The Parallel Worlds of Composers and Artists: Part Two

What is it that draws someone into the world of composing?  While everyone may have their own reasons, surely at the heart of most stories is a need and sensitivity for self expression (and isn’t that true for most artists?).  Yet even with this strong desire, composing is often met with blocks to the flow of that creative expression.  I’ve heard it said that one of a composer’s greatest attributes is the ability to work and face these challenges alone.  However, finding understanding, kindred spirits can provide welcome support and inspiration, and no better place can that kinship be found than by discovering the similar creative process of not only other composers, but also the parallel worlds of other artists (including dancers, writers, actors, filmmakers, etc.).

In Part One of this post I mentioned two of the tools an artist uses to increase their vision and inspiration, first using my sister Karen’s work as an example, and then one of my own compositions as a “parallel” example from the world of music.  While Part One mainly discussed the process of cropping, this post looks at the artist’s practice of flipping, 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.  This example is from one of Karen’s preliminary studies that eventually led to a larger New Mexico landscape.  What you see is a cropped version of that study, that in her words, “places the big mesa group as the focal point, seeming more massive and powerful.”  She also likes the bigger role of the clouds, and the way “the gold in the sky drops the eye downward to the section of mountain and then to the water and foreground at last.”  Her words resonate with me when I think of focusing on a smaller or different part of a musical motif, becoming acquainted with its own unique personality, and then discovering ways it can interact with other components of the overall composition.

Now to her thoughts about the flipped version…”When I flipped the painting it suddenly seemed to read better, as in the western mentality of reading images and words left to right.  The light gold focal point became more pronounced to me.  You can see I made the mesa mountain group higher and more compact, and the water the foreground is a bit more pronounced in a way.  Don’t know why, but the mountain has taken on more personality to me for some reason.”  What do you see when comparing these two versions, and what kind of impact do they have on you?  If you were the painter, would you make the mountains higher or lower, the water more or less pronounced, or position the clouds differently?  It’s not important whether or not we agree with the artist’s choices.  What is important though is that our awareness can see the options that they see…that our decision making process in our own creative world encompasses and is sensitive to those kind of perspectives.

This flipping has an easy parallel to my recent composition for string quartet, which is based on Arnold Shoenberg’s method of serial composition (briefly described in Part One).  Based on an original row using all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, there is also its retrograde version (the original sequence of notes played backwards), the inversion of the row (which is the original row flipped on a horizontal axis seated on the first note), and the retrograde inversion (the inversion played backwards).  Can you see how the shape of the notes in the examples above create mirror images to their counterpart to the side, or above or below?  These rows are presented here in their most basic form, devoid of any rhythmic or dynamic value, so they cannot approach the artistry of the paintings seen above.  And yet as soon as I began to experiment with rhythms, dynamics, different articulations, different starting points, etc., my inner ear was flooded with several promising directions worthy of more exploration.

This last example, “Double Stops,” is based on the retrograde inversion of my original row (Violin 2 begins in the same “key” as the retrograde inversion example shown above).  My musical cropping chose the last two notes of the row (11 and 12) as the starting point, with the 11th note being an open string that allows for easy double stops.  Click here to hear a short audio clip, entitled “Double Stops,” that goes well beyond this example’s three bars, and remember a larger version of this excerpt from the score is available by clicking on it.  Although my initial composing efforts were focused only on the original row (before I had even thought of writing this string quartet), and the retrograde inversion was arrived at via the formula described above, it was a delight discovering how this musical flipping could lead me to new ways of turning a bare sequence of notes into another related movement for the larger work.  Although often challenging, the “rules” of this process were not restrictive, but instead served to tighten up the form of the piece, while encouraging me to search for new ideas that were beyond my vocabulary of that time.

It has been said that it is our thoughts and ideas that segment the world and divide us, but if that is true then I believe that one of the main roles of an artist is to find meaningful ways of reconnecting ideas back to something greater…whether it be (using musical terminology) to the composition itself, or to another’s listening experience. Learning how another artist views their working process (which has parallels to the musical world) can give us inspiration and insights into our own work.  And the more ways we have to compose, the less likely we will experience blocks, and the more creative growth we will enjoy during our lifetime.  The internet is full of artists and musicians sharing their own joy of discovery, and my sister Karen’s blog  is a great place to start!

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2 Responses to The Parallel Worlds of Composers and Artists: Part Two

  1. Kearna says:

    There are many ways to compose pictures in art, just as you have found new ideas in your music. It’s good to remember this, which does help to avoid blocks or falling into a rut. Thanks for your insights, Bob.

    • bobgillis says:

      I agree Kearna. You never know when the “well will run dry” if you only take one approach, plus knew ways of creating add more dimension to our work.

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