A Matter of Style

When I was a baby composer, just entering the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of my primary musical ambition was to learn to write music in “all different styles.” As a budding musical theatre fanatic, I had noticed that many of the shows by my heroes had songs in different styles—a tango here, a hoedown there, a bossanova, an Andrews Sisters-type song, a waltz—and I wanted to be able to do the same thing.

The composition department at CIM was all about art music, though, and, being a good student, I instead threw myself into those challenges. The word “style” did not apply to individual song types; instead it was a matter of finding one’s own individual style, one’s own compositional voice. That process begins with imitation of composers and pieces one admires; the idea is that one then explores out from there to eventually claim a little piece of stylistic turf to plant a flag on.

Even at the time (the early 1980s), one had to look awfully hard to find a stylistic patch that didn’t already have someone’s flag planted on it. In the subsequent thirty years, as the number of composers has increased, it’s become well-nigh impossible. The analogy with our nearly-fully-explored planet seems pretty accurate to me; it’s not that there aren’t unsettled areas, but they’re either extremely hard to get to or not any place you’d want to live.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that any music a composer writes now will be derivative of something; the only question is what. Some composers are turning to open assimilation of disparate influences. Mashing up two different styles that no one else has thought of mashing up before is the functional equivalent of finding your own turf—your music will sound different than everyone else’s (for a while). Some have avowed that the entire world of musical style is their oyster, and they can and will pick and choose musical style elements from anywhere. Even the ironic distance that used to be de rigeur for such quoting seems to be no longer necessary. Perhaps this has been influenced by the rise of sampling in pop music—it’s been okay to base your music on someone else’s for a couple of decades now.

So I guess I was just a few years early wanting to become a master of pastiche (the craft of writing in a style not one’s own). I’m left wondering what the difference is, if any, between the approach I grew up admiring in the musical theatre scores of the 60s and 70s and this post-postmodern globalization of musical style. Certainly the questions of colonialism and the ethics of appropriation that one sometimes hears “classical” composers fretting over never seem to have made it onto the radar in the world of musical theatre, so maybe there is some difference behind the scenes, as it were.

All these years later, when I do write musical theatre, it tends to be pastiche of various pop styles (see the demo for the musical All About The Kids that I’m slowly working on with Erik Johnke, if you’re interested). And while I don’t overtly (at least consciously) borrow stylistic elements, I’m not above borrowing a tune from somewhere else. Later this year Margaret Leng Tan will be performing her terrific dramatization of my piece for toy piano and toys Twinkle, Dammit! An Obsessive Variation on a Well-Known Children’s Song on a music festival in Singapore. Here’s the video of her premiere performance of the piece on the 1st International Toy Piano Festival in New York a couple of years ago:

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