Voice or Schtick?

Voice or Schtick?

Recent articles on the Damien Hirst “Spot Paintings”, a series of works that he has been exploring for the past 25 years, started me thinking about how different the expectations are for composers than for artists. Once an artist has an idea that gains recognition from galleries, the expectation is that they will continue to produce that work or work in a similar vein for the foreseeable future. We expect that Matthew Barney will produce films focusing on distortions of his body within petroleum-based sculptures, that Andreas Gursky will continue to provide us with giant photographs of public spaces, and that Anselm Kiefer will exhibit more dark paintings based within German mythology. It’s extraordinarily rare to find protean artists like Gerhard Richter, whose entire modality of expression appears to change from one work or era to the next.

Certainly, we can cite examples of composers who appear similarly obsessed with a singular sound or philosophical approach to music-making. While the music of Steve Reich has evolved over time, we know what to expect from a concert featuring his music. Similarly, the mere sight of the name Jacob Ter Veldhuis on a program gives us a very clear picture of what we are about to hear. From piece to piece, these composers focus on ensembles of similar size (within a range) with favorite instruments appearing throughout their works, their perceived tempos and harmonic rhythms tend to stay within a prescribed range, and the surface musical details derive from a clear aesthetic bent. In the case of Reich, I find the style characteristics that I associate with his music to be quite comforting—I can predict with great confidence that I personally will enjoy any new piece of his that I encounter.

However, music differs from art in that many of the most well-regarded composers write music in wildly differing styles from piece to piece, or even from movement to movement. Even within a single piece, our music’s rhythmic profile might vary from pure stasis to exciting rhythmic drive. Our harmonies might move from thick microtonal cluster chords to simple open triads. Our instrumentation might range from kazoo and toy piano, to bassoon quintet, to string quartet, to full orchestra. The question that often arises as we assess new music by a single composer is: Where is the voice?

Oddly enough, it tends to be most difficult to answer this question for our own music. As we compose, we get caught up in answering all the questions that arise as we go from moment to moment, as we fill in the details and sculpt the piece itself. Even when we step back and try to take a full view of our artistic trajectory, we tend to consider questions of what worked and what didn’t, what sounds we would like to pursue further and what aspects of our earlier pieces seem played out. We find that over time our sense of time changes, as do other aspects of what we value aesthetically. And we get caught up in these differences—in those things that make each of our works unique—rather than in the commonalities of expression within our oeuvre.


When we have a specific schtick—for example, if we paint unicorns and rainbows—it can be comforting to those people who enjoy our art. From piece to piece they know what to expect, greatly reducing the chances of disappointing a commissioner or viewer. But I prefer the aspect of the music world that allows me to create work in a range of different media with a variety of expressive focus. I hope that outsiders view my music as expressing a voice, emanating from a single perspective, but I accept the risk that they might not. For me, this is one of the great joys of being a composer.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

6 thoughts on “Voice or Schtick?

  1. Jeremy Howard Beck

    I never really understood comparisons between composers, who work in a time-based art, and visual artists, who don’t (the Mona Lisa is the same now as it will be an hour from now, as it was 50 years ago). And I think the fact that music is a time-art is a key reason why composers are more expected to create in various, I dunno, expressive modes, than visual artists are. If you want to line up a painter’s series of meditations on the same subject–say, Still Life with Bananas I-IX, we as viewers can experience each of the paintings individually, or we can step back and experience them as one nine-part super-painting. We can program all the Beethoven String Quartets back-to-back, but we can never experience them in any way other than moment to moment. We can’t step back and view the whole in the way that we can with visual art.

    So, if what we’re doing is essentially asking people to give us their time in exchange for what they hope will be a meaningful experience for them, then doing nine different pieces on the same musical subject, with the same instrumentation, etc., could get tedious pretty fast. Variety of the means of expression is one way to alter the audience’s perception of the passing of time.

    1. Chaz

      It might be worth checking out the writings of Morton Feldman Try “Give My Regards to Eighth Street”). He had many close relationships with artists and speaks a great deal on music in art terms.

  2. danvisconti

    I’ve always thoguht Stravinsky was an interesting composer to consider from the standpoint of schtick (or style) vs. voice, as his music traversed several stylistic periods while all expressing a voice that remained undeniably Stravinsky. Lukas Foss had (perhaps) a similar breadth of styles, but his body of work doesn’t leave me with the same impression of the composer’s personal voice. It seems like an inspired voice can sometimes survive the composer’s own shtick, or even use schtick to amplify itself.

    (PS that’s the most times I’ve ever keyed the word “shtick”! But I like “shtick” as opposed to “style” as the term you chose, great word).

  3. Kyle Gann

    There’s a ton of money invested in the art world. If you’re a gallery owner and you decide to sign up Franz Kline, you have a strong financial incentive for him to continue turning out Franz Klines, not suddenly start painting unicorns. Philip Guston was a rare painter who took a bold, Stravinsky-like jump from abstraction to cartoon-style, and it nearly ruined him. There’s not nearly as much at stake financially in making sure that Judd Greenstein’s next piece sounds like a Judd Greenstein. Even so, having a trademark style is a good career move these days if you can do it. Like you, I can’t. It feels like I’m doing the same thing in every piece, right down to the rhythms and harmonies, but somehow the pieces come out all different.

  4. Pingback: Know yourself, know your music | Jay C. Batzner

  5. chris s

    Well one exception – and a problematic one. The fact with recordings, listeners can be lulled into expectations of a composer’s soundworld. In fact, some extremely musical non-musicians can differentiate the bands from a style period of just a few years – the expectations are so strong.

    I think too in the pop world where there is a greater financial risk, careers have been drastically reduced in their profitability due to a major stylistic change. For example, think of David Bowie’s work in the 1970’s – his work with Eno may not have made the reocord company that happy I imagine and the few songs that come closer to the pop mainstream of the time seem as if written for the sake of the market or just a need to go back to something requiring less effort because it was a well-worked style.

    Anyway, my point about recordings, listeners can ricochet back and forth with the Beethoven String Quartets to create their “ideal” Beethoven String Quartet on the playlist – a possibility Cage would be delighted with – no tyranny of the record disc’s or tape’s sequential order of tracks, the listener determines it. So what does that mean for a composer’s voice? The listener can entirely subterfuge a composer’s intent – and create the “voice” they prefer while the composer is living. In a way the listener very easily re-composes pieces much as a decorator takes a collection of fine furnishings and reorders it to their taste (and possibily to the distaste of the composer). If the composer basically stays within a limited area of variance of a formula, how is it different from the extreme of not doing anything at all ( think of Warhol’s silkscreens of the famous for an art-world comparison). Finally, I buried an assumption here and it needs to be asked – is composer’s intention one facet of their “voice” if it can be defined?

    So taking this into account, what is a composer’s voice? If it can be defined , is it of any significance to the listener or creator?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.