Friday, 29 July 2016


Zen and the composer’s voice.

I write about myself with the same pencil and in the same exercise book as about him. It is no longer I, but another whose life is just beginning.
Samuel Beckett

In the 1970's I approached the composer and broadcaster Harold Truscott and asked him if he would tell me who he was reminded of when he heard the melody I was about to sing. On hearing the music he gave one of his enigmatic smiles and said that the music reminded him of six different composers and went on to name them and their works. I realised I should have worded the question differently and asked who wrote the music. Several decades later his answer came back to me when considering the composer's voice and the uniqueness of each composer's works.



Before considering either the role of Zen in composing or the composer's voice it would be just as well in our technological and rapidly changing age to consider the definition of the word composer. The Collins dictionary states that to compose is to put together, arrange. In my mind this creates pictures of different scale, large building projects involving cranes and heavy machinery on one hand and the creation of fine parts as in watchmaking (Sibelius and Ravel perhaps).The methods of putting-together could involve improvising, arranging, recording and editing natural sounds, technicians who create their own sounds electronically or through creating new instruments. Some composers re-assemble previously recorded music, as in the manipulation of the turntable. Readers unfamiliar with turntablism will find this  both fascinating and instructive:




The varieties of improvisation are wide ranging from those who continue to work traditional harmonic formulae to enthusiasts working noise into a bewildering number of expressive forms. Is there any reason why any composer playing with these very different categories should not be considered as having a distinctive character, even if they are revisiting material that has been worked over endlessly or is literally taken from previously recorded music? If a musician can develop a unique expressive voice from another composer's music or manipulation of electronic or natural sounds does it mean that any person with sufficient knowledge to control the source will produce clearly distinct results?




Do these distinctive features arise from repeated use of small scale details? In art Jackson Pollock's work has been investigated as his style seems to offer an easy route for forgery, the results of these investigations are fascinating, a taste of the study can be read here:






I will come back to the notion of the role of the computer in determining originality later.



At some stage in their development most composers are imitators. Adopting and adapting techniques is generally accepted as an integral part of one's education in music making. In the past the sources of imitation were somewhat limited, now that exposure to music is widespread the level of saturation may have a number of possible outcomes on developing one’s style. The diversity might distract some from productive lines of enquiry or direct others to new, fruitful areas. One hopeful consequence is that the expansion of styles may be the fertile ground for a talented musician to gather and form a powerful synthesis, a Bach for the 21st century.


In order to pin down what the creation of the composer’s voice entails let us imagine that humans are at the stage that an artificial brain (AB) has been manufactured. In order to try out its remarkable computing skills it is given an artistic problem. The problem is to complete a sonata movement where the exposition and recap have been given but not the development. AB is familiar with the use of harmony, key structure, rhythm, articulations etc., in fact all the musical grammar that Beethoven would have known. AB is set to work.

In a few seconds the brain has generated a number of possible outcomes and ranks these from weakest to best. If the solutions were acceptable to performers and analysts could we say that the brain has captured the composer’s voice? In such an instance would publishers provide scores, audiences accept alternative solutions, record producers burn discs?

The programmers go a stage further and challenge AB to write a whole piece in the style of one of the Viennese masters, let us select Beethoven. It would now engage in long term planning and find the correct components to fit into the projected scheme. Knowing the Beethoven notebooks and the methods of trial and error it is a matter of creating variations on previous material (keeping the choices made in an historical context so as to replicate different periods and stylistic changes). If AB made a success of this, and audiences were captivated by the musical argument, could we argue that it had captured the composer’s voice? Would there be any missing elements from Beethoven’s individual style that we humans could pick out to reject the outcome?  The most likely criticism would be that the music had a pedestrian quality. There are times when Beethoven takes less obvious choices, e.g. in the Diabelli Variation No XX there is a chord in bar 12 that is rather remarkable, not one that any student of Beethoven would readily select. If AB composed music that also “took risks” and stood outside the expected framework in order to extend the expressive range of the music then surely AB deserves to be considered a composer rather than a calculator (however sophisticated).

There is something unsettling in this scenario, possibly made even worse with the knowledge of developments in artificial intelligence. The more musical history AB would know the better it could cross-reference works and play with quotations and stylistic details. If AB could manage Beethoven then replicating serial music or minimalism should provide no more of a challenge, some would argue it would be less challenging.

If I had access to AB’s skills and I requested a number of alternative solutions to a problem, and I accepted a particularly brilliant solution, would I be reducing my composing voice or developing it? As I am alive I have the potential of going further than adding a less conventional progression to my music, I could adopting one of the different means of composing as suggested earlier and radically change my approach. Perhaps AB and I would go through a cat and mouse game to see if I would run out of alternative ways of approaching composition that it could match.

