Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Polystylism

(From Wikipedia; accessed 2012-02-12):
 Polystylism is the use of multiple styles or techniques in literature, art, film, or, especially, music, and is a postmodern characteristic.

Some prominent contemporary polystylist composers include Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael Colgrass, Lera Auerbach, Sofia Gubaidulina, George Rochberg, Alfred Schnittke, Django Bates, Alexander Zhurbin, Lev Zhurbin and John Zorn. However, Gubaidulina, among others, has rejected the term as not applicable to her work. Polystylist composers from earlier in the twentieth century include Charles Ives and Eric Satie. Among literary figures, James Joyce has been referred to as a polystylist. Though perhaps not the original source of the term, the first important essay on the subject is Alfred Schnittke's essay "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music (1971)". The composers cited by Schnittke as those who make use of polystylism are Alban Berg, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Edison Denisov, Hans Werner Henze, Mauricio Kagel, Jan Klusák, György Ligeti, Carl Orff, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Henri Pousseur, Rodion Shchedrin, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Slonimsky, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Igor Stravinsky, Boris Tishchenko, Anton Webern, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann
I don't find this definition very helpful.  Is polystylism applied to the use of multiple styles within the same piece — this is how I understand the term — or the use of multiple styles in different works?  If it is the latter, than I think the term is so widely applicable that it becomes meaningless; it would be difficult to name any composers whose style did not change during the course of their creative lives.

Composers have often written in different styles for different occasions; one style for church music, another for chamber music, and perhaps even another for "showy" pieces like concerti, or for theatrical works.  Bach's music has been described as a "fusion of national styles" (Manred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, 1947), referring to his melding of the styles of the two dominant musical cultures of his time, Italy and France, with inherited German practices to create his own unique musical style.

In the early baroque period Monteverdi and other composers wrote in two distinct styles, referred to as prima practica (the older, polyphonic style of Palestrina) and seconda practica (the more modern homophonic and monodic styles, the use of basso continuo and freer dissonance treatment), also called stile antico and stile moderno.  Even late-baroque composers like Bach (in the B minor Mass) and Handel sometimes wrote in the antico style, as did Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (in the Missa Solemnis).

Schnittke's list isn't much help either; if Boulez, Webern, and Pärt are polystylists, are there any composers who aren't?

Here's what I think is interesting about the concept of polystylism for composers of our time:  There is a huge range of musical practices (styles, genres, techniques) coexisting in the world today.  The inspiring part is that, as a composer, you can draw from any of these if you wish, AND you can even find ways to make multiple genres coexist within a composition, if that appeals to you.

This is a (limited) list of "non-popular" music genres, from Wikipedia:
  • Art music: classical music and opera.
  • Music written for the score of a play, stage musical, operetta, zarzuela, film or similar: Filmi, incidental music, video game music, music hall songs and showtunes. 
  • Ballroom music: tango, pasodoble, cha cha cha and others. 
  • Religious music: gospel, Gregorian chant, spirituals, hymns and the like. 
  • Military music, marches, national anthems and related compositions. 
  • Regional and national musics with no significant commercial impact abroad, except when a version of an international genre: Traditional music, folk, oral traditions, sea shanties, work songs, nursery rhymes, Arabesque, Chalga, Enka, Flamenco, indigenous music and Mor lam sing.
As for popular music genres, there are so many that understanding or even listing them all is probably impossible, with lots of overlap between some genres, and disagreement about the definition for many.  Nevertheless, somewhat trusty old Wikipedia has a list of popular music genres that you can check out here, if you wish, broken down into the following main categories:
  • African 
  • Avant-Garde 
  • Blues 
  • Comedy music 
  • Country 
  • Easy listening 
  • Electronic 
  • Modern folk 
  • Hip Hop & Rap 
  • Jazz 
  • Latin American 
  • Pop 
  • R & B 
  • Rock 
  • Ska 
  • Other
Borrowing elements of the popular (or even unpopular) music of one's time has been part of compositional practice at least since the middle ages, so you wouldn't exactly be blazing new trails if you chose to do this today.  What I believe is different nowadays, however, is that we are aware of many more genres of music than was ever the case previously, thanks to communications technology such as radio, television, and especially the Internet.

Many young composers studying in universities are experiencing something akin to the prima practica and seconda practica of the early baroque period, wherein they write (or listen to) music in any of the many popular genres for bands they might be in, or write songs for solo performance, or charts for jazz performance, and then switch to another mode of composing for their contemporary classical music composition courses.

