The Parallel Worlds of Composers and Artists: Part One

Years ago I had the pleasure of serving as the lone musician on the faculty of a two week summer workshop given by Young Audiences.  The students were all teachers themselves, looking for ways to bring more creativity into their daily classes…in courses one may not think of as artsy, like math, history, science, etc.  Those two weeks were so stimulating to me that I could hardly sleep at night…being so inspired by the classes I was also required to attend.  In addition to teaching four courses that related to the workshop’s “Text and Margins” theme, each faculty member had a chance to experience the way other artist-faculty members approached the same theme.  As a student, I could see so many parallels between music and art, or music and dance, or music and acting, etc., and yet seeing how my colleagues approached those familiar concepts from the perspective of their medium released the floodgates of ideas into my own work.

I’m lucky to have two sisters who are both artists (and my third sister is our biggest supporter).  We often talk about our work, and feed off of the same parallels…which many times leads to more inspired work of our own, or at least interesting blog posts! Just recently my sister Karen was talking about cropping portions of her larger painting in order to find ideas for new works.  I could immediately see the parallels with composing, and decided to visit her blog for more inspiration (its link is at the blogroll at top right of this blog).  There I read of her process of flipping...easily done in Photoshop, where an artist can flip the image on its central, vertical axis…so what was on the left is then found on the right, and vice versa.  As I continued reading more of her posts I could feel another one of those sleepless nights coming on!

Here’s one of Karen’s paintings, “Heart of  Old Town,” which reminds me of her two “Shimmertown”  calendar collections (give it a click for a larger view).  It’s obviously a night scene, but I love all of the light and energy (nobody in this town has gone to bed yet!), aided (in my humble opinion) by the contrasts of her beautiful colors and the darker shadows.  I also resonate with the form of all of the lines and the placement of all of that color.

Next, let’s look at one of her several croppings from her “Heart of Old Town” painting.  To me, this new framing feels much warmer…more intimate.  While no humans are in sight, I can feel their presence so much more.  It’s like I’m almost home.  The palette of colors may be the same, but there are fewer objects that can each attract more of your attention than the previous painting. The locations of lines and color tell an entirely different story.

So how does this “cropping” translate to music?  There are so many ways, but the following examples I’m choosing are drawn from a tone row that is the foundation of a string quartet I’ve been working on.  The process of composing this twelve tone serial composition began with this carefully written sequence of pitches that encompasses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, yet purposely avoids scales and arpeggios that would imply an obvious tonality.  The idea here is to rely on other elements besides harmony (like rhythm and melody) to create the music (although I find this method also increases my harmonic vocabulary).  While the row does not have the visual beauty and sense of completeness of a painting, it none the less has tremendous potential for spawning a larger scale work with a strong, inherent structure.

Click here if you would like to listen to the accompanying audio clips for the following two examples.

The first example of musical cropping (seen directly above) focuses on three of the four minor 3rd intervals of the row (highlighted with brackets over the original row) by either  repeating the segment (1-2, 1-2) or giving more rhythmic value to the notes outlining the interval (again 1-2, and 7-8, 10-11-10).  This excerpt from the First Movement of the score shows the notes of the row being  passed around the string quartet, with the pitches sometimes occurring in different octaves than the original example…the interval created by the 7th and 8th notes of the row was originally shown as a major 6th, but inverting that interval puts pitch #7 (E) a minor 3rd higher than the C#.

This next excerpt is a fugue based on the same row (in different “keys”), but instead of highlighting similar, recurring intervals, the melodic line centers around notes in the row (3 and 11) that are easily sustained on the instrument’s open strings as a part of a double stop.  This score fragment only shows the Cello, Viola and 1st Violin as they enter the fugue (remember you can click on the image for a larger view), but everything you hear is based on the row.

The real point here is not in the musical analysis (although it can be quite revealing), but in the listening…hearing how the same row can sound so different by highlighting certain aspects of the row, whether it be intervals or single pitches (as presented above), or anything else the composer finds that suit his musical purpose.  In spite of all of the rules and numbers, in the end they merely serve the vision of the composer and the structure of his work.  Just as the artist’s eye sees opportunities for new work and expression, so does the composer see the potential for development in even the smallest structural elements.

The concept of doing more with less is much more appealing to our artistic sense than doing less with more, don’t you think?   Read more on this topic in Part Two, but in the meantime visit Karen’s blog, or investigate any other artist, dancer, author, etc., and discover how these artists work with the same ideals you do.  Just don’t plan on getting any sleep that night!

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4 Responses to The Parallel Worlds of Composers and Artists: Part One

  1. Leslie Clark says:

    I can see why this is keeping you awake. It is like a window into a brand new way of thinking. New patterns of expression. How fun!!!!

    You both inspire me!!!!

  2. karen says:

    Since I’m not a musician, I looked up chromatic scale, because I recognized the root word which means color. It appears, Bob, you are painting with notes! Thanks for drawing yet another analogy between the music and art worlds. It keeps me inspired to no end.

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