Of the many problems composers have to deal with when it comes to their creative endeavors, one of the more interesting issues is whether or not they have a "distinctive sound" in their compositions. Is this "distinctiveness" achieved through the style or genre that a composer chooses? Or maybe, it could be some kind of innate sound that happens completely by accident through the composer's rhythmic and harmonic habits that he or she has worked with for years, sub-consciously?
The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara once stated that the composer finds his materials rather than creates them. It's as if the composition existed in another place before the composer brings it out on paper. The distinctive sound has already been pre-determined in some way. Whereas the American composer John Adams has often said that when he is in the middle of composing something, there are occasions when he sees himself about write certain material that he may have used more or less in a previous work of his own. He then makes a conscious decision on whether he should come up with something else, or just go with it. Therefore, the distinctive sound can be determined by the circumstances at the time of composition.
There is a great deal of merit with either of these theories. Both Rautavaara and Adams are geniuses in their own right. But this issue also makes me think of another of one my favorite artists: The british composer, Arnold Bax.
Although Bax was a successful composer in his lifetime, the last few years for him were somewhat of a burden. All his life, Bax wrote roughly in the same kind of style. Light attitude, yet with a passion and lyricism merged with a sense of British charm and Irish tinge. Up until his death in 1953, when serial music was at it's most destructive, Bax was often chastised for his somewhat lighter color, which for many listeners, didn't seem very relevant during the mid 20th century, a time when various wars had caused the most damage at that point.
For me, one of the great elements in the music of Bax is his use of subtly. He seems to whisper his emotions through music rather than blow it up in ones face. Most other composers at the time prefered to vent their fustrations musically in a loud and blunt manner with a dissonance that accentuated their rage. But Bax was fully aware of the emotions of hardship in survival. So he makes a vague yet important statement in his works so that the listener can feel his emotional state in a gradual way rather than with the “in your face” attitude.
One should note that Bax himself lived through the horrors of war like everyone else. In particular, the uprising in Ireland and the two World Wars where he lost many close friends. If you were to listen to certain pieces he wrote like The Garden of Fand, Tintagel and most of the 7 Symphonies, one cannot deny that Arnold Bax has a desperate need to metaphorically smile amidst numerous tragedies he lived through during this time. He certainly has a distinctive voice in the works he created, whether they be guided by tradition or the obscure world he lived through, or maybe a combination of the two. In short, you know him when you hear him.
The issue of the distinctive sound will continue to be debated among composers time and time and again. But it is clear to me that the choice of style is merely one of many tools within the mix of an even bigger picture.