Voice or Schtick?
Recent articles on the Damien Hirst “Spot Paintings”, a series of works that he has been exploring for the past 25 years, started me thinking about how different the expectations are for composers than for artists. Once an artist has an idea that gains recognition from galleries, the expectation is that they will continue to produce that work or work in a similar vein for the foreseeable future. We expect that Matthew Barney will produce films focusing on distortions of his body within petroleum-based sculptures, that Andreas Gursky will continue to provide us with giant photographs of public spaces, and that Anselm Kiefer will exhibit more dark paintings based within German mythology. It’s extraordinarily rare to find protean artists like Gerhard Richter, whose entire modality of expression appears to change from one work or era to the next.
Certainly, we can cite examples of composers who appear similarly obsessed with a singular sound or philosophical approach to music-making. While the music of Steve Reich has evolved over time, we know what to expect from a concert featuring his music. Similarly, the mere sight of the name Jacob Ter Veldhuis on a program gives us a very clear picture of what we are about to hear. From piece to piece, these composers focus on ensembles of similar size (within a range) with favorite instruments appearing throughout their works, their perceived tempos and harmonic rhythms tend to stay within a prescribed range, and the surface musical details derive from a clear aesthetic bent. In the case of Reich, I find the style characteristics that I associate with his music to be quite comforting—I can predict with great confidence that I personally will enjoy any new piece of his that I encounter.
However, music differs from art in that many of the most well-regarded composers write music in wildly differing styles from piece to piece, or even from movement to movement. Even within a single piece, our music’s rhythmic profile might vary from pure stasis to exciting rhythmic drive. Our harmonies might move from thick microtonal cluster chords to simple open triads. Our instrumentation might range from kazoo and toy piano, to bassoon quintet, to string quartet, to full orchestra. The question that often arises as we assess new music by a single composer is: Where is the voice?
Oddly enough, it tends to be most difficult to answer this question for our own music. As we compose, we get caught up in answering all the questions that arise as we go from moment to moment, as we fill in the details and sculpt the piece itself. Even when we step back and try to take a full view of our artistic trajectory, we tend to consider questions of what worked and what didn’t, what sounds we would like to pursue further and what aspects of our earlier pieces seem played out. We find that over time our sense of time changes, as do other aspects of what we value aesthetically. And we get caught up in these differences—in those things that make each of our works unique—rather than in the commonalities of expression within our oeuvre.
When we have a specific schtick—for example, if we paint unicorns and rainbows—it can be comforting to those people who enjoy our art. From piece to piece they know what to expect, greatly reducing the chances of disappointing a commissioner or viewer. But I prefer the aspect of the music world that allows me to create work in a range of different media with a variety of expressive focus. I hope that outsiders view my music as expressing a voice, emanating from a single perspective, but I accept the risk that they might not. For me, this is one of the great joys of being a composer.