Threshold of distinction

One sure way to obtain my goat is to say of one of my favorite composers that “their music all sounds the same.” Disturbingly, I’ve even heard this accusation spoken of the irrefutable genius (and possibly superhuman) John Williams.

The trouble is, I’ve said or thought the same thing about other composers and artists. We all have. Whenever we are first exposed to multiple works by the same artist, the similarities are often the most prominent elements we hear. It is only after we spend enough time inhabiting those works that we are able to cross what I’ll call the “threshold of distinction.”

Musical artists have fingerprints. Most have a very identifiable voice—a reality as true for Brahms and Broughton as it is for the Backstreet Boys. I’ve written before on the topics of self-plagiarism and homogeneity, and it is true that the oeuvre of many artists sounds strikingly similar because it is strikingly similar. Whether it’s the consistent repetition of chord structures, melodies, or instrumentation, there are plenty of artists who seem to have a very shallow bag of tricks.

Yet even for these self-replicating artists there is this threshold of distinction. Spend enough time with any artist’s body of work and you’ll stop noticing how it all sounds similar and start noticing what makes each song/piece/score different. How else can you explain why I still like listening to Everclear?

Much as it grates my teeth to admit, it’s quite easy to say of Williams that his scores all sound alike when you only have a beginner’s awareness of his most prominent blockbuster output. Sure I could stack the deck by playing for you some dissonant Images, then a little Heartbeeps funk, followed by his modern Five Sacred Trees symphony. But a cursory sweep through Star Wars, Superman, and Harry Potter will leave you with an initial impression of alikeness.

I’ve been tempted to write off certain film composers precisely because “all their stuff sounds the same.” But I’ve been challenging myself lately to make the effort required to cross the threshold in order to truly test my first impression, especially when the composer’s talent and skill are clearly evident.

I think awareness of this threshold is critical for appreciating an artist’s work. It’s also critical for having patience with the unlearned and uninitiated; for such we all were at one time.