One of the complaints that keeps cropping up about contemporary composers regards compositional range, ie, a composer having a catalogue of works that cover such diverse sound-worlds it is difficult to ascribe them all to a single voice.  Some credit this phenomenon to the immense range of music today’s composers have been exposed to; others say it’s simply a sign of second-rate artists who lack a defining, coherent vision.

Doubtless there is truth in both of these views, but I’d like to add a third possibility.

Children display varying degrees of physical similarity with their parents.  Sometimes it’s the shape of the chin, sometimes the tint of complexion, sometimes relative height and body mass.

Children also inherit characteristics of the mind: intelligence, creativity, even neuroses.  These latter inheritances may not be as obvious as physical traits on first encounter, but they are frequently more profound than surface details like hair or eye color.

In the same way, a composer’s works can carry a certain family resemblance, recognizable melodic licks or chord progressions that show up in just about every piece.

But compositions can also resemble one another in the way they think, as opposed to the way they sound.  In other words, a composer could follow the same process in creating two different compositions, and the results might not sound similar on the surface, but undercurrents could be nearly identical.  Depending on the nature of these undercurrents, it’s possible that this kind of genetic connection could be much stronger than, say, a predilection for bass clarinet runs, or a fascination with arpeggios.

It’s much more challenging for listeners to grasp similarities of mindset, as opposed to similarities of appearance.  Just as with children, physical appearances are much easier to identify; character traits take more time.

Another reason I’m glad I’m not a music critic.

And here’s a wave to my friends in San Antonio, where the Cassatt Quartet will perform  Blossom tomorrow.

One Response to “Compositional DNA”
  1. “But compositions can also resemble one another in the way they think, as opposed to the way they sound.”

    very well-put!

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