruptions," on view at the Albright- Knox as part of the "Beyond/In Western New York" biennial exhibition.

Just be yourself

For Jack Topht, whose duo Jack Topht with the Vegetables practices a wacky mash-up of spoken-word, comedy, poetry, rock and rap, being overtly influenced isn't a bad thing. Topht, whose girlfriend Lindsey Lemberski plays both keyboard and drums and sings backup vocals in the band, cites a flurry of diverse influences: Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, Public Enemy, Mark Twain and University at Buffalo sociology professors Mark Gottdiener and Jorge Arditi.

"We've stolen from such a vast body of curious combinations of old ideas that our music comes out sounding really original and right on time," Topht said. "Everything that I have stolen/learned from these heroes are the Twainian shards of colored glass my mental kaleidoscope shifts around to produce what I can confidently call my original art."

In his song "Their God is Their Stomach," Topht combines samples from a Christian dieting tape with a political message he calls "a denouncement of our brain-dead consumer culture."

Alison Pipitone, a somewhat more traditional (and popular) local singer and songwriter who has been touring and recording for more than 15 years, sees originality as a pervading force, but one that artists would do well not to think about.

"I think being original comes as a byproduct of being yourself - I guess the goal is to answer to that part of yourself that is really "you' and therefore unique, and try to filter out those parts that are conscious of social context, or audience response," Pipitone said. "And if you can do that in three minutes with a couple of hooks and a mind-blowing chorus, you've got yourself a hit song."