During my lessons with Stephen Melillo we talked about the analogy between composing and sculpturing. When you make a sculpture out of marble, you remove the material you do not want. When you write music you should also remove everything that is not needed. Composers can choose not to write notes, passages (see the blog DNA of music) or even a whole composition.

This discussion is mostly about the art of not writing notes. I touch a little upon the subject of not writing passages and compositions in the last part of this blog.

Composition is the art of knowing what not to write.” (Stephen Melillo)

The analogy made me think about the space around a sculpture: That space is part of the statue too, so ‘nothing’ is as much part of that piece of art as is ‘something’, the marble. Because of the reverse form of the ‘nothing’ of a sculpture, I started calling that ‘negative space’ and wondered if music also has ‘negative space’.

Are the silences the ‘negative spaces’ of music? If there is music in them, are they consciously composed? It would explain why we hear music during silences. It would explain why musicians must consciously play the notes and the silences, because only then, there will be music in the silences, otherwise there will only be a pause ( a rest in the literal way of the word).

 “When Mahler plays that one note, I must wonder why he chose NOT to write the other 87. “ (Stephen Melillo)

To make the discussion even more interesting: The most important note of Beethoven 5 is a silence: ta-ta-ta-daa SILENCE ta-ta-ta-daa’. That silence is very loud: the result of a conscious choice. That’s why there is music in that silence. Beethoven chose not to write that note, so we hear a silence.

As we know from conversations: Silences can be way more devastating than whole sentences.

Of course, the silence in itself is just a very soft note, it’s not the ‘negative space’ we were talking about when we compared music to sculptures.

Probably, what we are subconsciously experiencing during that silence, is that ‘negative space’ filled with ‘negative music’. You hear in that one silence of Beethoven 5th in extreme form, what has been consciously omitted. The rage and anger of the opening are all concentrated in that silence. To me this silence feels like an echo that doesn’t duplicate its’ original sound, but the soul of the composer.

Let me make this point about space and silence more personal:

Last year I wrote a very personal in memoriam that I covered up with the story of the ‘Christmas-wolf‘, in order to protect myself from difficult questions. (Read more about this in my blog ‘Music and story‘) I heard my own music being played for the first time in my life: I was totally blown away by my own music. Not because it was so good, it just wasn’t, but because I heard ‘me’ sounding in the concerthall amplified by a whole orchestra.

‘I’ was all around ‘me’

Instead of ‘me’ being in my head, I was sounding in the air of the concert hall. I had created a space filled with vibrating air around me and I heard myself sounding in that space at the same time. It was such an overwhelming experience. 

This was my first ‘space-experience’ within my own music. It would also be my own first ‘negative space’ experience with my own music during a silence:

There were 2 bars that represented me the most. I closed my eyes. They played the bars and then there was a short silence and in that silence music was still sounding: There was an echo of me in that silence. I cried on stage, overlooking the whole orchestra in that silence. At that moment I knew that I was a composer, I just didn’t know how to write music.

Experienced composers can deliberately compose in a way that the listener develops a sense of what was not written, like I accidentally did in my own silence.

Air is the marble of the composer.

Composers design vibration of air in space over time. We take listeners on a journey using the vibrating air in space, creating a sensation of here, there and everywhere. Composers create space for instruments to sound, windows of opportunity for clouds of mixed sound-colors to emerge. The journey ends only, when it is time. The only thing really limiting to a composition is time, not air, not space.

When you do that deliberately, you can give the listener a sense of everywhere and then go ‘here’, leaving them with the question ‘Why did we go ‘here’ and not there?’ When the ‘here’ is sounding, the ‘there’ is sounding in the ‘negative space’. It is the music you hear in the silence after a climax, the instruments that are not playing any more, but you still experience music in that silence.

You hear the music that has carefully not been written.

Let me explain this in more detail, because this is tricky business:

You can only know the ‘HERE’, when you also know the ‘THERE’. There is no “HERE’ without ‘THERE. It’s a contrast. When you say ‘I am here’, you state that as opposed to all the pictures in your head showing all the possible ‘there’s’ you know.

This is where the importance of contrast in orchestration comes in: We show the whole orchestra BAM! THERE! All the pictures! and then only the hoorn stays stating ‘psssst…here…one picture of here…’ Your ears always zoom in on that instrument in that moment, because ‘here’ is where you are ‘now’, in this moment. The BAM! memory keeps ringing in your head, while the hoorn is playing, providing the contrast and you hear ‘negative music’ in the ‘negative space’ of the silence.

How about composers deciding not to write passages?

When a composer decides not to write a whole musical idea in a composition, you hear them consciously not being used. Read more the influence of not used musical ideas on your work in ‘DNA of Music‘.

How about composers deciding not to write compositions?

Let’s think about the compositions I didn’t write and the ones I did write but didn’t use. There is a difference, because writing a composition but not using it, leaves all the experiences with that music with you and you will take that experience with you into the next composition. So you will hear the disregarded composition.

You can also not write a composition because you do not feel ready for that piece of music. The next compositions will be preparing for that composition. So you hear the future composition in your present work as well. So the composition you are not ready to write will wound in your present work.

Even compositions you didn’t write for practical reasons will influence your present work, because you hit the limit of the actual possibilities in real life. So you will limit your next work to be sure never to hit those limits again.

By Anneloes Wolters


%d bloggers like this: