The Matter of Style

Judith Lang Zaimont
Photo courtesy University of Minnesota

Singularity in an artist’s voice is almost as much a matter of how we say something as of what we say. Composers are ever alert to distinctions between the musical substance and its manner of presentation, although these two regularly intertwine. But for the purpose of the following discussion, let’s accept style and manner as distinct from content and message.

My favorite way to illustrate the core distinction is that style is the difference between Jehovah’s “I Am that I Am” (expressed in Charlton Heston’s inimitable yet manipulated voice in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments), and Popeye’s unmistakable “I Yam what I Yam, and that’s all I Yam!”

Extreme instances are easy to pinpoint, but many features that distinguish one style incrementally from another are not so easy to put on the page. Good music has personality. One composer’s readily identifiable manner highlights particular traits, aspects, and factors over others. That personality can be sensed and identified even in the music’s smallest fraction creating what we might term style touchstones. Instances of these are present everywhere, from the tiniest core samples (the way Brahms or Rachmaninoff voice chords), to cadence formulations (Ravel’s clouded plagals), to choices in orchestration densities (think of the comparative allocation of each instrumental family’s prominence in music by Copland, Stravinsky, or Schwantner), to pitch discipline as structural factors in the music of Crawford, Perle, or Boulez, to an utter exuberance/reverence of statement (in music by Messiaen or Rouse).

To what extent is a style something knowingly applied by a composer? Ned Rorem observed that any composer has at the ready only a discrete number of personal style specifics—say three to five—and the composer employs these over and over again (in good combination, we hope). Where we sit, just past the mid-point of the 21st century’s first decade, there is an added complication: Our context is not fixed but fluent. There is no generally recognized international style serving as a basis against which to appreciate individual idioms, individual variants. So today’s compositions have an added obligation: the requirement that they announce within their first few moments the intended framework by which to appreciate what follows; all this, along with the actual substance the music intends to present and then engage. For Mozart, Schumann, Wagner, even Stravinsky, the situation wasn’t quite so exposed, nor was it so subject to nuance and to unintended misunderstanding.

The Composer’s Eye View

For most composers, style emerges as a by-product of our attention to other, more technical or more expressive, features. There are hypnotic aspects to style, and ready characterizations assigned to certain combinations. For instance, specific instrumental colors or timbral combinations can by themselves signal a musical environment meant to be heard as beguiling or seductive. Likewise, immediate connotations arise from juxtaposing pillared harmonies and flanking silences. Even the choice to emphasize sheer flow immediately sends a clear message to the listener.

One of the reasons some composers now actively seek to separate their music from the (reviled!) twelve-toners is because they perceive an equation between dodecaphony and “grey music,” believing it to be music that doesn’t capitalize on the emotional projection we ascribe to the musical factors of color, timbre, or lusciousness of sound. Such an equation is, of course, hogwash. Good composers always take the sensuous qualities of sound into account.

In the best music, style and content are inextricably linked. A small example from the opening of the second movement of Stravinsky’s Symphonie des Psaumes says it all: After the first movement’s low chugging bassoons, Stravinsky wisely begins the second movement’s instrumental fugue with the oboe. (Flute gives the answer.) The subject opens with four 8th notes: C, Eb, B, D. On paper this looks like two alternating thirds, but Stravinsky displaces the leading tone B up to ledger line B in the oboe’s higher register (its second octave). This is a marvelous touch: The high B’s yearning, unsupported quality is timbrally unique to the oboe. (In the flute, the same note would not have sounded as special.) The choice of instrument and the quality of particular tone color in a certain register support a content decision—displacing the leading tone up—which works structural magic. Is Stravinsky’s identifiable and original line idiosyncratic (a rationalized response to the Ur-pitch content) or is it more plainly an example of his artistic personality intuitively imprinting on those notes? I see it as a balance of both.

To be original, does a composer have to be a determined innovator, an iconoclast (a Varèse, a Riegger)? Or can incremental distinctions of style be sufficient enough that an artist’s voice is able to be identified as new? There’s attraction and comfort in the thought of moving by increment to produce advancement in vision and in understanding. There is also validity.

Take the case of one modern innovation dedicated to convenience, the variable-speed windshield wiper. The intermittent-speed wiper was invented in 1962 by Bob Kearns as a refinement on the two-speed Low/High version. It was turned down by every auto manufacturer Kearns approached. But, over the following years, the auto companies adopted his idea, proceeding quietly to incorporate Kearns’ innovation without, however, according either credit or royalty to the inventor. It took Kearns 30 years in the courts to be granted proper restitution of his identity as the concept innovator and to be awarded all the royalties that should have already come to him. Kearns vision was to realize how powerful an incremental difference could be to an existing situation. The improvement was distinctive enough to be patentable and thus eminently able to be considered original.

In our time of global ferment with its numerous accompanying and tortuous nuances generated by ever-present geopolitical rebalancings, no wonder art looks to soothe, hanging on to safety via incremental reformulations of the “what-I-already-know.” Today’s theatre and film offer us quite a number of older works in new format, new manner. Operas or plays of earlier eras are being produced in radically rethought stagings, albeit with the original words (think Peter Sellars, Julie Taymor). One evolutionary stage beyond these would be works like Clueless (from Jane Austen) or Rent (from La bohème). These are not precisely “old wine in new bottles.” Rather, they suggest to the audience that insights, nuances in the original which so far have been overlooked may be best revealed through a radically new interpretation.

Is style subjective? We frequently hear the response, “I like what I know.” We’re good at connecting with something new that sits stylistically in the midst of referent works, well-accepted manners. (Turning this on its head was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s legendary observation—”I know pornography when I see it”—which deflected the need for an outright definition.) But does this mean that our comfort zone is never expanded? Do we indeed, like Teyve, yearn to retain “Tradition!”? Concerning audience’s comfort zones, is it best to progress by moving incrementally from that which we know into the eventual experience of the truly new?

Listeners often respond to a piece with “I like it,” “I don’t like it,” or “It didn’t reach me.” Such responses are related directly to whether that listener’s previous musical experience included hearing other works of similar manner (from the same time period, perhaps, but certainly of similar type). Looking to the realm of poetry as an analogue, one might ask: if you like e. e. cummings, will you also be drawn to Dorothy Parker or to Ogden Nash? If your only previous best-loved poetry is Kipling, will you be able to connect with Whitman right off the bat? Or, if Whitman is your cup of tea, are you all set for Emily Dickinson? T. S. Eliot? Marianne Moore? Keep in mind that it was a poet, Archibald MacLeish, who delivered the ultimate pronouncement favoring manner and the power of style over substance (content). MacLeish ends “Ars poetica” with these words, “A poem should not mean / But be.”

Formulating one’s own distinct style is particularly complicated in an era that doesn’t recognize a commonly accepted international style, and in a time where sound is with us from morning to night. Music is always in the air, all-pervasive, disembodied. There is music in grocery stores, elevators, restaurants, and public restrooms. There is music in banks, in law offices, doctors’ waiting rooms, and photocopy shops. At the airport there is music and television.

What kind of music is this? How does such a saturation, such a bombardment, of sound alter how we hear and does it cheapen the experience of listening? Pop music’s dilutions chivvy music to the side, fostering its re-identification as a secondary, partnering art, a buttress to other more urgent forms of messaging, e.g., video. We are encouraged to lay music like a sonic carpet we move upon to get from here to there. And once we accept such service it becomes hard to listen as a forefront activity.

Added to this is the fact that today more music than ever before is accessible, crossing all borders of history and geography. These musics exist and are available at a moment’s notice. How exciting (!), but also how mightily confusing. Their simultaneous presence suggests an easy concept of fresh art crafted crudely by fusing together styles or manners that already exist: O.K., Let’s cross Tibetan throat singing with Gregorian chant and Western minimalism and voilà! Or combine whale songs with taped ping-pong balls, all supporting an Appalachian folk-style melody, and voilà again. Is this genuine? Is this you?