THIS HAS GOT TO STOP, PEOPLE!!!

Just kidding.  I think it is wonderful that multiple musical practices coexist (variety is the spice of life, and all that), but the point of this blog is that it is also fine and natural to explore ways of combining multiple practices in the contemporary classical music you write.  And vice-versa too, if you can figure out a way to make that work.

There have been many classical composers who were influenced by jazz — here is a limited sampling of some of them — but the influence has gone the other way as well, with jazz artists such as Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock all having cited the influence of classical music on their own practices.  Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain has jazzy versions of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, and de Falla's El Amor Brujo.

Just for fun, have a look at Wikipedia's list of popular music genres some time, and see if there are any there that you could reference in some way in your next composition.  How about a little African highlife mixed with modes of limited transposition?  Or lo-fi, or psydeco, or elevator music, or video game music, or Eurodance, or downtempo, or or new jack swing, or …

Well, you get the picture.  There are a lot of musical genres out there, and if you find any of them musically interesting, consider incorporating aspects of these genres into your compositions if you wish.


Postscript — My response to some great comments:

Nice to see that this has engendered a discussion!

Joe (AKA "soup") writes about the importance of internal consistency in a composition, and while that is a fine principle (it seemed to work pretty well for Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and possibly composers whose last names did not begin with B as well), I'm not sure that polystylism necessarily works in opposition to internal consistency.

After all, as I referenced above, Bach blended different national styles within compositions; the fourth keyboard Partita begins with a very French "Ouverture," followed by a German Allemande, a Courante that is a French dance, but this one seems to be a French/German/English hybrid, an Aria that sounds Italianate to me, a Sarabande, a dance said to have originated in Spain, although this one doesn't sound very Spanish to me, a Menuet, which is dance of French origin (although once again, I'm not sure how French this one sounds; it could be Italian or German), and a Gigue, a dance originally from England, but, when spelled this way, is French.

Is there "internal consistency" within this Partita? I would say yes, definitely, but perhaps the consistency operates on a deeper level (harmonic language, the consistent technique of Bach's musical language), whereas the stylistic differences perhaps operate more on a surface level.

Joe also mentions risks; composition involves risks, but they are of relatively minor consequence. Every composer fails a lot. If you try something and it doesn't work as expected, you just try it again, and keep at it until you are satisfied, after which you move on to the next challenge. 



I don't know that polystylism increases the risk that a composition will be lacking in internal consistency very much; I think that composers for whom internal consistency is a priority will find a way to incorporate it into their music, whether they write polystylistic music or not.  Put another way, "internal consitency" refers to a lot more than style, although it can refer to style as well, of course.

If you like the idea of polystylism AND you also like the idea of internal consistency, you can find a way to combine the two.

For those who haven't already heard it, here's a link to "Dream Dance," a piece some have called the finest piano composition since Greek antiquity (admitedly, the people calling it this are my kids, and I told them to say that if asked). It touches on different styles as it bops along (Gershwin, Glass, Bach, Haydn, Scott Joplin, and even some Clark Ross in there somewhere), and I *think* it has internal consistency!

In response to Richard Ford's comment, thanks for sharing your thoughts!  It's always a thrill when someone I don't know leaves a comment.  You raise an important point: Just how important is "internal consistency" anyway?  I suspect every composer would have their own take on this, but the point is that we should at least ask the question from time to time; we don't have to follow centuries of classical music tradition if we don't think that tradition speaks to us or our audiences. 


Thanks to all commentators so far, and further comments always welcome!

13 comments:

Soup said...

The biggest risk with polystylism would be ensuring internal consistency with the music. Perhaps unrelated genres can coexist, but the justification for this would have to be compelling. Variety of styles does not ensure interest and cannot make up for lack of inspiration. Important questions to ask would be: Why am I choosing to combine these two styles? What elements of these styles do I think are interesting? What relationships do the styles that I am choosing share? etc...

In other words, choose deliberately and wisely, because no number of styles will make up having zero good ideas.

Soup said...

Speaking of polystylism...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPBDHnlhvSQ&feature=share

Richard Ford said...

Hey Soup, thanks for the link. THAT is a lot of fun!

As for polystylism and "ensuring internal consistency", it cocurs to me that internal consistency is overrated. Sure, if your concern is stacking up to Beethoven or writing something that is going to be approved for a thesis, great! Is it really something composers need to worry about if they're writing for a lay audience? And is it something you can manage or something that you develop as you develop your craft?

