It was a normal day in Cyberland- Facebook was brimming with the typical bevy of cat pictures, George Takei posts, and half-baked political opinions. (Note: of these, I do love me some cats and George Takei. But I digress.) There was also a post (all names shall be omitted to protect the misguided) about this fabulous, young, new composer on the block that EVERYONE should hear. As a conductor who loves to program new things, I eagerly examined the work of this young whippersnapper. Only… in the first three chords I realized that, although the young ‘un most assuredly had a compositional voice of his own waiting to get out… I was listening to Eric Whitacre. To be totally honest, I don’t even remember the young composer’s name, because it was so Whitacre-esque that “Whitacre” is all I remember.
Is Eric Whitacre’s music harmonically lush, awesome, and accessible? Sure. Is he funny on Facebook and walking the earth with oh-so-fabulous hair? Of course he is. But all young composers take note: he’s got his sound covered. You don’t need to repeat it.
Imitation is a practice that I feel should be limited to the “discovery” mode of composition. When I first started writing music in a classical idiom, I first emulated Mozart, then Morten Lauridsen. And, to be fair, I did learn from composer Joel Phillips to “analyze with intent to steal” and to “lift and learn.” But as I grew in my knowledge, other influences began to creep in. There was chant. Impressionism. The colorful harmonies of Poulenc. The folk influence of Vaughan Williams. Early composers such as Machaut and Josquin. Celtic music. Barber. Britten. And then there were the influences of the popular music I consumed- folk and progressive music of the 60s, Michael Nesmith, Radiohead, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel. All of these ingredients went into creating who I am as a composer. Ideally what should happen is that all of the musical influences we experience should go into “the soup.” What comes out when everything is mixed together and allowed to simmer should be something unique- your OWN voice, rather than someone else’s. By the time you’re being published or being pushed on social media, that voice should be in place. It can always evolve, but as a conductor I want to hear who YOU are- not how well you can regurgitate the voice of one or two successful composers. They do what they do well, and it’s THEIR thing. Why do we feel the need to try to be someone else, even as creative beings?
I think part of what influences composers to jump on a bandwagon is the herd mentality that eats up fads, even in classical and choral music. At conferences one is exposed to a lot of music that sounds the same. It’s “commercial.” It sells, because everyone is following a certain trend or style. So of course on some level ambitious composers are going to want to tailor their music to that trend. I understand the business sense of it- but as for the artistry, I am at a loss to explain it. In fashion, one should only adopt trends that really work for his/her body and lifestyle. It’s nice to be aware of what’s going on, but trends should only be adopted in a way that can enhance you (rather than trying to squeeze you into someone else’s box.) It’s the same with music- it’s fine to analyze a sound you like, but figure out a way to incorporate it into your own musical language rather than letting your musical language become someone else’s.
There are certain composers (besides yours truly) that I really enjoy because they have their own voice. Michael McGlynn, Ola Gjeilo, Jocelyn Hagen, Abbie Betinis… when I hear these folks, I hear a particular point of view, a sound that is their own. I want to hear diversity and authenticity- not someone trying to fit into a formula that has worked to make money for someone else. I understand the compulsion to make money as a composer- but at the heart of things, when it works you’re expressing your own soul. And no one else’s is exactly like yours. Why should your music be exactly like theirs?
I figured out years ago that the thing that would keep me in the choral field is the discovery of new, inventive, authentic choral sounds. I’m not particularly interested in the popular or the commonplace. And as a composer I’m always trying to reach down and push beyond where I’ve been. Redoing even myself gets boring after one or two pieces. Whether as composer or interpreter, if we fail to grow or to be inspired by new and visionary works, we stagnate… and that can have terrible long term consequences.
So be yourself- loudly. We live in a world that desperately needs vision, authenticity, and beauty, and we all want to hear what you have to say. Your life experience and influences are your own, and we want to see how they’ve shaped you. We want to see and hear your authentic self. After all, it’s so much more interesting and inspiring than being somebody else.