Style, idiom, and manner of discourse go a long way in art! Our human penchant to classify prompts us to put in order myriad artistic schools, offshoots, subsets, variants. There’s comfort in knowing where a piece or a composer fits within music’s evolutionary frame (what Gunther Schuller terms “a great river”). In older music, we relish and magnify distinctions between composers because we understand them. They operate powerfully, permeating our comprehension of the totality of the idiom in which the music is written, and likewise coloring associated performance traditions to be their most authentic and complete.

Not surprisingly, therefore, we recognize stylistic lineages that pass from era to era. These lineages bestow extra credentials on the next composer in line, and the next-to-next, and so on, in part simply because the younger composer’s modality of musical utterance coincides so well with recognizable stylistic features of a composer of the immediate past (someone whose music and style we already comprehend). I talk here only of instances where there exists genuine artistic affinity, and not of cases where a composer adopts an earlier style just to be chic or popular.

The Performer’s Eye View

When Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message,” he meant in part that the mode of conveying content (its manner of delivery) actually configures ahead of time how we’ll connect with what’s being expressed: how we will decode it, place our emphases, and otherwise parse it out. Thus, the very manner of delivery actively increases or limits our connection with the content coming forth. First person (near and hot) contrasts to third person (cold and remote). Third-person media, such as books and newspapers, are choice for expressing factual information; they agree very much with didactic, declarative functions of all sorts. By contrast, other manners of delivery invite the auditor/viewer in as quasi-participant. Radio famously is now often a first-person medium, extrapolated from its innate one-to-one mode (listened to in darkened rooms it virtually gets inside your head). Today’s call-in radio talk shows close the circle, inviting listeners in to become active contributors to the very same program they are listening to. Through reality programming and the old talent competition shows made new again (like American Idol), TV is increasingly trying for that same “touch me” first-person mode.

In recent years music has also morphed away from a didactic frame (calcified under the mistaken notion of Composer as Autocrat, and Score as sacred Text) to a somewhat more collaborative environment. Performers are invited to intersect with composers by various means, old and new. When interpreters are also strong musical personalities in their own right, they may see possibilities in a piece or song not readily apparent in the first (original) version.

Performers can be the ones who stretch the original boundaries of a work incrementally—or even by giant steps. Performers have the capacity to turn an original on its ear, where it frequently becomes something quite new, arresting, and memorable. Examples are plentiful in the realm of pop song and go back 80 years or more: “Lil’ Darlin’” was originally presented by Neal Hefti to Count Basie as an up-tempo number, but Count Basie took it at half-tempo (or even slower). Now we really hear that first syncopated note as dragged and not just as a hiccup of a delay in the attack. So, too, all the after-beats are virtually audible, making drag itself a chief aspect of the song. In similar fashion, Gershwin’s original tempo for “Someone to Watch Over Me” was upbeat and brassy which was mainstream for the 1920s. But slowing the tune to half-tempo—as Barbra Streisand delivers it—adds poignancy, and makes it memorable in a new way.

Composers also explore the change in flavor alterations can bring to a source original. A wonderful example is in The Music Man, where Meredith Willson uses the tune for “76 Trombones” to very different purpose when he slows it down, changes the meter to 3/4, and gentles its treatment for “Goodnight, My Someone.”

Concert-music composers of the current generation have actively sought to strengthen the connection with colleague performers, and, through these champions, the listeners. Recent decades have witnessed compositional strategies meant to do just that. The 1970s witnessed a proliferation of new works created as overture-length orchestral pieces (approximately 8 to 12 minutes long), for programming first in the evening. But pasting in new music that way didn’t quite do it: late-comers would miss the new music (sometimes intentionally) and often the rest of the program reverted to well-known staples. So, in the 1980s through the early ’90s, American orchestral concerts blossomed with a considerable number of new concerti programmed either as first-half closers or second-half openers. These works received care and attention from individual soloists who traveled with them and featured their concerto for a season or so. By and large, however, this spotlighting device also didn’t quite take: few of these works have made it into the permanent repertoire. (A wonderful exception is the success of the John Adams Violin Concerto.) For several reasons then, both strategies have tapered off in the past half-dozen years. Yet the rationale remains and rings true. Music is again being written and thought through from the performance perspective as a vehicle of display and expression.

