appreciation composition the orchestra world

the voice of the composer

No, not the speaking voice. But if you want to know what Tchaikovsky’s speaking voice sounded like, you can check that out here.

I’m talking (see what I did there?) about the composer’s musical voice. It’s what alerts your ear – having never heard a particular piece before – that a composition is by Beethoven, Pärt, or Higdon.

I’ve had a fair number of composer friends over the years, and some of them I’ve known since they were in their formative years as composers. Just as performers imprint upon important musical role models in the course of their musical growth and exploration, composers also dig deep into the work of those who have come before them (or are doing important and interesting stuff right now). They listen ferociously, picking apart every musical aspect of a given composer’s music. They are trying to find out what makes the music speak to them, and how the composer accomplished that feat. It’s a bit like reverse engineering. Take apart an existing product to find out how it was made, so that you can in turn make your own version. These composers had their periods of being obsessed by Hindemith, Poulenc, Boulez, Reich, Rorem, Corigliano, etc. But each of them, through a process of exhaustive listening, composition lessons, and relentless self-editing came out the other side with their own distinctive voice.

Knowing this, it’s always incredibly irritating to hear people say that “composer X always sounds the same”. Well, I hope so! Even if this were true (which it’s not), the really good and great composers have an evolution to their voice. Great instrumentalists and singers do, too. In the case of performers, some of it is due to the physical changes that come about through aging. One physically isn’t the same at the age of 60 as at the age of 18 – and those changes in the body’s structure and mechanics affect the way we produce sound. Composers aren’t subject to those restraints (though some would argue that composers like Britten and Shostakovich, whose music became very spare and austere in their final years, were constrained by the physicality of writing music on paper, which affect their writing style), but they do have changing relationships to the sounds that they hear, and thus to the sounds that they then seek to put down on paper.

Of course, all composers have various compositional ‘tells’ that are a common thread throughout their careers. Beethoven uses small, obsessive rhythmic motifs. Brahms uses the violas as the bass voice to the cellos. John Adams sets up a groove, and then yanks the rug out from under the listener by jogging the beat off by a fraction. Shostakovich uses a major chord as a tragic moment – as does Schubert. John Williams uses repeated scrubby patterns in the violas under soaring melodies in the violins, who are doubled by the cellos. Mozart uses divided violas to add richness to his slow movements. Bruckner doubles the cellos with the French horns. I’m sure there are many much more erudite examples that could be supplied – but I’m not a composer. Ask any composer about the way that other composers write, and you’re in for a fascinating conversation that will leave you searching for ways to enhance the way you listen to music.

So, when I hear someone complain about how composer X’s music all sounds ‘the same’, I’m all side eye about it – because that ‘sameness’ amounts to having one’s own individual voice. And that’s a good thing.

Are you a composer? Let me know what your thoughts are about how you developed your unique voice!