Stephen Melillo on composing and FC

Summer 2019 I studied a week with Stephen Melillo. His work ‘David’ was a life changing composition for me. It was the first time in years that I wasn’t bored with a composition. It was new, fresh, different, interesting, challenging.

Playing David was the first moment I realized that music was is not a dead composers world: There are composers that you can meet, talk to and write. And they compose new music at a high level of sophistication for us to enjoy.

These are the notes I made during my lessons with Stephen Melillo, with whom a most exciting musical journey started:


Opening statements

  • Break the rules!!!
  • You make music to make emotion, not the other way around.
  • There is only tension and release. Black and white.
  • You must see the music to make the magic happen.
  • The composer is always a composer and a teacher and a conductor and a musician. You cannot seperate the four.
  • Perfection exists, it’s not that difficult to achieve.
  • Time and Space are connected in music: 3D sound in a space over time.

About Composing

  • “SING!!!!!” Develop the idea while singing.
  • “See the music”
  • Design tension and release, black and white. Look for contrast. Music is insteresting because of contrasts.
  • Take a small idea (3 notes, a rythm) As always: Less is more. You only need a few notes and a small rythm, it’s really that simple to start a piece.
  • Nail the final statement, write that first. Than work your way backwards in time. Now the climax will feel as ‘home coming’. Start with the ending and compose backwards, as do detective writers.
  • Think of composing as making a sculpture: remove everything that is not necessary. I like this idea because sculptures also depend on the space the create, the voids are as important as the filled spaces.
  • Imagine you have a piece of beautiful marble and you make a toilet out of it, instead of a David. What you remove defines what you make.
  • A musical idea is only 10% of the piece.
  • Use everything to get a musical idea, even beeping alarms, rythms of dustbins or what comes your way.
  • Conduct texts to become a creative composer-conductor. Conducting a text or your musical idea in the first place, make a video and rewind to see how long passages take makes you work backwards. This will advance creativity and your sense of time.
  • While composing you have ‘to know and let go’.
  • “Press the buttons you want to hear”. There is no right or wrong, only sounds that we like or not. While composing, don’t worry about key’s and chordprogressions, just press the buttons that sound well.
  • You have to know what the most extreme form is of your musical statement, because the piece will be working towards that. It will have a drive towards the final statement, and if that statement is on a whole other subject, people are lost.
  • You don’t have to start at the beginning as a composer, but working your way back from the main final statement gives your music a drive towards that climax. As if you sharpen a blurred picture, first you get the colors, the contoures of the idea and every time it’s getting clearer until you can see the full picture. (Think about blurring and sharpening pictures of the Boogie Woogie -type art by Mondriaan)
  • Composing is controlled improvisation. Don’t overdo it, confine the idea. The way you worked on “Willem de Zwijger” was like the way Stephen Melillo works on his pieces. Including the singing the main idea in the phone to record it.
  • Stand on the shoulders of giants: Use material and experiences from former masters. People have a collective memory of music. You cannot change music at once, you must use what people are used to and than change a little to surprice. Take them some place and come back again, and try to take them a little further and bring them back again. This way people will feel comfortable, trust you and follow you. You must care about the listerens while traveling together through time and space. (Mike Verta explains this best)
  • You can organize options for theme development by counting them or make lists of all options and follow the list. But this is only usefull for exercising purposes. Organizing options and than choosing learning goals will work great for excercise, because you can control and experience the input – output effect of all options.
  • If you have a musical idea for a moment, instrument (choose the key for that instrument) and feeling, place that in the right spot on the timeline and work from there.
  • It doesn’t need to be a loud climax, it can also be a silent one. (Beethoven 5th, what is the most important note?) Compare this to conversations: sometimes a silence can be devastating.
  • Think about the choirs at an early stage: the way you work now you have the instruments written on the piano, so you know already while composing what the choir will be (Mike Verta does this in a great way).
  • You can also work with a long papertrail all along the wall of your room, a circle, and decide later on where to cut the beginning and the end. You will be able to decide on the placement of the climax later on.
  • A workflow with a lot of compositions gives in the end a better result. So the way I work will pay off in the end. Think of the pottery research: better make quantity than quality. Because you learn the craft while producing. You improve your workflow, the design of prints. You get more feed-back from musicians that you can incorporate in the next piece.
  • Remember: you can do anything with the orchestra. You can even seat them differently. (If you want that, prepare, because this takes a lot of time) Just letting them play your piece is just vain, because you already know how it will sound. Give room for a joke at the right time, people need to have a little fun while playing your experiments.
  • Groups of people like exact detailed clear instructions. Use the FC

Work the other way around: Conduct first, write later.

The baton is the instrument of the composer: a playfull way to start your own piece is conducting and singing the piece, before even start writing anything. When you conducting happens automatically, you can make a video and see the music before even writing a note. When you visualise the orchestra you also point out the choirs. Conduct het choirs while writing.

Me, reading and conducting a german text about climbing Mount Everest
  • There is 1 topic (theme, musical idea), another topic means another conversation (another piece). Compose a deep discussion between choirs about one subject.
  • My music sounds like a comedian telling his jokes too fast, not waiting for the punchline to sink in.
  • Speech has a rythm, remember the conducting of Lucas. Use the natural rythm of speech and bodypercussion with that to develop faster rythms. Your work now lacks that because it’s still a new topic you have to add to the mix.
  • When you use conducting texts to inspire your composisitions be aware that:
  • You can conduct the meaning of the word (the emotion of the content)
  • You can conduct the scentences (the melodic line)
  • You can conduct the rythm of the syllables (the rythm)
  • You can conduct an orchestra and point at the choirs needed to express the emotion of the alinea.

By Anneloes Wolters


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