We can actually trace back the new rebalance of the roles of composer and performer to its public re-emergence in the mid-to-late 20th century. Two functions that became acknowledged as separated specialties more than 140 years back began once again to be accepted as blended together, starting about 40 years ago. (Leonard Bernstein’s life and work can be thought of as a model. Other excellent examples of such multipronged musicians include Joan Tower and Wynton Marsalis.)

The return is due largely to strategic initiatives meant specifically to reintroduce the composer as a neighbor in public life (and not an aloof presence somewhere to the side or behind the scenes). From the 1950s to the 1970s, re-integrating strategies appeared which were well supported by grants and foundations. Chief among these was the Ford Foundation’s Composers Commissioning Project in the nation’s public schools (1959-1968), and the founding of the national organization Meet The Composer in 1974. More recent programs by other national service organizations, such as the American Music Center and the American Composers Forum, also aim to seed composers back into the main operations of institutions which perform and teach, e.g. ACF’s “Faith Partners,” which places resident composers in a consortium of houses of worship.

What needs to be made very clear is that newer music is not all one big common idiom. It’s a host of separate geographically, linguistically, and syntactically individuated avenues of expression. In order to deliver a specific piece effectively, a performer has to get to know, relish, to love, and to believe in the composer’s individual dialect. What complicates things is that we don’t have good language on hand to describe and/or identify stylistic differences in the music written by living composers. Instead we get all caught up in process terminology, positioning minimalism at odds with serialism, new tonality snuffing out expressionism, etc. But which minimalist, which pan-tonalist, which twelve-toner? Within each separate process each composer’s individual stylistic predilections kick in—to such an extent that Berg is Berg, Carter is Carter, and Saariaho is Saariaho, etc.

It’s true that performers approach a brand-new piece differently if they’re already acquainted with other music by that composer. If the style is spare and lyrical, with orchestration that is plain yet effective (neat, comprehensible in texture from the page, etc.), we wouldn’t be far off to deliver that music in a manner similar to Rossini, Muczynski, or Prokofiev. On the other hand, if the music is voluble or episodic, if it ping-pongs melodic strands from instrument to instrument and recalibrates its orchestral set-up at a time interval less than that of a complete phrase, who will then be our model for hearing from the page? Late Mahler? Strauss? Berlioz? Druckman? If accurate decoding from the page into our consciousness needs to pass through a node or two prior to fulfillment, we should be aware of this upfront and not expect instantaneous coherence the way we do in music of the first type.

In recent years I’ve made sure that a commission’s earliest stages include a discussion of what my music’s intrinsic nature is and what it is not (noting which aspects will be complex and which straightforward). By taking this step, all the partners in the process—conductor, performer, composer—orient similarly in our anticipations.

Four years ago the College Music Society decided to make it easier for today’s composers to define themselves as distinct artistic entities, speaking directly to their colleague performers and conductors. This was accomplished through a new project, the “My Idiom” Composers Registry. “My Idiom” provides a direct channel of communication through which composers introduce the special nature and appeal of their music concretely so that stylistic affinities may be more easily gleaned and acted upon. It is a searchable website where composers present individual statements, talking not about their compositional methods, but about the stylistic traits that are most characteristic of their music, and identifying any lineage of performance tradition that pertains to/informs the composer’s work. Entries also include a list of up to five representative works, an email address for direct contact, and a link to the composer’s own website where sound samples and score excerpts actually reside. Performers can search by keywords according to genre or style traits, and look to identify specific composers with whom they may share style affinities and /or interpretive approaches. At this time “My Idiom” is only open to participation from registered members of CMS. How wonderful if this, or similar resource could be available to the music world at large!

Demystifying the technical/expressive musical factors of style will in no way dilute the magic of our art form. To the contrary: It would increase music’s allure, assisting performers and composers of like artistic mind to connect with confidence, and thereby promote increased and eminently apt performances of the newest notes.


Judith Lang Zaimont is a frequently performed and recorded composer whose works range from solo and chamber compositions to music for chorus, orchestra, and symphonic winds. After more than three decades as an educator (Peabody, CUNY, University of Minnesota), she recently retired to the greater Phoenix area in order to concentrate fully on composing.