Wednesday, March 16, 2005


I find myself wondering about the composer's "voice." How is it that, on overhearing a strain of a symphony or chamber piece, I am able to say, "oh, that's Beethoven" or, "definitely Schumann" or, "no way is that Brahms!" particularly when the snippet is just generic, just strings? For a few hundred years or so, composers worked with basically the same instrument (orchestrally speaking, strings and give or take a few brass, wind or percussion instruments) yet managed to make their works personal and identifiable. At the turn of the twentieth century, composers such as Mahler, Ravel and Stravinsky introduced more unusual instruments into the orchestra and experimented with orchestral voicings to a point where I recognize the music more for its orchestration than its musical motives or structure. (Castanets and tambourine? Do I smell Ravel?) While motives and structure may present themselves for consideration, as listeners we have developed a sweet-tooth for certain orchestral colors--the ear-candy of saxophone, banjo, celeste, or bass clarinet--and settled into a particular (and not so wholesome) habit of listening to much contemporary music.

I hear accordion and piano, shofar and violin, marimba, vibes and miscellaneous percussion, and I think: Alvin Curran. I hear car horns and metronomes, and I think: Ligeti. I hear a basic Pierrot ensemble plus clinking glassware, BBs, bird calls and rustling tree branch and I think: John Zorn (ahem, his "classical" music, anyway). I fixate on the instrumentation, and am impressed or bored by the way the instruments are written for or played, and sort evaluate the music for theme or structure, motive or development. Zorn, Ligeti, and Curran are masters in many ways beyond orchestration, of course; there are others, however, who seem content to just stop at color, stop at the orchestration, and let the surprise of an "unusual" instrument seduce our ears and distract us from structure and form (or lack of it).

Concerts of new music tend to be cleverly programmed with orchestration foremost in mind. A guitar quartet might show, visually, some superficial relationship to a string quartet on the same program but, because strings are rubbed, amplified, grated, or left to feedback, actually pays homage to the meandering electronic track in another piece. The string quartet, meanwhile, full of strong pizzicatos or tappings of the bow on the instrument's body, might seem companion to creative percussion writing elsewhere on the program, especially when that involves bowing cymbals and striking woodblocks with fingertips. It's color, color, everywhere!

If you asked every composer in a given school's graduate program (and I'll be the first to admit that our Ravels and Stravinskys are probably not lurking in the halls of some graduate program) to write a dozen piano pieces, or a "symphonic movement" for thirty-two strings and timpani, and then you sat and blindly listened to all those pieces, would you be able to hear distinct voices? (I imagine you'd hear a fair share of derivative voices: ghosts.) If prevented from assembling a select and unique instrumentation, is a composer still able to assert a personal voice? How does one differentiate oneself if the parameters are reduced? How is it that I can distinguish Mendelssohn from Schumann when they speak through the same medium, when it's just the piano that I hear? How is it that sometimes I take meaning from what people have to say--their words, sentences, and whole ideas--and sometimes I can only hear the expression of their pitch, timbre or inflection?


This is a great post, and you bring up interesting questions. Questions to which I don't know the answer(s).

By Blogger Steve Hicken, at 5:51 AM  

I'm so happy to have discovered your excellent blog!

Maybe I'm taking this post a little too literally but...

The reason why we can tell Beethoven and Schumann's piano music apart is that they each have an idiosynchratic way of using harmonies, melodies, rhythm, etc., right? I'm not sure what the mystery is.

And I do think that if you had a bunch of composition students write a dozen piano pieces, you would hear distinct voices. There might not be a towering genius among them, but even mortal musicians have idiosynchratic musical personalities that reveal themselves. And even Beethoven and Schumann wrote music that was "derivative" of other music and sounds that they heard. How could this not be the case with any composer, unless they grew up in isolation?

If your implication is that composers of Beethoven and Schumann's stature don't exist anymore, I would argue that in their day, these guys were surrounded and vastly outnumbered by mediocre composers about whom we have since forgotten, and that taking a random sampling of even a few dozen contemporary composition students would be unlikely to reveal the next Schubert.

Write on! :)

By Blogger TJM, at 4:29 AM  

I'm with tjm: I distinguish composers via their style, which encompases orchestral timbre, but also melodic style, harmonic movement, etc. I once identified an early (WoO) Beethoven piece as LvB on the basis of a one-measure harmonic progression in a two-minute or so excerpt.

(Welcome to blogging!)

By Blogger Lisa Hirsch, at 1:08 PM  

Chord spacing and voicing is really significant. Chord spacing is why early Stravinsky still sounds like 12-tone Stravinsky. Debussy's piano music would sound a lot different if he didn't double things at the octave so much. He also has a very distinct way of voicing/spacing his harmonies. Voicing/spacing leave such a stylistic imprint that you probably could identify a composer's orchestral music having only heard his piano works. IMO, instrumentation is largely informed by these factors (although there are little harmonic cliches like horn fifths where it goes the other way).

By Anonymous Adam Baratz, at 1:19 PM  

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