How I Found & Am Developing My Compositional "Voice" + Encouragement for Anyone Still
Updated: Sep 27, 2020
What is a composer's "voice?"
We all know composers by their signature sound and musical choices, ranging from small musical motifs to very distinctive harmonic sound worlds. It is what identifies the composer and allows the listener to establish a personal connection with the creator; to make them feel as if they have learned something special about the composer's unique language of communication and how they as musicians communicate with the world around them to bring about feelings of joy, contentment, etc.
Composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Boulez, and countless others, have undeniable "voices" that avid listeners pick up almost immediately.
I remember driving home from school one day as a master's student. I was listening to Cincinnati's classical music station, WGUC, when this really short, vibrant orchestral piece came on. The orchestration was fantastic and so full of life. You could tell that the composer truly had a great ability to tell a story (which pretty much sums up the only composers I listen to). Now, I had never heard the piece in my life, but while listening I began to inadvertently analyze the orchestration. I noticed several things that seemed very familiar to me. The strings/woodwinds carried so much of the melodic weight. The brass section and percussion were used beautifully to highlight and support what the string section was saying. I got a hunch and said, "Oh that's definitely Kabalevsky." When the piece ended the announcer came back on the air and sure enough he says "That was the Colas Breugnon Overture by Dmitri Kabalevsky." Although it seems kind of insignificant, I thought it was really cool for me to be able to pick up on traits that made Kabalevsky one of my favorite composers. It was a great example of a composer's successful ability to express his musical personality in a way that was clear and able to be identified by his audience.
That is what makes what we do so special. It is also a great example about why learning who we are as artists is so very important. When music chose us, it had the intention of pulling from our unique experiences, backgrounds and upbringings so that we could express everything that made us who we are as people in order to be unique and effective change in the world. Otherwise, we become replicas, emulating what others have done for the sake of being liked, or accepted by our musical counterparts. It is then that we become subject to relying on what we believe are popular things, such as advanced technical practices and extreme experimental processes to speak for us. Not that there is ANYTHING wrong with using these methods to express one's self musically, but the issue arises when there is a disconnection between the tools you're using to communicate to your listeners and your sensitivity to harken to your innermost desires as to what your uniquely cultivated mind, body, and spirit, want to express. I believe uncompromising vulnerability is what audiences absolutely resonate with. That's when your audience is like, "I see you." When you tap into that, writing feels like a spiritual high; to the point where you feel like your body can't get the music out fast enough! It's about a system in which we use our technique and all of the useful tips and tricks we learned through our education to enable us to be the most affective form of our musical selves.
That's just it. You don't just find your voice...You simply become honest with yourself. What does that mean? Well, I'm glad you asked. :)
I DO NOT at all claim to have the answers, but from personal reflections that have made me the artist (still in training, lol) that I am today, I feel I have some thoughts worth sharing.
A composer's voice is the truest, most uncompromising form of musical expression they can give. It is a reflection/collection of one's past and present experiences, personal outlooks, perceptions, reactions to societal norms, opinions, and interests all balled up into one. Sure, we must develop a solid technical facility to provide a platform for our true expression to shine through, but I believe often times composers today sometimes tend to get lost within the blanket of technique. More often than not, today we tend to become more identified by our individual pieces of music/projects than our overall "sound." We must continue to brand ourselves so that we are distinctive amongst our audiences. Listeners live for that certain "something;" a sound that defines what artistry looks like.
SO HOW DO WE DO THIS?!
Go back to the drawing board...If you're lost, pick up the pieces, take stock of your life, and think about what made you a composer in the first place. As I mentioned earlier, when music chose us, it had the intention of pulling from wherever and whatever we've been influenced by to make us unique, special, and relatable to our audiences. It truly takes courage not to follow the crowd. It takes courage to stare rejection in the face for the relentless audacity to live your truth. Well, the truth is...everybody's got an audience...somewhere, haha. We cannot subject ourselves to being technical for technicality's sake. There is simply no "You" in that. If I never win an award, it's not because I wasn't good enough, or technical enough, or innovative enough. It's because a lot of selection processes are unfortunately subjective (aside from all the awards that simply applaud great artistry of course, lol). An artist should never seek validation if they know for a fact that they are being their most authentic selves. Rather, they should give unto all in this world that possess the willingness to see and observe, so that listeners might be inclined to contemplate the world differently, and hopefully gain an appreciation for what the artist is trying to express. I don't know about you, but I think I'll sleep better at night knowing I didn't compromise my artistic integrity.
My compositional voice was cultivated mainly through my background, with a lot of things you probably wouldn't associate with me thrown in, haha. I am a product of southern living; born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. My father is a full-time pastor and my mother is a registered nurse. I have a sister who is a radiologic technologist, and a wonderful niece that is like a child to me. I grew up with faith being the foundation of my family. Every week, since I've been born, I have actively participated in church worship services, with the spirit of deep Gospel music, hymns, and spirituals being poured into the very fiber of my being. I've had the fortune of being influenced by this within my home too, as my mother was an active organist/pianist in the church for most of her life (and still is, by the way). I would stand over her as a very young child and watch in fascination as her fingers would craft the chords that would eventually shape my harmonic language. When I became of age, I began playing for the church at the age of 14. I've lead and taught choirs/singers all throughout my teenage years and at the age of 25, I'm still doing the same, every week, without ceasing. However, this was not the only thing that crafted my "voice."
When I declared composition as my major at Samford University, I was introduced to so many wonderful sounds that I had never experienced before. I fell in love with composers who were worlds apart than anything that I had even seen up to that point in my life. I developed a strong love for a plethora of styles.
French music of the early 20th century was something that became a huge part of my influence because of its contemplative nature. There was an element of fantasy in it; something that I could relate to other styles of music I had previously been introduced to. Then I became fascinated with the driving sounds of the Soviet Russian composers (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, etc.) and the dissonant sounds of composers such as Bartók. As I began maturing in other mediums of composition, I ultimately began exploring the sound worlds of more contemporary composers like Christopher Rouse, George Crumb, John Corigliano, etc. On top of all of that, I played as a keyboardist in the jazz band for all 4 years of my undergraduate career.
All of these influences I had fallen deeply in love with catered to my personality as I began to learn and grow in this art form. They took my very jazzy, "gospelized" sound and spiced it up with dissonant gestures, pitch collections, weird doublings, cross blends of unrelated styles, and exploration of harmonic colors.
Thus, my "Americanized Russian-French Bartókian Gospel Jazz" was born! That's me. I'm not trying to be anyone else. I don't want to be anyone else. As an artist, I don't have to have anybody's compositional agenda govern how I express myself. Moreover, now that I know what makes me the artist I am, I now have the facility to express the gift of this very unique combination of sounds within all the various technical processes and trends that are current and forthcoming. I am confident that I won't lose "myself" going forward.
It doesn't stop here though. I'm sure my voice will change as a result of all the things that life brings about; work, love, heartache, relationships, friends, sickness, death, etc. In all of these things, because of my efforts to stay true to who I am and what I love, I believe I'll have the ability to express myself authentically, come what may!
So, composers and artists alike...Who are you?!
Continue to ask yourself that question as you go through your discovery of self-awareness. With every project, assignment, and every note, think about how you, the artist, can contribute something amazing, inspiring, and innovative in a way that ONLY YOU can...You've lived the experiences that have shaped your musical soul...Now go write it! Just trust it and it shall communicate...
You're not alone. Trust me, I'm still figuring it out too...😂
So write what you love, make great artistic choices and the pieces will write themselves!
...that's my two cents.