My conducting teacher told me about a score: this composer thinks in blocks. And then it hit me, that I was seeing WALLS in the score. There were walls everywhere. My scores also have a lot of walls, mostly beneath a melodic line, sometimes as separate ‘bangs’.
A WALL is absolute, a given, never giving in. A wall is a moment in TIME where SPACE abruptly changes. This means an abrupt change in SOUND, thus ORCHESTRATION.
Listening to the effect of walls, you can hear that some walls construct a meaningful silence and others don’t. Thinking that contrast means walls, thinking black-white, doesn’t work great when you try to achieve a meaningful contrast. Why?
Because there is nothing that hits the wall.
Will thinking in waves help me design better, more human, more thoughtful music? Thoughtful music, that people can relate to, is as complicated as life itself. People never think black/white, emotions come in waves, rather than walls.
Waves, walls and contrast
The sound of big waves hitting the rocks is familiar to our ears. You hear the wave coming, then it splashes onto the rocks. After the splash, there is the silence of the retreating wave.
Now, listening to Debussy, especially, La Mer, I feel that Debussy writes contrasts as WAVES. But when I listen to him, the waves don’t splash. Why?
Because there is nothing the waves can hit on.
There are no WALLS. When you write WAVES, you also need WALLS for them to hit. When you write WALLS, you need WAVES to hit them with.
So, I think, that in order to write a meaningful CONTRAST you have to hit WAVES against WALLS. The WAVES have to splash and crash onto the walls. A wall in itself doesn’t sound, nor do waves.
There is only sound when waves hit walls.
The physics behind waves hitting a wall, is that there will be an open end at the wall. The height of the waves will be way bigger than the normal ‘belly’ rolling up towards the wall. Because the waves have an open end hitting the rocks, it splatters into such a fast big high wave, like the tip of a whip.
I think writing contrast in this way, you will be able to also compose the sound of the retreating wave, because after a wave hitting a rock, there is always this sound of the deep low retreating part of the wave before a new one hits.
Thinking WAVES hitting WALLS, it is easier to imagine a meaningful SILENCE. Now you can imagine how waves retreat after hitting rocks. This is not a ‘rest’, a non-sounding event. A retreating wave also sounds, you hear the ‘valley’, the ‘no-wave’, the ‘reverse’.
Thinking WAVES hitting WALLS is very playful: there are all kinds of contrasts. The smallest wave might be a small creek meandering over a meadow. The small waves hit soft walls made of grass and leaves. You might even think about water dripping on a stone or raindrops in a pond. Or a storm on sea hitting a rock formation.
Big WAVES require big SPACES, big SOUNDS, created by big ORCHESTRATIONS. The biggest splash, is created by the most solid, abrupt wall.
The biggest waves leave the biggest silences, they construct the biggest contrast. But there is always the sound of the retreating wave, even when it is a silent whisper. I think that a composition should consider waves hitting walls in order to achieve a meaningful silence.
The speed, direction and inevitability of the wave hitting the wall can best be designed by a, at that moment, familiar harmonic development. You KNOW where it will go, how it will end. You see it coming, and still, it’s a surprising feat.
The way I compose now, I design the whole composition to achieve one biggest wave hitting the harshest wall creating the biggest possible contrast, and thus climax. All the other waves and walls are building up to that one hit. I think that only after that ultimate climax there can be an absolute and meaningful silence where you can experience ‘negative sound’: the music going on in the silence.
The energy-curve: A graph of waves, walls and space?
The energy curve tells me how big the waves and walls at the moment can be, how they will grow towards that one big hit at the biggest climactic point in the composition. This way, there will always be a drive, a direction towards that point in time where the music will hit hardest.
The energy curve can define the sizes of the contrasts. You can design a curve that adds WAVES/WALLS/CONTRASTS on top of the FORM you use. It is interesting to draw circles at the hitting points, where waves hit walls, and draw a bigger circle for a bigger ‘smash’ / ‘contrast’. It makes you see, what amount of SPACE you have to create and thus, what ORCHESTRATION you have to use to make that CONTRAST happen.
Thinking about waves also opens up a more continuous way to push harmony. I think the waves will work best using a fluid harmonic view and a more discontinuous way will work better for the walls. I am trying to figure this one it in my composition ‘I paint music’. Let’s hear it soon!