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Visual music

Music is, of course, a sonic art form but it need not deal only with sound. Music is kinetic; certain pieces might feel different to play or sing when compared to others (as a pianist, I have always preferred playing a B Major scale to a C Major scale, for example, because of how the pattern of black and white notes seems to ‘fit’ the various lengths of my fingers). Music is also visual; one of the reasons why concertgoers might prefer the live experience to Spotify is that you can see the pain etched on the face of the soloist, the bow hairs fraying as she launches herself into a fierce cadenza.
There are a number of composers who consider the visual aspect as a core element of a piece; I am going to introduce you to two recently examples.
NOCTURNE by Mátyás Wettl

Composed in 2015 for the Dutch percussion group, Slagwerk Den Haag, this piece’s beauty is a result of its visual simplicity and musical restrictions. Four players control four lamps each, resulting in an array of sixteen percussive sounds and light sources. It is clear that much of the musical content is a consequence of exploiting visually attractive patterns (for example, the section beginning 4:14). However, the musical material is very exciting in its own right; rhythmically unpredictable and full of surprises. I find the end result utterly mesmerising!
Key Jack by Michael Beil

Composed in 2016, this work is very different to NOCTURE; whilst NOCTURE was a thorough exploration of a single, simple idea, Key Jack is a complex, sinister combination of performance art, electroacoustic music, and video. It is clear Beil has considered the visual aspect very carefully; the way in which he has timed events so that the three incarnations of the performer interact (from 3:02, for example) is mind-boggling. At times it is easy to forget that there is no piano present, and that the performer is miming to pre-recorded music (the section beginning 6:01 is particularly impressive). The score is littered with very specific instructions (including the swapping of hats, dirty grins, and a mimed performance of Ebony and Ivory) but there are some captivating musical moments, and the end is particularly chilling.
When composing, it is not always necessary to consider the visual aspect; however you might be surprised by the number of scores that contain information regarding instrument layout. Even when using only conventional instrumentation, composers have experimented with visual presentation (for example, the score to Harrison Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre stipulates that musicians move on stage, from one position to another). If you are composing a dance piece (as is currently required on the Music 1: Composing Music course) you might want to imagine what the dancers are doing, and let that influence your compositional decision making.

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Posted by author: Ben Gaunt
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