Over the past few months, I participated in two composition workshops that focused on composing music to a designated theme or story line. For the first workshop I was assigned a scene from Alice in Wonderland, and for the second I was given a scene from James and the Giant Peach.
ABOUT THE SCENE (It made almost no sense to me, since I read it out of context, so here’s my version of it!):
Alice and her friends sit down to discuss something that will “dry” them out. The Mouse, who, being quite small, thinks himself to be an authority, tries to control the argument in somewhat of an officous manner (I tried impersonating the mouse with the opening violin solo). Finally, everyone decides that a caucus race will do. No one ever really says start, but they start running anyway. Since there’s no start, there is a dispute of who shall be the winner, when someone cries, “We shall all be winners!” Everyone rejoices happily until a lonely voice drops the unanswered question, “But what shall the prizes be?”
I went a little off topic with this one, but more or less kept the theme going. As I mentioned, the violin solo in the beginning is supposed to characterize the mouse, while the next few themes describe the argument and the race itself. Finally, the song ends by returning to the initial, spunky theme, in which the question regarding the prizes is left unaswered. The second violinist missed his part a few times, so some sections sound a bit messy. Here’s the link to the score if you would like to see the original: https://www.dropbox.com/s/lhfl8odad4grxbh/Tyler%20Linahan%20SCORE.pdf
Assignment: Compose a short soundtrack (for string quartet) for the chosen scene. When finished, a live string quartet will play the piece at a recital. The catch is, they will have sightread it a few minutes earlier, and the recital is the first and last time you get to hear them play it. That means no do-overs, or “let’s go back and fix that.” Your first listen is the final product.
Time limit: Three, 2-hour classes, where students learn soundtrack basics, and discuss their ideas with personal mentors (CSUN music students). I worked the system a little, and spent a little time outside of class scoring the work at home.
My Challenge: Finding a way to make a string quartet evoke the same emotions and paint the same pictures that a full orchestra (plus synths, drums, etc.) can in a feature film, TV show, or video game. This means pushing the limits a little with the natural and intended capabilites of the violin, viola, and cello.
What I learned: A lot. First of all, writing for quartet is one challenge. Since there’s only four instruments, there’s naturally a much greater “up close and personal” sound. Writing a part for one cello is much different than writing a part for ten cellos, or even 2-3 cellos. I had to do my best to take the ambience an orchestra has and give it to a string quartet.
Second, I learned to proofread. Composing it is one thing; making it readable is another. Fortunately, software has made this much easier, but it’s still a pain now and then.
Third, I learned how to communicate. Initially, this involved taking some abstract idea from my head and describing it in English to my mentor. I was a really good exercise, and I found myself using a lot of interesting words…
As the performance was coming closer, I realized I didn’t have the opportunity to verbally speak to the instrumentalists before they played it. I freaked out a bit, but this situation forced me to be all the more descriptive with my writing style. I had to compose the song in such a way that their first time playing it would be exactly the way I wanted it. This again helped me to use descriptive words to define a mood or feeling, and notating in such a way that the appropriate style would be played naturally.