Music and story

When you look at the score and hear the music of ‘Der Weihnachtswolf’ (‘The Christmas-wolf’), you see and hear a story. The piece has a poem added, describing the story you hear.

Or did I write an entirely different story?

My quest for understanding story in music, started with composing ‘The Waterwolf and the Fire-butterflies’. That composition was an experiment using ‘The anatomy of story’ by John Truby as a starting point. I wanted to find out what the effect is of story on my compositions.

The first story I wrote was about a waterfox, living between the roots of an ancient tree. One day, he sees caterpillars on the leaves. The caterpillars become fire-butterflies and set the tree on fire. The tree burns down, but the seeds of the tree prosper on its ashes.

I chose the energy curve writers use to write a standard theatre-play: the standard 3 act structure with a climax at 2/3 of the time spend to tell the story. Then I wrote each of the characters a theme and developed these themes over the energy-curve of the story.

Standard 3-act withan energy-curve as used in the ‘addiction formula’ by F. Findeisen.

You get an impression of the result listening to ‘Zerschmetterling’, which is a summary of the original piece, but gives you the right feel what a composition set up this way will sound like.

As you can see and hear, this composition consists of a series of ultra-short compositions that could have worked on their own, had I developed those separately as a whole piece. You can also hear the orchestra struggle, because the composition is extremely unpredictable.

I was very unhappy with this result and rewrote the composition using the story from the viewpoint of the waterfox. So now, I had only one character left to work with. I changed the title into Der Weihnachtswolf (The Christmas-wolf) But as you can hear: This did not solve the lack of unity, because again I ended up with a ‘series of ultra-short-compositions’.

The good part was, that people really liked this composition, despite its lack of unity. I will explain why, when I write about how my own personal stories end up in my compositions.

So, I tried again….

I decided to first get rid of all the disruptive changes of the instrumental choirs, because that was distracting me from the actual problem. I found that on the one hand, changing choirs is great when you want to fight boredom. But boredom was not the problem I was facing, my problem was too much ‘creativity’. So I limited myself, writing for just one choir: The saxophones. ‘Bore-out tango is that composition.

You hear me researching the ‘borders of boredom’.

This composition taught me that working with just one sound-color is very insightful, when searching for better form and structure. So I decided to limit myself even more and write for trombone-choir. Now I had all the same instruments, all the same colors. This time I didn’t start with a story, because when you do the same thing, you get the same result. Instead I started with a recording of me singing the theme:

Me, singing the musical idea for ‘Willem de Zwijger’

I didn’t think of any story and just started writing according to the energy-curve drawn over a fixed number of bars. This composition ended up way better. Mr. R. Zokaites had my piece played at the trombone-festival in Enschede. He told me that the ‘Willem de Zwijger‘ was a well constructed piece of music. So, apparently there was something good about this composition.

But…it didn’t have a story.

So I fit the story of ‘Willem de Zwijger’ to the composition, naming the bars where the action was, where his dog was playing and more. I added a picture of the young ‘Willem de Zwijger’. This worked really well, because everybody understood how to play the music immediately by looking at the picture and reading the story.

So, you better work the other way around: first sing a theme, design your energy curve, paste your theme development onto a bar-numbered structure and finally find a story that sticks to it.

Now we go back in time, to ‘Der Weihnachts-wolf’, because there is more to this composition than the name and poem suggest:

I found out that I write ‘people’.

When I write for orchestra, I think of the instruments as voices and have the choirs ‘discuss the theme’. I found that I was writing the way my family discusses a subject: They interrupt each other all the time, often with even different subjects.

So my family was subconsciously interfering with my music.

Thinking about how all these people ended up in my music, I discovered that I was actually also writing a person: Some-one who had passed away young, a long time ago, was on my mind and ended up being this composition. The composition should have had a name instead of a story. I felt very uncomfortable adding this true story to the composition, so instead I invented the story of the ‘Weihnachts-wolf’ that fitted the energy-curve of the music.

Because a story is a powerful distraction from the real topic.

It worked perfectly for the musicians who found it difficult to come up with images while playing. But, many musicians started wondering, because they did not hear what they were seeing. I could not fool them: They heard me, telling about this person that was dear to heart. That was why, in spite of all the technical problems, everybody liked the piece.

Did I write an entirely different story? Yes, I did. Now you know why.

Read ‘The necklace and the State of the building‘ for more explanation about ‘lack of unity’ in compositions.

Read ‘DNA of your oeuvre and why there is no right, nor wrong, but only sound.‘ It discusses how to design more unity in your compositions.

By Anneloes Wolters


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