Making space in music

Since I started getting into modern art and using it as a starting point for my composition, I’ve come to think about the way I approach my music as being something like watercolours.

I love the space in watercolours – the always-present texture of the paper, the way that colours can combine on the paper to give fleeting new shades, not just something to be predetermined and absolute from the palette, but shades that can develop and change according to how many layers of pigment are applied.

And this is the way I approach my music too. I feel my way as I go. Add an instrument here, take one away – fleeting timbre changes that occur through layering one transparent colour on top of another. Perhaps that’s why my music has always tended towards smaller ensembles – I’ve had trouble thinking in the large-scale way that bigger ensembles seem to require.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about ways I could tackle larger-scale pieces. Thinking about how to keep a sense of space in a bigger piece. To work with blocks of timbre but not feel crushed by the weight of sound. Thinking about how this might relate to the way I handle form too.

I’m taking lessons this semester at the London College of Music with Simon Lambros and without my even having specifically talked about this space issue, he’s introduced me to a simply amazing piece of music – Nicholas Maw’s Life Studies. No. 1 in particular has been a bit of a revelation – the space in the opening of this piece is just phenomenal!

So I’ve been doing a lot of listening and a little rough analysis on this opening to see what I can glean from this to use in my own work. Here are some initial observations:

  • Chunks of silence – he’s in no hurry to rush on to the next thing. The piece is slow, but there’s still movement, it’s just that the movement from one thing to another isn’t an imperative. It’s more… exploratory.
  • Wide, unhurried melodic leaps. Most of the melodic material at the start of this work moves by leaps of over an octave and I think this expansive use of an instrument’s range spreads out the melodic material vertically as well as horizontally
  • Very long held notes – just as he feels no requirement to have sound at all times, he feels no requirement to end a held note after a “reasonable” duration. He uses these long notes to help ‘pin down’ shorter fragments of melody so they feel a part of the whole – like ornaments on one long breath
  • Quiet yet detailed dynamics. I think the quiet of the piece as a whole makes us pay attention a little more to the detail. You have to really listen for what’s going on. It’s not going to leap out and batter you over the head in a fortissimo moment – if you don’t pay attention you’ll miss something.
  • Chord spacing. The chords he uses aren’t necessarily widely voiced, but most of them have at least one wide interval in them, generally at the bottom of the stack, which makes the smaller intervals higher up (quite often very close intervals – semitones or tones) feel like they’re floating.

Obviously, this isn’t a recipe for every piece – I’m sure there’s a way to write expansive fast and loud music – but it’s giving me food for thought. I’ve started a new piece now – a song for tenor and chamber orchestra which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It may still be a disaster, of course, but for now I’m finding it interesting just experimenting with these ideas and seeing what happens.


What other pieces of music do you feel achieve this sort of spaciousness? Do you search for space in your own music? What techniques have you found effective? Please share!

2 Replies to “Making space in music”

  1. I think that letting the instruments (whatever they are) have time to express themselves also makes us think in terms of space. Even in a fast piece, if you let the instrument breathe (partly though use of dynamics)you will begin to hear that space. I think! Shostakovich's string quartets seems to have lots of space and each voice is perfectly clear – they never seem to be involved in gratuitous battles. Not quite sure how he does this but having played a couple of them it seems partly the way each voice will drift in and out of focus, giving a sense of spaace whatever is happening in the music as a whole.

    1. Great point, Keef. Yes, ebb and flow is something I'm trying to achieve in my current piece (and stasis to a certain extent). Your choice of the word "breathe" is now also making me think about the actual physical act of breathing – keeping phrases to reasonable lengths and allowing whitespace between phrases for a comfortable – not a snatched – breath. I wonder whether that in itself might make a difference. I shall dig out my Shostakovich quartets!

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