Style or technique?

A quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson reads: “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock”.  I would be tempted to replace style for technique and principle for style. Composers face the question of style on an everyday basis; for some, developing a personal style is a real concern, others prefer to focus on more practical matters. I used to belong to the second group until about a year ago, when the subject was brought to my attention; since then, it has interested me more and more.

I have always taken pride in my personal capacity to compose in ‘different styles’ but not without imprinting my personal seal, regardless of the style in which I am writing at the moment. Ultimately, the multiplicity of styles found in my music is the result of an inner need to incorporate elements from different time periods and geographical locations, it doesn’t come as a result of external pressure. Until now, I have not written for films or theater so when I combine tonal elements, Peruvian folk music, Latin-American rhythms, 20th century harmonies, non-western instruments and pop music, I am simply paying heed to my personal aesthetic needs.

Last year I attended a composition master class in Québec, Canada where I presented three works: ‘Avec Swing’ for chamber ensemble, ‘Incubus II’ for two saxophones, piano and percussion and ‘Of Bells and Broken Shadows’ for cello and piano. During the course I was fortunate enough to have private lessons with all three composition professors: Denys Bouliane, John Rea and Philippe Leroux; all of them felt compelled to address the eclecticism present in my music, and they did so from very different angles.

Leroux, as I would expect from a composer trained in the French tradition, suggested me to choose a single path. He made it clear he would not make the choice for me, but he thought it necessary for a choice to be made. He said that ‘cleaning the house’ and getting rid of our belongings is always painful, but this had to be done were I to find what was truly mine. Bouliane, on the other hand, said I should try to integrate all different styles present in my music, and that this could result in a fascinating blend never heard before. He added I might need a unifying factor; he went on to suggest looking back into the music of my own country, Peru. Some of Bouliane’s recent works are inspired on music from Native Canadians, so I believe his views are genuine, unlike those of other artists who use their ethnic or racial background as a marketing tool. Finally, Rea said he thought it a talent to be capable to compose in such distinct styles and that he saw no problem in doing this. These conversations were truly enlightening. First, I realized that the multiplicity of styles present in my music poses a challenge to the listener. Second, I concluded that there is no single solution to this issue, and finally I realized that –apparently- this was something that had to be resolved, although I had never thought it needed resolution.

As part of the preparation for my qualifying exams last year, I had to study the works of several composers, among them John Corigliano’s Third Symphony, a very eclectic work. One day, while I was searching online, I found an interview that precisely addressed the above-mentioned issue. The interviewer went on to say that Corigliano’s music often moves freely between various styles, to which Corigliano replied:

“When you say the word ‘style’, it’s a very loaded one. Because style implies the way a composer writes, and if you say he writes in many different styles, it suggests he doesn’t have a style of his own. And actually, I thought that too, but I was corrected by Leonardo Balada, a composer from Pittsburgh, who came over to my house. When I said that to him, ‘I don’t care that I don’t have a style; I use what’s around to make music, because I think my vocabulary can expand and can include all things..’ He said, ‘Oh, but you do have a style – those are just techniques.’ He said, ‘If you want to use a 12–tone technique, or a minimalist technique, or any other technique, it’s just: a technique.’

Exclusive Interview with composer John Corigliano: Dec. 22, 2009 by Nolan Gasser.


Corigliano goes on to develop this concept but what was important for me from this interview is that a multiplicity of techniques can coexist within the same composer and yet he can still have a personal style.

The question kept lingering in my mind months after reading this interview. But it was only until recently that I took an important step toward resolving it. UC Berkeley devoted a week of concerts and colloquiums to Swiss composer Beat Furrer. Although I had met him and I had listened to his music before, it was only now that I realized how well his music and his personality matched. His calm demeanor, quite speech and fragile physical appearance made an impact on me, especially because I felt that all of these qualities were reflected in his music, making it honest, heartfelt and incredibly expressive. Then I thought to myself: “Does my music reflect my personality? Because if it doesn’t something is off”. This question triggered an exhaustive self-examination that led to deeper self-understanding.

It turned out that the multiplicity of techniques present in my music have a direct correlation to the equally abundant facets of my personality. This has become my new filter, now I have a way to measure what is truly mine and what is not. It turned out all three composers at the Québec master class were right in their own way. Yes, I need to choose that which is genuinely mine; the unifying factor that blends all of those different techniques is myself, meaning my personality as a whole; and finally all of those different techniques can coexist within the same composer and yet his music may have a distinctly personal style. In light of all this, I came to realize that although it is desirable for a composer to achieve a personal voice, this should not translate into limiting oneself to a single technique. The challenge thus remains (for us composers who are keen on incorporating different techniques into our musical language) to continue the quest for a personal voice, not by hindering our versatility but by working on improving our capacity to integrate seemingly disparate techniques into a single, unified style.

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About composerjimmylopez

My name is Jimmy Lopez and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 37 years ago and I have lived in several places including Helsinki, Paris and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at www.jimmylopez.com Welcome!
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4 Responses to Style or technique?

  1. R.A. Moulds says:

    Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking about this same subject lately, as reflected in the ongoing musings in my own blog. I suspect I’m most sympathetic with the view expressed by John Rea, but then I’m sure that’s evident in my work. However, the fact that three composers have three different views as you’ve described them is heartening in itself.

  2. PEter S says:

    Quote: “He said, ‘If you want to use a 12–tone technique, or a minimalist technique, or any other technique, it’s just: a technique.’”
    But still he doesn’t say what IS his style. Neither does your text.
    Replacing the word “technique” with the word “style” makes no sense. Combining different genres doesn’t make style either. Better to ask, is it possible to distinguish your music from the rest of the world in some way?
    Bartok, yes. Messiaen, yes. Brahms, yes. Bach, yes. …

    • Dear PEter S. You do have a point. Technique and style are not exchangeable and this is precisely why I don’t agree when people say that John Corigliano composes in different styles. I believe he has a personal, clearly distinguishable style, which is reflected in a variety of ways, including his ability to present compositional styles and techniques from different centuries into a unified whole, as in his opera “The Ghosts of Versailles”. In other words, a composer can embrace a variety of techniques AND styles and yet have a unique, personal style. This can take many years, of course, but I do believe that I have also developed a personal style and that my music can be clearly distinguished from that of other composers, both past and present. I am still evolving as an artist and in the process I will keep my ears open, always ready to study and incorporate new techniques or styles I might encounter on the way, provided, of course, I can make them my own.

  3. source says:

    Im getting a little issue. I cant get my reader to pickup your rss feed, Im using yahoo reader by the way.

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