Music and Maps

Mapping out your composition

Composing is mapping out time, so you can see the music.

WRITE MORE: about the map, the cartographer and the guide.

Make a map overviewing the timeline: make a paper trail and sketch the piece on it so you can see how the piece develops in time:

  • This prevents writing for the wrong choirs at the wrong moment.
  • Gives you a main idea about dynamics (and orchestration) in time.
  • You will avoid having too many loud climaxes. (I believe in 1 main climax for a whole piece. And only use the lowest drums there to take this moment even deeper in sound)
  • Add blocks of choirs, colors and energycurves on the timeline. So you will see if your peaking too early.
  • Put the initial idea in the right spot, if it’s a climax work your way backwards in time and find the beginning. The initial statement has a home-coming feeling that is extra strong when everything else was derived from that.
  • Remember your violin teacher: people only remember the beginning and the end. Be sure to nail that down.
  • Add barnumbers and timelapses to your map. Use numbers to get a structure in time without getting a boring repetitive structure. (This means no 4-4–4-4–4-4 (Peter) but 1-1-2-3-5-8-11-19 (Stephen) or 7 -5 – 4-4-4- (Anneloes). Any number-structure will do.
  • Boring musical structure forces you to change choirs all the time to avoid boredom. A non-development of your theme forces you to change choirs all the time.
  • Conduct your piece to feel it or conduct first your musical idea before writing it down. Work both ways to free all creativity there is. You have to coduct with a seperated right hand, so you can express yourself in time (left hand). (Conducter teacher here advises this, so I am going to do that instead of the recommended righthanded conducting) When there are silences needed, you will stand still because your mind will be empty. This isn’t long lingering in the eyes of the beholder, time is just going very slow in your own mind.

How maps help guides: conductors

I have given this idea of ‘cartography’ a thought, because it is a great analogy for understanding the conductor:

  1. The composer/conductor as a cartographer
  2. The ‘conducting a text’-exercise
  3. What the conductor needs to see
  4. The borders of the musical map

Ad 1. The composer creates the landscape and draws a map. This means that the composer is not only the creator and cartographer of his own landscape, but also the best guide. Given a conductor is a guide: The composer is a conductor by the nature of his work. 

Ad 2.The conductor of an orchestra is the second best guide: he learns the map by heart and takes the musicians with him on a journey. He can instruct his musicians in different ways:

  • He can conduct the phrase: “Go to that crossing and wait for me for further instructions.”
  • He can conduct the rhythm: “We march in this pace and watch your feet there, near that trunk.”
  • He can conduct the group: “Will all the people with the yellow vouchers walk in front, please?”
  • He can conduct, explaining the emotional meaning of the signs on the map: “Here we see the remains of an old huntershut, still used by my fierce uncle John”.

Probably the best way to conduct, is to do that all at once: “You see uncle John, standing near that old huntershut by the crossing? The people with the yellow vouchers go there first and the rest follows in a slow pace. Please, watch the trunks!” This illustrates the complexity of conducting very well, I think. 

Ad.3 When you draw a map of a landscape, you must draw the altitude lines in such a way that it suggests how steep a slope is: Is it a plane? Then the altitude lines are wide apart. Is it a steep hill? The altitude lines are drawn next to each other. This way a map makes us see de 3D representation of the landscape easier.  When you draw a score, you must do the same representing time: When the tempo is slow, you put the bar-lines wide apart. When your tempo is fast, you put the bar-lines next to each other. The score will give a natural feel of the time passing when you make a great the lay-out. This is what a conductor needs to see, to be a great guide.

Ad 4. When we see music as a map, then that map itself has paper boundaries. But the music has only boundaries in time, music has no boundaries in space. We can go from THERE! to psst…here.. to everywhere. The journey can only end at a certain point of time. Thanks for this great analogy, it’s very helpful understanding it all. 

Composing storylines and contrasts

  • It works great to use the anatomy of story and it’s structure to design an energy curve for your music. Think about the emotional rolo-coaster and where you will touch upon which emotion and why before you design your composition- map. What is a natural order in which feelings occur?
  • Thinking about contrasts: The notion that there is only a contrast between good and bad doesn’t give people a true sence of life, of what emotions, troubles and fights and delights we share. Life is far more complicated than that. So I think that music written as ‘Batman fights a monster’ – idea is short sighted and will not stand on it’s own in the long term. It’s my case against heroic narratives and pro tragedies. Becauses more people can relate to tragedy, sorrow, laughing out load. A hero, who is that in real life? Who can honestly relate to that.
  • So, do people like the black-white attitude of Stephen Mellillo all the time? I found out that people were in the end a bit tired playing that type of music and watching that conductingstyle.
  • I think that many people have good memories and enjoy a bit of grey once in a while to relax during playing. So let’s say that designing ‘water’ for nymphes and use that to calm people will also work. Repetitive work does just that, it relaxes the brain in a way you stop thinking at all. That’s what lounch music is trying to do. I can’t eat with that music on, I just stop living altogether when I have to listen to that because it is too loud. So you might want to play with changing between boredom and surprice instead of white and black or good and bad.

By Anneloes Wolters


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