There’s a familiar sonic signature that accompanies many songs played by legendary guitar player Pete Townshend. You know the sound when you hear it; it might as well be his sonic fingerprint. Pete Townsend is not alone. Many musicians have familiar sounds, even to casual listeners. Same goes for architecture defined by signatures in glass and steel. Love their works or hate them, you can almost always tell when a building was designed by Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry, or Frank Lloyd Wright. The differences between dances by Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey go beyond comparing one piece to another. Mozart sounds like Mozart in much the same way that Led Zeppelin sounds like Led Zeppelin.
I’m convinced this isn’t intentional, and I think it's too simple to say that creative work merely reflects the personalities of those people creating it. There are intangibilities that drive creative people to keep pursuing creative work, and those intangibilities do not have to serve the dull needs of simple explanation.
We recognize the sound of certain musicians because they are uniquely a product of the singular person who created them. High performance skill sets often have distinctive attributes for the person doing the work. Listen to the prominent political speakers of our time and you’ll hear certain repetitions and cadences and turns of phrase that, while not identical from speech to speech, are as distinctive as their names.
The more experienced and competent a person is in his or her field of expertise, the more likely he or she is going to be returning to the same motif again and again. It's ironic and fascinating if you stop and think about it. As a person gains more experience he or she is more likely to have developed broader, deeper, more accomplished capabilities. Greater expertise means more potential expressiveness. Simultaneously, however, expertise can impose unintended restrictions. Styles solidify. Experienced practitioners turn to solutions they know will deliver the goods, often with the desire—the hope— that this time they can further perfect those solutions. Where novices tend to flail, experts tend to focus. Beginners try lots of different things, experimenting with voices and color and shape and intention. Conversely, we always know who’s behind the brush of a van Gogh.
A special kind of obsession seems to consume artists of all types. Not everyone is an artist, of course, and therefore not everybody is consumed by a need to refine and repeat an idea until it shines with diamond clarity. But artists find that their ideas never make perfect sense, which is why they return to the same intangible ideas over and over. The best artists often repeat themselves one way or another until they make peace with what they’re trying to say. This is not to say that artists don't evolve, or move on to new things. Indeed, artists are always discovering new ways to experiment with the world. Their best expressions capture us with their inventions. Many of these discoveries are the result of endless theme and variation, repetition and recapitulation. Arrival at brilliant, undiscovered destinations are often the result of traveling well-worn roads again and again and again until those travelers simply transform time and space, bend them to their will, and deliver themselves somewhere new.
Life is short. With so many countless, colorful ideas to explore, one would think that creative people would want to range out and experiment all the time, or at least swim around in diverse waters. Many clearly do, testing and touching and exploring poorly lit alleyways to feed their curiosity and creative proclivities. But the often obsessive nature of artists to alight repeatedly on familiar stylistic branches is not because they don't realize their many alternatives. It's because of just how many possibilities exist that could keep them from pursuing deeper understanding of their intangible, ineluctable pursuits. Creators create because they must, and the styles in which they pursue their perfectly acceptable madness are intimate functions of delivering them to someplace sublime.
The novice wonders what that sublime place “means”, what the artist is trying to “say”. The more experienced observer understands that there isn’t really a literal meaning to the pursuit in the first place. Even as novels and movies and paintings and poems and a million other works may, indeed, have literal meanings at their roots, the process of bringing them to life is about something entirely separate, entirely outside the material world.