The Artist's Voice

The Sligo New Music Festival and a composer's voice.

In literature it is common to talk about the writer’s ‘voice’. Composers, too, are sometimes discussed in the same terms. ‘Voice’ is quite an elusive concept, since ‘voice’ is related to, but also distinct from, ‘style’. An example helps to clarify this: Stravinsky went through a number of much discussed ‘style periods’, sometimes changing his sound quite markedly; but he retained his ‘voice’ – in the sense that one can recognise certain ‘fingerprints’ that transcend the clothing of style.

It is almost a question of personality shining through. With Stravinsky the voice is the way that only he selected timbre, used tessitura, selected and changed texture, organised structural rhythm and dramatised the surface (and many other things!) even as he changed from neo-classicism to serialism. In literature (poetry especially) as well as music, an artist may adopt different styles, and again retain the voice. Moreover, the idea of voice, however difficult it may be to pin down in any individual case, is inseparable from the issue of quality, since once a writer has a really clearly defined voice it becomes much easier to spot a phrase or even a word that doesn’t really belong.

This brings the reader closer to the Aristotelian aesthetic ideal, where every little thing contributes to the perfection of the work. So a ‘true’ voice defines quality. And ‘voice’ defines artistic ‘truth’. This, fortunately or unfortunately, does not get us as far as agreeing definitively on who or what has quality, since when you try to get down to the detail, our preference for one artist’s voice may largely be a reflection of our own taste. But I believe it brings us nearer. It points to those things that end up in the canon, and to those that do not. Incidentally, there is a recent book called The Writer’s Voice by Al Alvarez that discusses these issues in detail.

Talk among composers often comes round to this same topic. There is a selection of off-the-rail ‘styles’ (even these days) a composer may try out in their early days – I will chance a list here: ‘conventional avant-garde’ style; ‘minimalism’; ‘neo-romantic’; ‘post-modern pastiche’ and so on. The result is that, often, very technically assured pieces from composers who are new to us sound anonymous, or worse, like a missing work from another composer’s catalogue! In this context, often the highest praise comes in the form: ‘this composer has a distinct voice’. Better still: ‘from the early works, written in his twenties, X established his unique voice’. It’s enough to tempt younger composers to actively define their voice as early as possible! A very interesting question, however, is should you be actively looking for your voice or should you wait for it to develop of its own accord? It is quite likely that looking for it will change the nature of what you find. This may be something that can’t be hurried. In order for anyone, including the composer, to perceive the voice, many pieces, probably over several years, have to be compared; it is inevitably a process of maturation.

Sligo New Music Festival
Over the weekend of April 1st-3rd, the Sligo New Music Festival at the Model Arts and Niland Gallery centred on the work of British composer Andrew Toovey. Here is a composer who really does have a defined voice, and who can range over different style areas. The festival featured the flexible line-up of Ixion, who are a group closely involved with Toovey, who is frequently their artistic director. Also performing in the festival was Simon Mawhinney, who is both a pianist and composer of extraordinary talent. Mawhinney performed two concerts and Ixion three. The composers featured were Toovey, Mawhinney, Judith Weir, Michael Finnissy, Deirdre McKay, Laurence Crane, Hugh Collins Rice, Paul Wilson, Aldo Clementi, Gabriel Jackson, Paolo Boggio, Larry Goves and Gavin Wayte. The last three were finalists in the IMRO-sponsored composer’s workshop and competition, and all, apart from two Italians, were from Britain or Northern Ireland. A lack of involvement from the Republic continued from last year’s festival.

Ixion have a major track record in contemporary music, being regulars at festivals such as Huddersfield, Dartington, Brighton, Bergen, Darmstadt, and having released well-received CDs of Toovey and Finnissy’s music. They lived up to all of this here. Frequently in new music the performance detracts from the work, whereas here it was often the case that the performance improved the work.

The festival opened with a screening of Murnau’s classic silent film Nosferatu with newly commissioned incidental music by Simon Mawhinney. This was for piano and tape, with the composer at the piano. While the music added solidly to the experience, particularly in achieving a menacing atmosphere, sometimes one felt that it was busier than necessary. The tape part sometimes used directly illustrative effects, and the piano part complemented its sound-world.

