Working with visual inspiration and developing the idea for your composition

An excerpt from the January 23, 2011, chat with composer and interdisciplinary artist Paola Prestini

Paola Prestini: identify a theme you would like to use for your composition. You are free to use the themes mentioned below. Place that idea on a musical tree and timeline. Place musical ideas, themes, words, motifs, and any other visual aspects onto the timeline, then shift into your method of composing.

Lucas [teacher in Mexico City]: I think of the students I work with, from a musical idea that they compose at a basic level, that they may relate to something visual

Paola Prestini: Use an image as a jumping off point for a composition. Create a diary entry about the image or sound clip and describe your reinterpretation.

Naomi [student in New York City]: I understand the idea now :)

Paola Prestini: Now...if I were to do a picture, that would also have the same implications...

Paola Prestini: Lucas, do you have an idea of what pics you'd like to use?

Lucas: Ok, I understand you …

Paola Prestini: For example, the Body Maps collaboration was definitely a visual prompt, as you can see

Paola Prestini: We actually used 4 different body parts to create a piece

Paola Prestini: the eye in the canary mouth, the hands, the feet, and finally the arms interpreted as wings, or flight

Paola Prestini: But also, an image can be interpreted so many ways

Lucas: The challenge I have, is how to convey this idea to students, it occurs to me that music can weigh as a trigger to the images

Paola Prestini: well let's try it now!

Naomi: Ok :)

Paola Prestini: can everyone go to this image on the site I made

Paola Prestini: http://paolaprestini.com/musical-exchange/

Paola Prestini: ok, take a look at the picture in black and white

Naomi: That is so cool!!!

Paola Prestini: thanks :) it's from our opera.

Paola Prestini: what does it convey to you? in sound, and in thoughts?

Naomi: You’re welcome :)

Branch [student in New York City]: Great photo! it conveys movement...and contrast, due to the black and white

Paola Prestini: yes...so, if we were to use that as a prompt, I would say: write down all the words it means to you...create a story, abstract or not, that describes sound, pacing, emotion, etc.

Paola Prestini: then choose the important parts of that story and place on timeline and musical tree. ...

Lucas: ok!

Paola Prestini: any other comments ... I also agree, the movement is what grabs me, and the light dancing because of the movement of the camera and the black and white. ...

Branch: I see ... so for my folksong, for instance, I might write a story that it evokes in me, and map it on a timeline and musical tree

Paola Prestini: yes. ... exactly!

Paola Prestini: and then, we begin to imagine what makes this piece sound wise a Branch composition?

Branch: haha ... right.

Paola Prestini: Who are you writing it for, and do you want to juxtapose it with something contemporary...

Lucas: ritual!

Paola Prestini: OOO! I love the sense of ritual, yes, Lucas ... in fact it was a ritual in Northern Africa

Naomi: My family are from Africa

Paola Prestini: Branch, have you made field recordings before? What is it about that piece that inspires you? Do you like the sacred aspect and what is sacred in your everyday life?

Paola Prestini: Really Naomi, how interesting! Where from?

Naomi: My mom is from Congo, and my dad is from Cameroon

Paola Prestini: Have you been? Would you be interested in using a folksong from there?

Naomi: Sure!!!

Paola Prestini: very cool!

Paola Prestini: so, this would be a great jumping off point because folksongs tend to have stories, but how they inspire you becomes very personal

Lucas: ok, I understand that the idea is through an image, what are the emotions and pass through the composition

Paola Prestini: yes...so true, very many contemporary manifestations of it....

Paola Prestini: and yes, Lucas, for the image it's really about emotion, color, arc, again, what it means to you....

Paola Prestini: I love how distinct your choices are!!!

Branch: I've never actually used field recordings in composition, so this'll be new for me. I think this piece is a good choice because there are many things I could do with it:

Branch: I can explore the meaning of the text, as well as take advantage of the single note drone played as a base

Paola Prestini: yes....and also, what is that drone? is it made on your computer, or a voice, or an instrument?

Paola Prestini: great thing about living in NY and DF is that there is a world of interesting sounds and cultures around you every day!

Paola Prestini: Lucas, I was recently in Tepoztlan where I made recordings in Nuhuatl....so amazing

Lucas: Ok! tepoztlan is magic!

Paola Prestini: yes! It is magical :)

Branch: well, there are many ways to make a drone...I can make it with all three of those things, but in the recording it's a bagpipe...it'll be interesting to see how I can use other mediums to create it

Paola Prestini: yes, for sure! Branch, how do you tend to compose?

Branch: well I've done it a few ways...my older stuff is very old-fashioned (done by piano) but recently I've started working with Sibelius, so I can use different instruments and sounds, as well  as recordings from other  pieces

Paola Prestini: very cool. I work with Sibelius too!

Paola Prestini: So, … just to recap ... this week, I will be reaching out to you, and you each will be beginning to reimagine your source material

Paola Prestini: remember, these visual tools are to help you organize your musical thoughts through both horizontal and vertical thinking

Paola Prestini: so timeline is more about time, and placing all your impulses in time

Paola Prestini: a musical tree is more about placing value to your musical impulses

Paola Prestini: what's on top? how does it relate to other things? what are the most important moments in your composition

Lucas: Ok! I will review the ideas and communicate Paola!

Join composer Paola Prestini in the Musical Exchange Project Composing: Sing in an Interdisciplinary Voice (January 23 - March 2, 2012).

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