Sure, pick a limited set of musical materials and have an eye on organic structure. Otherwise, write something you think is fun and you would listen to and see how it turns out.

Of course, I could just be justifying my own shortcomings...

Richard Ford
http://www.facebook.com/richardfordcomposer

Clark Ross said...

Nice to see that this has engendered a discussion!

"Soup" writes about the importance of internal consistency in a composition, and while that is a fine principle (it seemed to work for Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and possibly composers whose last names did not begin with B as well), I'm not sure that polystylism necessarily works in opposition to internal consistency.

After all, even Bach blended different national styles within compositions; the fourth keyboard Partita begins with a very French "Ouverture," followed by a German Allemande, a Courante that is a French dance, but this one seems to be a French/German/English hybrid, an Aria that sounds Italianate to me, a Sarabande, a dance said to have originated in Spain, although this one doesn't sound very Spanish to me, a Menuet, which is dance of French origin (although once again, I'm not sure how French this one sounds; it could be Italian or German), and a Gigue, a dance originally from England, but, when spelled this way, is French.

Is there "internal consistency" within this Partita? I would say yes, definitely but perhaps the consistency operates on a deeper level (harmonic language, the consistent technique of Bach's musical language), whereas the stylistic differences perhaps operate more on a surface level.

Composition involves risks, but they are of minor consequence, at least when compared to the risks associated with being a brain surgeon, or air-traffic controller. Every composer fails a lot. If you try something and it doesn't work as you expected, you try it again and keep at it until you are satisfied, then you move on to the next challenge.

I would suggest that if you like the idea of polystylism AND you also like the idea of internal consistency, you can find a way to combine the two.

If you haven't already heard it, here's a link to "Dream Dance," a piece some have called the finest piano composition since Greek antiquity (admitedly, the people calling it this are my kids, and I told them to say that if asked). It touches on different styles as it bops along (Gershwin, Glass, Bach, Haydn, Scott Joplin, and even some Clark Ross in there somewhere), and I *think* it has internal consistency!

My goodness this is a long comment! I may move it into the blog as a postscript...

I did want to also respond to Richard Ford, though. First, thanks for commenting! It's always a genuine thrill (as opposed to the artificial kind) when someone I don't know leaves a comment, especially a thoughtful one.

Second, you raise an important point: Just how important is "internal consistency" anyway? I suspect every composer would have their own take on this, but the point is that we should at least ask the question from time to time; we don't have to follow centuries of classical music tradition if we don't think that tradition speaks to us or our audiences.

Bekah Simms said...

Internal consistency is an interesting concept, and in my opinion I do think it is important for an "effective" piece. In my experience, pieces that "lack" it (subjectively, of course) seem to be missing a certain something that is often indefinable to an audience but definitely noticeable.

I know at least one conductor that has difficulty programming works if they cannot see a tangible form and I believe this would extend to consistency, as well.

I do agree with Dr. Ross though in that polystylism doesn't inherently oppose internal consistency.

Joe said...

Ok...Joe here (Soup). Much of what I expressed in my initial comment reflect my lack of experience in composition. The risks that I mention clearly reflect what I've been thinking a lot about recently with respect to writing music. The thought of tackling larger forms and structures is a bit daunting to me, and so I am currently in "form and structure" mode.

Ultimately, a great composer can make almost anything work, as long as they believe that what they have to communicate is worth communicating.

Clark Ross said...

Hey Joe, the point you made about internal consistency in your initial comment was a good one — it is important to aim for some sort of "internal logic" or consistency in the music we write — so I am glad you raised the issue.

Determining what constitutes internal logic in a given composition can be tricky, and not everyone will always agree on this... what seems logical to me, may seem otherwise to someone else.

But it's definitely something that composers need to consider, even it's to conclude that they want to write a piece with NO internal logic whatsoever (although, mostly in the courses I teach, I DO want people to try to arrive at some internal logic!).

Thanks again for starting this discussion!

Vanessa Carroll said...

What a great discussion! Lots of different ideas and lots of opinions! I can really see where everyone's coming from here.

To me, I agree with needing a sense of internal consistency; however, I also agree Dr. Ross about how when it comes determining what constitutes this consistency, it can be quite difficult.

