This past weekend, I went to the Helsinki Chamber Choir's second concert of the season. They were performing Britten's A Boy Was Born, so I wasn't about to miss it. Also on the program was Thomas Weelkes' When David Heard, which sounded surprisingly contemporary for a 17th-century piece, very much like Gesualdo is its quirky harmonic turns, as well as the Finnish première of Jonathan Harvey's How could the soul not take flight?, a setting of Rumi for double choir that ends in a clangorous unison F, with added Thai gongs and tubular bells to boot. Insanely effective, and refreshing to hear such minimal use of instruments in choral music. (One of my choral conductor friends was once heard to utter, "I'll take my choir straight up, thanks. Hold the piano.") In fact, those gongs just might end up in my new choir piece. The concept already includes simple parts for bass drum and tuned glasses, but may be open to other additions.
The crux of this post came about in a conversation with some friends afterward. I was describing the concept for the new piece, and mentioned that the choir had requested something calm, ceremonial and meditative (in French), and that the more I thought about it, the less I felt like writing another calm, spacious piece – this despite the fact that it's more or less ready to go in terms of its formal layout. One friend then asked, "Well, isn't calm and meditative your thing?" It was kindly meant, coming from someone who knows me and my music very well, but it brings up a significant problem with contemporary music.
It often seems like the world tries to impose categories on composers for its own convenience. Consistency is one of the hallmarks of Western music, and people frequently expect you to display a sort of Brahmsian approach to composing, working within well-defined areas that are identifiable from piece to piece. Do what you do well, stick to it, don't stray off the path. The twentieth century encouraged these perceptions, with its steady stream of "isms" and proprietary musical languages. More often than not, when people talk about a composer's "voice", this consistency is what they mean. Some composers do it extremely well, like Magnus Lindberg, whose music is instantly recognizable as his and nobody else's, and depressingly good pretty much all the time. Reich, Feldman and Takemitsu also come to mind as examples. Others, though, aren't so lucky as to have found such a rewarding sound world, or aren't as comfortable staying in one place, so some other aspect of their music becomes their "thing". It's one of the stamps that allows the rest of the world to identify you, to know what to expect from you. It sure makes it easier to brand and market your music. (Arvo Pärt, anyone?)
For me, apparently, it's "slow and meditative", and not without reason. I've been doing a lot of that lately. Having trained under a series of teachers who liked to see fast music and harmonic variety, when I moved to Finland and became a little more independent creatively, I started indulging my fascination with long, slow harmonies, static clusters and deep breaths to its fullest. I freely admit it's a corner I've painted myself into, and happily so. But I don't consider it my area to the exclusion of all else. I very frequently change focus from piece to piece. Last year, after completing a 30-minute essay in stasis for choir and tape, I let loose with a big, loud, fast, colorful concert opener for orchestra, and it felt great.
Part of it is not wanting to get bored. I have a short attention span when it comes to my musical interests, and work in accordance with that, because it keeps me at my best. Another part of it is a death fear of repeating myself, which may appear to the outside world as an inability to commit to anything – and was reviewed as such by one critic after a concert last spring. But again, it's not uncommon, even among the composers thought of as the most consistent. Beethoven wrote his 5th and 6th symphonies concurrently, which puts the lie to the "fate knocking at the door vs. redemption" story, and shows that even composers with burning, irrepressible things to say like variety in their working lives.
None of this is a complaint, mind you. I'm happy to write within certain specifications, and as far as limitations go, these aren't onerous at all. In fact, they're geared toward my compositional comfort zone. The choir was entirely reasonable in expecting such a piece from me, and I'm fairly confident that I'll find a way to keep it fresh, for myself and for the performers. But I'm afraid, as are many other creative artists, I think, that at some point I'll start constantly falling back on an established set of tricks and, worse still, won't be able to tell the difference between having found "my thing" and just being in a creative rut. And everyone knows that's no place to be.