Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Last week I visited the exhibition by Elizabeth Blackadder at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. Her Japanese still life paintings, in which she spaces out objects and plays with repetition of form, provided a whole new perspective on the idea of composition. Blackadders’ Japanese paintings stand out because their composition is unusual, freed from Western conventions. What light does this shed on musical composition?

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Musical Terms, composition is the activity of composition and the result of that activity. As such it describes a process of construction, a creative putting together, a working out and carrying through of an initial conception or inspiration. Composition thus is a conscious process in which material is placed in relation to other material. What’s more, as it is a conscious process it is done with a pre-conceived idea in mind. Composition is not something done by musical composers only – painters, photographers and writers compose their material as well.

When we view a painting – say a Japanese still life by Blackadder – the way our eyes move through the painting is not predetermined. We may look at it from a distance to get a general impression, then step forward to look at some details. Detail is appreciated as part of the whole. In a musical composition, however, the listener doesn’t get the benefit of viewing the whole before hearing the detail. The musical journey takes the first-time listener into the unknown. What is heard can only be interpreted in terms of what has been heard before – not in relation to what is still to come.

Blackadder’s paintings point at another thing as well. In conventional still lifes all spaces seem to have a purpose. Blackadders’ still lifes celebrate the spaces-in-between as she explores how the components of her still lifes relate to each other. Painters and draughtman call this negative space. The musical equivalent would be silence. John Cage famously celebrated silence in his 4’33. Silences are not empty space, they may be filled with environmental sounds like in John Cage’s work, they may also be spaces in which what has gone lingers and what is to come is anticipated. In the same way as Blackadder’s spaces-in-between are an integral part of her still lifes, so silences should be an integral part of musical compositions. I, for one, am a composer who makes far too little use of the expressive qualities of silence.

So what does this mean for composers – of music? In addition to thinking about our musical material, the sequence in which we present it is important. New material will be interpreted only in terms of what has come before. The way in which we space material is important as well. A new idea emerging from a dense texture may be hidden from hearing, the same material following a silence will make much greater impact. In the Berceuse from his Escenas Romanticas, for example, Granados makes powerful use of the spaces-in-between by letting passages die away completely before starting the next passage quietly. This all sounds so simple, but how often do we actually consciously compose?

Links to blogs with own compositions:
Repetition (horn trio)
Unfolding (piano)
A different world (piano)
Silver (flute)
The home of the whale (choir)
Ebb and flow (piano)
The horncall (choir)
Charr Bothy (piano)

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

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