In my experiences (though these are quite limited), I have found that having a plan and knowing "where you want to go" with a piece really helps. It allows for much growth, exploration, and development and does not limit you to one idea. If you set up some initial parameters I have found that it helps you stay on a (somewhat) consistent track. I've found that the way I compose really depends on the kind of day or week I'm having. If I know the direction I want to take a piece, I've found that it helps to hone all of the external factors I'm experiencing into one coherent composition.

But, hey... that said... sometimes a huge change is exactly what I piece needs!

Mitchell wxhao said...

It occurs that someone in the class wrote a "polystylistic" piece this semester. Even though the styles were chugging along, it didn't ever seem like there was a lack of "internal consistency." The melodic material was consistent. And another consistency was the fact that the styles were inconsistent. I'll admit that I started off hesitant to accept the idea, but in the performance it came across very well, and I didn't hear any issue at all.

To refer to what Joe said in his first comment, a good idea can straddle whatever style you want.

Josh Penney said...

I really like this concept, especially in with the idea of using multiple styles in the writing of one piece. As a trombonist, I had the pleasure of being able to play in almost all kinds of music. Trombone is used in marching band, orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz bands, ska bands, wind symphonies, etc… The list goes on, but not every instrument gets to do that, which is one of the reasons that I love playing the trombone. But it also helps me conceptualize new ways of writing, or new ideas for incorporating things from one medium to another. Often times when I write for certain groups, I'll throw some jazz harmony in there because I think it could be used great with the instrumentation not typically in big band. Sometimes when I write for percussion I will typically make it a lot like rock because that's what I used to listen to.

I think that switching things up and adding different styles together and mixing them adds for a lot of fun in writing, and gives the musicians playing your music and opportunity to do something different.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently writing a dissertation on polystylism and, as you said, the wiki article is not useful...and it also isn't particularly accurate. Polystylism does, in fact, refer to multiple styles written in the same piece. They do not necessarily need to have similar rhythms, harmonies, etc etc. It is a fascinating area of music theory and one that cannot be defined in a small comment like this one, but if you want to read more, I would recommend Alfred Schnittke's essay "Polystylistic Tendencies in Modern Music."

Jordan Mills said...

I very much enjoy the use of polystylism in music. I find it interesting when I am listening to a piece of a certain genre and suddenly new styles emerge. I conduct a Youth Band at my church (Salvation Army), and much of the new music made available to me, are arrangements of old tunes and hymns. The most appealing arrangements are those which take the old tunes and set them in a completely different style, jazz, mambo, blues, etc. Even better are those that present in a different style and then play with others throughout the pieces, marches, pop, big band, and so on. All that being said, much of the new music I encounter uses the idea of polystylism, and, to my ear, these are the most entertaining, and captivating pieces. I plan to do a few arrangements of some old religious tunes in the future so that I can try my hand at polystylism and the idea of weaving together different genres while maintaining a sense of unity throughout.

Robert Humber said...

My experience with polystylism is that it either works incredibly or falls short. I think it is very easy to write a bad polystylistic piece just because it's a juggling of different moods and you need to be graceful about it.

That being said, here are two pieces that are not graceful about the juggling of styles at all!! (but they're still very clever in a humorous way)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VqSvBtp77Q Gubaidulina piece that sounds like avant-garde AND a 70's porno!!!!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nBRJTnFOHA Andriessen messing with all of Beethoven's symphonies!!!!

Most music juxtaposes contrasting elements (ie. harmony, melody, tempo, etc. etc.) so polystylism is kind of a new take on this. The genre is the contrasting element. All in all, some very awesome music!

Here are some pieces I really like that (I think) are polystylistic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaaRk0c-780 Schnittke - Concerto Grosso no. 1 - A classic, exhilarating example! Baroque music on drugs!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbArUJBRRJ0 Ives - Unanswered Question - Here, Ives contrasts "pretty tonality" with "ugly post-tonality." It asks the question of where music should be heading... A cult classic. 2 enthusiastic thumbs-up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbyrPhOzC24 Reich - Tehillim - Reich combines the slowly shifting minimalism he is known for with old Hebrew music... the result is absolutely kaleidoscopic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwJHu2gSj1A Berio - Sinfonia - One of the purest examples of polystylism, essentially a sound collage! A must-listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaATmagbYsw Possibly a strange choice to consider but Andriessen's language is in my opinion quite polystylistic with everything he wrote. De Staat, his most important work, is like a perfect splice of Steve Reich's minimalism and phasing techniques + Stravinsky's ugly and direct middle period, complete with a wind instrument plastered ensemble. Tell me you can't hear Symphony of Psalms in here!