Friday, November 09, 2007

Thing's I Can't Do # 21

Ever since I was a child I have enjoyed drawing and writing. While I have never been great at either, I can at least admit to some level of ability in both. However, the third of the three biggest fields in the discipline of the Arts has forever eluded me, and to this day I have to admit that I just don't understand the process that goes into bringing it from something behind your eyes to the real world for others to enjoy.

When I see a book or a painting I understand the basic principles behind creating either. First, you create an idea, a plot or concept of what the finished product will roughly resemble. You sketch out your ideas, characters and setting, then begin the meat of the work, filling in the details, colouring the world and making the finished product appealing to look at or read. There's more to it, yes, but this is the basics upon which everything else is built.

But music is different. When I listen to a piece by my favourite modern composer, John Williams, I hear the majesty and power in every note. Nothing is fluff or filler, everything is important. It is lean and perfectly built, and more precise than a book or painting ever has to be. When John Williams creates a piece of music, how does it begin? How does he "sketch" his idea, or "colour" his world? Does he hear the piece in his head and then break it down instrument by instrument?

The composition of music fascinates me. I can hear music in my head when I'm happy, sad, lonely, or thoughtful. When I plot out ideas for RPG scenarios, or write short stories, I begin to hear the soundtrack for each scene playing behind my ears, just for me.

But I can never write them down. I can never imagine breaking them into their component pieces, defining what instrument does what. I can't imagine plotting out the highs and lows of an epic movement, or the dramatic tensions of a piece like "Duel of the Fates". I mean, look at the sheets of music that appear in the linked video! I spent years learning the piano and it's still an alien tongue to me!

How do they do it? I don't know. Obviously, natural talent is a vital factor. I think it would be difficult to teach someone to be a good composer. You really have to be able to hear the music.

But I would love to spend a week in John Williams' company and just watch and listen in sheer awe. That must be how God felt as He created the heavens and the earth, and He watched as the some caveman picked up a stick and started tapping out a rhythm. God only knows He must have been impressed.

Heh... see what I did there?!?

1 comment:

Cian said...

I don't know, I doubt it's that much different to how paintings, photos, sculptures or books are created. I think maybe you always need to have some sort of structure in mind, like with a photo you don't see the final image in perfect detail, you have ideas about dense areas, areas of negative space, focal points, the movement and direction of the image etc. Then as you compose the image you start to find the details that work and the details that don't so you fix them. Similarly with books I think you have to have an idea of pace and structure, how stories intertwine (or not), how the story builds and how it's resolved. I suppose it's not like that from the start, it depends on how clear your idea is at the start and how fast it crystallises in your mind. I guess what I'm saying is that you'll work with both a vague structure and precise details at different times, probably switching back and forth and I think that holds for almost all art forms.
I'm thinking of a great piece of instrumental music by Badly Drawn Boy, "I Love N.Y.E." (it's from the About A Boy soundtrack) Anyway, it starts of nice and soft, mellow and sweet, as it goes it rises slightly, slightly more weight added to some of the notes and then quite quickly fades, pauses and rushes back, after that, there's just about 30 seconds of wave after wave of beautiful, powerful, heart wrenching music. And then it's done with a nice soft resolution. That piece had to be composed with great attention to structure, each part of the song only works because it creates tension or offers resolution. At the same time it's quite a complex piece with several instruments, so great attention had to be paid to the arrangement and the texture of each individual bar. Similarly, composition is vital to a photo, so are details like texture and colour, the exclusion of distracting objects and the placement of conceptually important items.