One of the first exercises I did in my 16th-century counterpoint class this semester was an identification game. Our professor took a famous theme from a Mozart piano piece and set it in six different styles. After playing each variation, he asked us to name the style we thought he was trying to imitate or the specific composer.
Going into the exercise, I thought I’d have a lot of trouble hearing an imitation of a famous composer from a short eight-bar variation. I thought we might be able to guess the style or period of the music, maybe even the specific sub-period or nationality of the music, but never the specific composer.
Yet for five of the six styles, my three-person class was able to guess not only the style, but the specific composer our professor had sought to emulate. In eight bars of music based on a theme by an already famous composer, our professor was able to adapt the stylistic nuances and notational idiosyncrasies that define specific famous composers. And he was able to so decisively.
This got me thinking about artistic voice and artistic style. Is it possible to distinguish an artist’s “voice” from their “style?” Given that everyone probably defines these two concepts differently, I should clarify that I take “voice” to be an artist’s small technical habits that define their artistic output within the larger “style” of cultural context, genre and subgenre of art that these artists are usually defined with.
The best artists, I believe, are those whose artistic voices are immediately recognizable. The composers that we were talking about in class, for example, are some of the most prolific and ground-breaking composers within the classical music tradition that have ever lived. They’ve succeeded in cultivating voices that are distinctly their own even as they pushed the boundaries of their style.
One artist that I think best embodies this concept of a well-defined voice is Kurt Vonnegut. I am a huge fan of Vonnegut, having first been introduced to him through his relatively comedic and light novel “The Sirens of Titan.” When we talk about Vonnegut’s style, we think of his background and the larger cultural context surrounding his work. The modern and postmodern periods, for example, and the World War II generation.
But when we talk about Vonnegut’s voice we have very few words or larger concepts to compare him to. Though I can’t articulate how I know this, I can almost always tell if I am reading a play, novel or short story by him. I might use some fancy-sounding descriptors to identify specific aspects of this voice — nonlinearity in time and plot, randomization surfaces with hidden patterns beneath them, dark humour as a means of expressing larger concepts — but none of these descriptors in sum or part capture everything that makes up his voice. Even within his chapters and titles, for example, one can get a clear sense of his artistic voice.
Vonnegut’s extremely well-defined artistic voice had a positive effect on his career and the perpetual success of his estate. A performance of “Happy Birthday, Wanda June”in New York City this past year, for example, garnered many more positive reviews than one would expect from a rarely performed work. Audience members and critics couldn’t help but compare the play to other Vonnegut works. For many, myself included, it was the transference of this artistic voice onto the stage, and not the contents of the play itself, that made the performance such an interesting experience.
On the other hand, as was made quite obvious in many of the artistic reviews this past month, a strongly-defined artistic voice can quickly become a liability for successful artists. Take for example Taylor Swift and her recent album, “Lover.”
I should start with a disclaimer that I am far from being well-versed in Swift’s music. But in reading some of the reviews of her most recent album, however, I couldn’t help but notice the complaint that many critics have. Her new album, while effectively mimicking her voice, has nothing new to offer. It exhibits no new ideas, no new iterations on this voice.
I can think of many other artists that have become weighed down by their voices. Many successful artists become constrained by their voice, their pathway to success.
It’s not just a unique voice, I’ve come to realize, that marks a successful artist. It’s also an ability to bend style to match this artistic voice. It’s the ability to not only be informed by the cultural context in which the artist creates, it’s the ability to bring this context and artistic voice together and allow them to influence each other.
The best artists are those whose artistic voices are influential enough to bend the stylistic realm that they occupy. And that, I realized, is how my class was able to so easily identify the composers my professor was imitating. In a world where Beethoven’s name is virtually synonymous with early German Romanticism, a piece that is distinctly early German Romantic is assumedly by Beethoven. And thus, in a paradoxical way, artistic voices are perhaps best defined when they lose all sense of definition, when they become so embedded in their larger cultural context that they can no longer be pointed to as a specific artist’s voice at all.