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!

lynn harrell on inspiration

Cellist Lynn Harrell

After the previous blog post about the Brahms sextet had gone live, in which I wrote a bit about Lynn Harrell’s great sense of musical curiosity, John Fadial sent along this email from Lynn that he’d gotten after a previous year’s cello festival. Harrell had given a masterclass, and one of the younger students had asked him about inspiration in the process of playing music. Lynn didn’t think that he’d adequately answered the question in the class, and so sent the following to be shared with the student. I’ve edited it slightly for length and clarity.

“I’ve been thinking of that boy who asked me [about inspiration] in the question-and-answer. How does someone work on developing imagination? My family agreed, when I questioned them, that reading a great deal, putting yourself in the shoes of whom ever, and the same for different roles in a film. Cinema Paradiso moved me so deeply – so I questioned on why that was so. I had identified with the young boy, but also the old man. So, questioning one’s emotional response to what we experience can lead us to understand ourselves and our world so that we can express it through our music.

Music was always designed particularly after church music, to take its place in performance – like theater for those who listen. So therefore drama is a very important aspect. My daughter suggest instead of looking, observe. Instead of analyzing, empathize and feel. Traveling a lot and helps as well. Great songs and great opera are absolutely essential: the words in the situation with the music helps the process. It occurred to me for instance, that the final scene of the opera of Don Giovanni, it’s not only about being damned to hell I figure, it’s [also] about Mozart’s anger and defiance …

So much of this dreaming – imagining – is missing today because of video games, internet vines, the lack of face-to-face conversation, etc. When I was in the fourth grade the teachers comment on my report card was that I was a dreamer, that I would stare out the window and would be miles away. My parents asked what I was thinking about. I said I was thinking about being a professional baseball player and hitting a homerun in Yankee Stadium. The teacher of coarse, was being critical. My parents smiled, probably because they were, in their lives, proud that I was so called a dreamer as well as they. This is long before medical science came to realize that fantasy and dreaming is another part of human intelligence. Dreaming and imagining, stimulate those muscles. And like any muscles, working them makes them more flexible, stronger, and useful.”

brahms with friends new and old

Last Thursday, at an unspeakably early hour, I headed to the Portland airport to fly to Laramie, Wyoming. I was headed there to reunite with my University of Maryland graduate string quartet colleagues ( John Fadial and Jeffrey Multer, violins and Beth Vanderborgh, cellist) to play Brahms’ G major String Sextet with them, UW viola faculty Jim Przygocki, and renowned cellist Lynn Harrell. It was a fantastic trip for many reasons, but chief among them were getting to see my old friends for the first time in 30 years (!) and to get to play with such a legendary artist as Lynn Harrell.

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