Style is a special case of technique

That line is from one of the better passages in Philip Glass’ new memoir, Words Without Music. The point is as true of writing as it is of music of course, and it’s interesting that the memoir itself demonstrates it. What I mean is that the memoir does not have much style, because there is not much writing technique in it–a sharp contrast to the very distinctive Glass musical style. Most of the book’s charm comes from how artless it is; often it really does sound like a guy just telling you stories about his life (a guy who happens to be a famous artist). Of course that works better when you are sitting with the guy over a beer. It can get tiresome on the printed page, and there are definitely some longueurs in the memoir. But the occasional insights are still interesting, and the account of his musical education with Nadia Boulanger is clearly very heart-felt:

We sat quietly for only a moment and I understood, suddenly, that somewhere along the way, she had changed the point of the exercise. I had thought she was teaching technique— the how you “do” or “not do” in music. But that was over. She had raised the ante. Now we were talking about style. In other words, there could be many correct solutions to a musical problem. Those many correct solutions came under the rubric of technique. However, the particular way a composer solved the problem, or (to put it another way) his or her predilection for one solution over several others, became the audible style of the composer. Almost like a fingerprint. Finally, to sum this all up, a personal style in a composer’s work makes it a simple matter for us to distinguish, almost instantly, one composer from another. So we know without doubt or hesitation the difference between Bach and Bartók, Schubert and Shostakovich. Style is a special case of technique. And then, almost immediately, we know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, an authentic personal style cannot be achieved without a solid technique at its base. That in a nutshell is what Madame Boulanger was teaching. Not as a theory, because theory can be debated and superseded. She taught it as a practice, a “doing.” The realization came through the work. Her personal method was to just bang it into your head, until one day, hopefully, you got it. That’s how, in the end, I understood my work with her.


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