The concerts from Ixion were programmed skilfully to weave a wide range of styles into each concert without creating any sense of disparity. The works by Andrew Toovey themselves ranged widely in stylistic surface: sometimes even within the one piece there was a sense of tension between modal writing and extreme dissonance, but his seemingly very instinctive touch – his voice, in fact – made it always both engaging and coherent. Represented by six very different pieces, this was a chance to get to know something of Toovey’s world. In discussion afterwards, many listeners and composers selected different pieces as their favourite, although there was some acclamation for the last of the six, Ja, ja, ja, ja, Nee, nee, nee, nee. This was a tour de force sort of piece for five players. I was even more impressed by (nobody’ll know), an intimate piece for cello and piano, which showed how he can rise to the challenge of writing extensive and interesting music that is mostly understated, while finding new possibilities within this familiar duo line-up.

Many of Toovey’s works are written in response to paintings – Barnett Newman and Bridget Riley are among those he mentions. But frequently the musical ‘response’ is the opposite of the painting in terms of its dynamism. If there is a correspondence then it is to the tension that Toovey himself finds in the work. Oblique responses to art and the world in general seem to be indicative of the instinctive aspect of his working method, which was discussed in a public interview with Ian Wilson (the festival’s Artistic Director) before the second Ixion concert. However, a piece that didn’t work for some of the audience was White Fire, which is a response to Bacon’s paintings that is close to the mood and construction of his art. This piece from 1987 has become something of a ‘calling card’ in that it gained Toovey his early notoriety as a musical maverick. But to anyone who knew what Xenakis was up to in the mid-70s, it was not particularly shocking. It began in a very violent and ugly way, which explains negative reaction, but the other two-thirds of the piece was more balanced and logical, though highly energetic.

A range of voices
Judith Weir was represented by two pieces, and both illustrated her magpie approach to style. Although Weir has an assured hand when it comes to making musical sounds, her approach is so truly post-modern that it throws into question any useful definition of whether she has a ‘voice’. This is because in the course of a single work she spends the bulk of her time parodying well-worn styles and even other ‘voices’ (it sounded as if there was a chunk of Volans in her piano trio). This lends her music a mercurial quality that is paradoxically her own, but it does not move the music in the direction of artistic integrity or coherence.

Deirdre McKay’s Umber Sepia was the second commission from the festival. It too was related to visual art, and as the title suggests, was an evocation of finely graduated tones and moods. The quiet poetry of the piece was well served by Ixion’s convincing performance.

On the Saturday, Simon Mawhinney performed three works, by Hugh Collins Rice, Paul Wilson, and himself. The Collins Rice didn’t seem to belong in a contemporary music festival: the programme note promised a set of variations on a rondeau by Machaut. While it fell into many sections, there wasn’t a sense of variation form, nor was Machaut particularly evident. The main impression created was that a lost manuscript of Scriabin had just come to light. Oisín’s fall, by Wilson, was a more typically contemporary sounding work, and while this composer may not yet have a voice that stands out from others writing in a similar vein, nevertheless this was a cracking piece of virtuoso writing for piano and interactive electronics, and it indicates the rise of a real talent. The last piece in this programme was a set of five pieces by Mawhinney, Reflux for solo piano. This was one of the highlights of the whole festival. It is extremely difficult to write idiomatically for the piano and write in a genuinely cutting-edge style. The number of Irish composers who achieve something substantial in this department is few indeed. Mawhinney, with this work not only does this, but also builds into his music a rare psychological urgency.

The festival’s composers ran from assured, fully-formed voices right over to those who are just starting out, and this stimulated another speculation: what role does cleverness have to play in the evolution of the voice? It is quite common for living composers to exhibit alarming mathematical or scientific prowess (there are famous examples such as Xenakis and Boulez, but also examples in this festival). However, at the end of the day what drives the voice is the whole person of the composer, heart and brain, etc. I can’t help thinking that an excess of brainpower can sometimes slow down the process of discovery, since the development of unusual skill levels in reasoning is sometimes a compensation for a corresponding lack of skill in the emotional or intra-personal department. Whereas discovering (or perhaps better, uncovering) the voice is also discovering/uncovering the self.

Published on 1 May 2005

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.


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