Let us return to the title “Zen and the composer’s voice”, this ancient philosophy has a part to play in this somewhat strange blog. Zen has a contrary approach to Western philosophy, it states that if the mind is concerned with words and ideas it can never attain enlightenment. If Zen has a philosophy at all it is to transcend the duality of experience and intellect. The tools of the philosopher, logic and language, are the barriers that need to be overcome. For a follower of Zen the notion of having an individual voice is a hindrance, and the utterances of AB would be nothing more than a distraction.

Does this mean that the Zen follower cannot create music? We have an example in Cage of one composer who strove to lose his individual voice, to remove the influence of the traits which are his lifelong influences (see diagram above).  When he came closest to achieving this liberation the music became revolutionary and a whole world of new sounds released. Are these Zen works ‘John Cage compositions’ possessing a distinct voice? Even the smallest degree of individual contribution to the process will characterise the music, the choice of a specific sound in particular.

As the text included with the insert suggests this is very much a personal response, some listeners will create relationships which will be unrecognisable to others. My own experience of blind listening suggests that this technique of educating oneself is important. Hearing works without verbal or visual clues throws us out of our comfort zone, even with styles of music with which we are familiar. If I had the opportunity to have half a dozen experienced listeners in the same room I would love to expose them to segments of lesser known works and compare their views on the sources of the music. The embarrassment that this sometimes creates is far outweighed by the connections that can be found.

The identification of our individuality is of particular importance to our position in modern society, we strive to share it as widely as possible through image and text as we also strive to maintain privacy through codes, passwords and cryptography. Keys fashioned out of metal were once enough, now the distinct qualities of our bodies, fingerprints, irises and our voice are used, and we should be thankful for that as these remain with us far more easily than objects which can be absent-mindedly placed in the fridge.

Is the aim of developing an individual voice more important than knowing the essentials of musical grammar? The Cage example shows that it is possible to have a musical voice without the usual knowledge of rhythm and harmony, though Cage went through the process of responding to many of the characteristics suggested in the insert before entering his Zen period. From his example it is justifiable to say that the whole necessity of developing a voice alters with the type of music the composer engages with. One could go further and say that the identity is in the domain of the listener rather than the composer.


Whether we like the idea or not composers are susceptible to habit and restricted by intellect and education, in effect our perception of the world is limited, and that is what it is to be human. Being human most of us are born with the ability to speak and create vocal sounds and there are parallels with these and the composer’s voice. I am told, and believe, that each person's physical voice is unique, the muscular structures we are born with alter with age and circumstance, so a sergeant major, a folk singer and heavy drinker will sound remarkably different, (combining all three might sound a little like Tom Waits). This would suggest that there is sufficient variation to ensure that there is uniqueness in each person, it is up to the listener to decide whether that individuality is the ingredient which makes one fall in love with or detest the vocalist.



The Zen voice is that of one hand clapping, it permits the sounds of the world to enter freely. The composer’s voice is both hands, one source, endless variation.




All composers create unique music,

some imitate other composers.

No composer is inimitable.



Why is there such an emphasis on originality in music if the first statement is true?

Why are some composers considered less talented if they are seen as imitators?

Why are some composers imitated by many musicians and others less so?

Should we regard the ability to communicate with others more highly than individuality? If so are popular singer/songwriters better composers that those who work within serious music circles?  Are film composers who have a stock of clichés to draw superior to those who work on more intellectual constructs?

Borrowing other composer’s ideas, intentions, progressions and melodies was acceptable in previous periods, why is this not as widespread today? The sharing of rhythmic design was commonplace, and is still widely shared in a number of styles, but not all.  What are we searching for if we all have distinctive voices?

Previous blogs have focussed on the importance of group identity, it is a significant factor in the arts. It is notorious for creating conflict, and as we have seen the closer the styles of expression the more intense the disagreements. Human beings aim for dominance of such groups so are our efforts for individuality an aspect of this urge?

Some people enjoy risk taking, is it this factor which has a significant part to play in appealing to the public in all styles of music? Are the varieties of risk taking in music part of the natural evolution of ideas? We all enjoy novelty, a new sound, texture or a variant on a scale or tuning attracts attention in all fields of musical construction. The process of risk taking suggests vigour, strength, are we back to the primitive values once again?

Composers of new music navigate hazards,

Some minimise these perils

Others forge ahead and are imitated.



There are no ideal answers in pursuing the composer’s voice, and the expansion in the approaches to composition and its distribution has made the issue yet more complex. Perhaps the best course of action is to sidestep the issue altogether, if asked what sort of musical voice you possess answer honestly that you manipulate the world of sound and its infinite possibilities.