Style and Idea

August 1, 2009

By Kyle Gann

I don't know that I have a musical style, but I think that one of my compositional strengths - for those who consider it a strength rather than a limitation - is that I draw out the idea of each piece, each movement, very clearly. That is, given recordings of the first five measures of most of my pieces, plus a random measure from later in one of those pieces, I think even a child could match the random measure with the correct opening. The first conductor of my Transcendental Sonnets expressed amazement at how clearly the five songs were differentiated from each other, no two having the same approach to harmony. Many composers are language-based; by many, I mean almost everyone from Bach to Schoenberg and beyond, and by language-based, I mean that they have a continuing musical language evident in piece after piece, in which their ideas are expressed. But I'm more image-based, meaning that for each piece I choose a handful of elements, some of which appear nowhere else in my music. I've got pieces entirely in 2/4 or 4/4, some with constantly changing meters, and some with 2 or 4 or 7 tempos always going at once, so characterizing "my rhythmic language" is a fool's errand. (On the other hand, I think I have a certain melodic style that no one has ever drawn attention to, and I am a little overly addicted to encompassing my music between high, sustained flute tones and a pizzicato bass line.) One of the main questions I'm always asking my composition students is, "What is the idea of this piece?" It's one they are often reluctant to answer, sometimes even seem to resent, and perhaps it's not as universally applicable a query as I try to make it. But, for instance, one could ask Beethoven for the idea of the Appassionata sonata, and I would imagine the answer having something to do with going from the tonic precipitously to the Neapolitan chord and working one's way back. That answer would not explain as much about the piece, though, as my answers about my own pieces tend to do, because Beethoven was implementing that idea within a common classical language.

There is a broad continuum, of course, between language-based and image- or idea-based, with most composers in-between somewhere, but I think I am nearer the latter extreme. Moreover, I think the same is true of many composers of my generation, particularly those who once got excited about minimalism or conceptualism.

So I habitually explain this phenomenon in terms of postminimalism, but I also regard it as something of a pop sensibility in my music. That may, indeed, only relate to Brian Eno. I was excited, back in the '70s, to discover Eno's instrumental albums Music for Airports and especially Another Green World. It would be too simplistic to say I got the idea from Eno, but I immediately grasped something I wanted to copy in Eno's little instrumentals that simply repeated the same motif over and over, with a characteristic rhythm and timbre. It was also far more true of his songs than of most pop songs, too: songs like "The Fat Lady of Limbourg," "Julie with...," "Blank Frank," "King's Lead Hat," "Here He Comes," were remarkably distinct in their identities, each with a characteristic, instantly recognizable accompaniment pattern and sound. I saw that distinctness as a delightful virtue that set Eno far above the other pop music I heard. I thought Another Green World's vignettes were perfect in their way but shorter and more simplistic than what I wanted to aim for; I imagined pieces like his but lasting for ten or 20 minutes, with the materials revealed less repetitiously, more intuitively or permutationally. A composer's education being what it is, I remained wrapped up in the more classical language-based paradigm through the '80s (I'itoi Variations, The Convent at Tepoztlan), but I've kept that goal in mind, and seem to be getting closer and closer.

The thing is, I don't think we have much of a tradition yet for discussing music in such terms. We recognize Feldman's musical language, and Xenakis's, and Ligeti's, and Glass's, and we talk fluently about composers who develop the same language in piece after piece. We have more trouble discussing in general terms composers like Larry Polansky, Jim Tenney, Eve Beglarian, Clarence Barlow, and myself who may write atonal pieces, microtonal pieces, tonal pieces, world-music-influenced pieces, process pieces, idea-based pieces, and who devote more creative energy to the specific world of each piece, the working out of each idea, than to the development of a general language in which one could sit down and write a song, a concerto, and a quartet using similar textures and materials. I believe there is a throughline (though I don't worry about it much) to the types of ideas I grapple with, even though the surface materials change radically from work to work. It's a fairly new, piece-based rather than style-based paradigm that I hope writers on music start to wrestle with, because in discussions of style, I and some of my favorite composers are likely to be left out - for reasons that are entirely intentional on my part, and that I have no desire to reverse.


Matt says: I think this type of approach is more common in young composers as well, and will probably become even more prevalent in the future as composers mature who were born in an age where all recorded music is available at their fingertips. Eventually critical discourse will have to evolve to be able to talk about a composer's work outside of the framework of a consistent language.

Dan says: Perhaps it only feels eclectic because we're sitting too close to it?
I wonder if in future, with the benefit of hindsight and context, the throughline might be clear as day.
KG replies: Maybe - perhaps with his French suites and Italian Concerto, Bach felt the same way.

Antonio Celaya says: Lou Harrison said something on the subject. As I recall he defined a composer as the person who composes in all the styles. I think that the Central European notion that one finds a style and pounds on it for the rest of one's life has not been so healthy. I prefer to follow Satie's method. He said "Show me something new and I'll give up everything and start all over again." ... and he did. A compositional life in which one can try on new costumes for fun sounds pleasant.
KG replies: I was trying to think of who was the earliest composer I'd describe that way, and Satie leaped to mind.

Scott MacClelland says: I've taught a course on music 'appreciation' and history in Carmel CA for more than 30 years. The issues you raise are similar to ones I've raised many times in class. I see a pendulum swinging from complexity to simplicity, usually abruptly, and back again to complexity, over the history of Western Classical Music. (I try to put my own perspective of in the context of world music.) The rise of harmony as we know it, and instrumental music, that we delineate as the intersection of Renaissance and Baroque, was one of those. Likewise, or at similar, the transition from Baroque to Classical. While it is tempting to make a similar case between Classical and early 20th Century, complexity didn't exactly collapse into simplicity (apologies to Satie), but the 12-tone school in America certainly got its ass kicked by Terry Riley's In C, and the whole movement that ensued. What I observe today, as a constant attendee of Marin Alsop's Cabrillo Festival, is composers embracing classical forms, modifying them of course, as a way to organize their efforts into coherence and to better assure their listener's will be able to capture the experience into memory. Occasionally, Alsop plays something new that doesn't quite measure up to either objective.

John S. says: Isn't the project-based approach, that shifts styles from project to project, a hallmark of modernism? Satie, and also Stravinsky, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Duke Ellington, the Beatles, Bernstein; and, in another medium altogether, perhaps the clearest example -- Picasso. Some of them shifted styles gradually and seldom looked back at older styles, which is different than what you're talking about, but there's a similarity.
Fascinating subject. Thanks.

mclaren says: Sounds eerily like a constraint system. Have you taken a look at Strasheela?
Hey, looka here!

gary gach says: completely tangential to this provocative thread, i take one exception (or am not sure) about your locating your own work, only as to one piece: commission by sarah cahill for her war & peace collaboration with john sanborn. there you state how politics in music for you is indissolubly wed (my words) to text. well, exceptions prove the rule. but doesn't cage, for example, epitomize anarchism with out reliance on words but in the music itself. like i say, completely tangential, but i wouldn't wanted to have not said / asked / posted.
KG replies: Hi Gary - I used to be really interested in textless political music, partly through Cage's influence, but experience and reading finally convinced me that it's just not effectual enough to spend my time with. Part of this comes from having researched and written my long essay on political music:
I respect people who try it, but if I'm going to go to the trouble of taking a political viewpoint, I feel I need to spell it out so no one can miss it.

Copyright 2009 by Kyle Gann

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