The problem of artistic style

The problem of artistic style

Any artists emerging in the world today have a bit of an issue to confront. In the past, there were so many taboo areas of art (be it visual, theatre or music), that they had boundaries to break, which is what they did. However, today’s artists aren’t presented with such boundaries. I think this can be a huge issue for composers – consciously, subconsciously or both.

Some how or other, we come to the decision that we want to write music – whether as a career, as part of a portfolio career (in my case), or whether just for our own enjoyment. We have probably been preparing and informing ourselves about this for years, whether knowingly or unknowingly – learning instruments, playing in ensembles, writing bits and pieces, learning theory.

Then, at some point, we will present our music in a public forum, be this in a performance, online, or in a competition scenario. We may do this several times. At some point, we are bound to come across someone with some criticism that we don’t like. Maybe they think our music is too hard to listen to, or too simple; too difficult to play, too tonal, too much mimicking another composer. The criticism could come from friends, family, colleagues, associates, performers, teachers, or fellow composers. But regardless, that spark of doubt can easily be raised in us.

It is at this point we examine our compositional style, our voice and our aesthetics. Why do we write what we write? Should we be writing something different? It is at these moments of doubt that we need a guiding voice to remind us about the artistic world in which we live. I think the few points below are particularly pertinent when we as composers are feeling confused, or as if we don’t belong.

– The definition of contemporary. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “belonging to or occurring in the present”, or “following modern ideas in style and design”. Technically, this will make anything written now contemporary, unless deliberately mimicking a style of the past, utilising their aesthetics or rules – e.g. Bach chorales. You don’t have to write atonal music to be contemporary. Similarly, atonal music isn’t necessarily something that’s been and gone. It can all be relevant and contemporary in today’s musical and artistic culture.

– Remember that teachers (and experts) are there for guidance – but they’re not always right. The previous generations of musicians have always had mentors, people they’ve looked up to, and people they’ve learnt from. However, what makes them successful is their ability to be themselves – not their ability to conform. Similarly, the people who have been considered radical in many fields in the past have often rebelled against what they’ve been taught. Our teachers pushed (and broke through!) the boundaries of their teachers, and it’s what we will do also.

– Don’t feel you have to conform – or do what everyone else is. This goes hand in hand with the teacher point. Yes, from a learning to compose and developing your own compositional voice style, it does make sense that you perhaps experiment with some of the more ‘traditional’ forms of composition: Bach chorales, sonata form, minimalism, 12 tone technique etc. But you don’t have to ‘do’ one of those. I believe we’re a collage of what we learn and experience. Experience plays the biggest part – so for me, playing in ensembles, singing in choirs, big bands and, importantly, gamelan. Other techniques I’ve worked with – composing with limited pitches, 12 tone for example – have not been techniques that necessarily suit my compositional style, but yet they have also had an influence on the composer am I now.

– You don’t have to do just one thing. We are allowed to experiment with… well… anything! You may be incredibly successful in a particular musical niche but yearn to look elsewhere, but don’t, afraid of the criticism you may receive. Don’t be! Part of being artistic and creative is being experimental. Of course, you may only want to do one thing, which there is also nothing wrong with!

– Not everyone will like what you do. Live with it. Accept both criticism and compliments – you can probably learn something from both, be it that your art may not be suited to a certain audience, or that certain elements work particularly well within your artistic style. Nevertheless, feedback can be a useful tool.

– Similarly, remember that you and your music may not be suited to every purpose. As artists, we should leap at opportunities where we can. For example, I have begun writing a large scale choral piece (that I will discuss further in following posts!), and I became aware of a competition for which it would be perfectly suited. However, we can’t do everything. We should be aware of our strengths and weaknesses, and work with them to be successful. Bear in mind that success is a personal thing too. For some, success is making lots of money, for others, getting music performed, and for others still, merely completing a piece. The success you crave will also help define what you and your music will be suited to.

– Connect with as many people as you can. Your education is never over. Listen to as much music as you can, talk to as many people as possible, read as many blogs as you can. Soundcloud and Twitter are your friends.

I must confess that I’ve written music before that I didn’t truly believe in. I’m sure that most composers can make that confession – especially if they’ve pursued the profession through academic pathways (in my case, during both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees). However, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this – it is a form of development and learning, and even if you’ve learnt that a particular technique or style isn’t something you connect with, that’s productive in its own right. Furthermore, you may find that, whether consciously or unconsciously, some of the processes or concepts may open up new tunnels of ideas in your mind. It also helps to shape the musical pathway you are carving out for your artistic self.

We live in such a diverse world in terms of art and composition nowadays that nothing is wrong, or disallowed. If someone wants to write completely happy, tonal, easy listening music, then there’s nothing wrong with that. If someone else wants to write more academic, 12 tone music, that’s also equally valid. As artists, it’s important we remember that. We will have our preferences – but that doesn’t mean that any forms of artistic expression are any less valid.

The most important thing we can learn is to be true to ourselves, and to our music. The more we do this, the more the music we produce will be truly ours, and, ultimately, the happier we will be.

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