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Versatility

What is the true meaning of musical versatility? Is it to have a style so chameleonic that one can barely tell two scores are from the same composer? Or is it to pick one voice and use it in a wide variety of contexts?

Some composers have been outright accused of self-plagiarism. Famously, James Horner. Whether one enjoys his self-referential riffs or not, it begs the question: does it reflect negatively on his versatility? One might argue that these recurring motifs are simple part of his style; a style that he bends to a huge variety of film genres, from comedy to drama and adventure. Hence, a high versatility.

Other examples are Michael Kamen and Miklós Rózsa. None could deny them the status of master of their trade and their versatility is never in question. And yet, is Michael Kamen’s dependence on a very particular rhythm any different than Horner’s repetitions? The rhythm was popularized by Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ Main Theme, and it is highly featured in Kamen’s last score of his career, Back to Gaya. It also becomes the backbone of the famous American Symphony from Mr. Holland’s Opus.

And what of Miklós Rózsa’s enduring tremolo melody? Nearly all of his themes rely on a similar progression of notes. Ivanhoe, Eye of the Needle, Last Embrace, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid are among the most obvious examples. The fact that it happened in an increasingly noticeable fashion as his career dragged on might indeed be a sign that his imagination was running out of juice.

Or perhaps not? Maybe a selfsame conclusion can be drawn from the Horner, Kamen and Rózsa examples: “If the shoe fits, wear it.”

Sure, artists like John Williams, David Newman and Basil Poledouris really are chameleons, with very little that ties one of their scores to another (which is somewhat surprising in Poledouris’ case given that one of his major source of inspiration was Miklós Rózsa), but it’s not necessarily a sign that they’re more versatile than their fellow tradesmen. It just depends how you define the word. And that, as this article has exposed, is in the ear of the beholder.