Composing the melody for A Prayer At Winter

January 16, 2024

January 16, 2024

Sharing some thoughts about melodic writing:

“The heart of the melody can never be put down on paper” - Pablo Casals

So I had a go at making a video of me talking a little about this piece I’ve written, as I play it in the background. Hard and fast rules elude me, but so does the opposite extreme; the standpoint of being guided by 'spirit' or 'the muse', surely some earthly-based techniques must be necessary! Some technical natter and natty scarf-wearing below!

Let's delve a little more into the techniques used in writing and playing this piece, which many of the song-writers amongst you will use already I’m sure;

- Look for the ratio of how much the melody itself holds momentum, to how much the underlying harmony controls the pace. Keep a balance between them, this is a good way of avoiding monotony.

- Look at how your melody suits not just the instrument, but the instrumentalist. (This time, we are not looking at lyrics).

- Look at countermelody moments that feel truly integral and are congruent with the message.

- Look at the predominance of rising to descending figures, how conscious are you as the composer, of the emotional effect of this?

- When is it time to break right away from the development of an idea, and bring in something of true contrast?

This list could go on quite usefully, but reading it would be a little like reading all of the details about driving a car without ever asking where you’re driving to, and why. I am aware of what dear Casals says, quoted at the start here.

The famous cellist also said: "The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all”.

So what purpose are all these techniques serving?

A question I love to ask myself and my students, is “how do you want people to feel after they have heard your music?” and the meaningful answer might come in the form of a strong feeling, not necessarily being found through words.

I believe that it is possible with music to create a very vital 'aware' mental state that does not contain any linguistic content. In other words, music can remind us of who we are when we do not think.

This piece of mine could be developed with “resting places” where improvisation can arise, but it has an arc to it that does not depend upon improvisation. The important point of the piece for me is that whatever sophistication listeners might hear in it, it retains the directness of a prayer.

As trusty as my mental 'Composer's-Tool-Kit' might be, the bigger part of me must focus on making itself vulnerable, as well as being single-pointedly focused on being open.

Perhaps it is like a fishing net under a boat, drifting with the current and moving with no apparent effort or discipline. The fisherman in this analogy is like the musical technique, that knows when to reel in; and sift, and sort.

Is this perhaps close to how Eckhart Tolle refers to the Human Being as having two parts? The Being, and then The Human?

It is possible to create wonderful melodies using your accumulated data bank of ideas. A mind truly free to roam can access an awful lot of information and make wonderful connections; choices informed by its own “zeitgeist” at the time.

The very reason to do this has much to do with the growing acknowledgment of feelings deeply shared in ALL of us. Awareness of something so utterly shared can be truly beautiful. I guess that's why many of us are drawn to sad songs, as they remind us that we are not alone with our emotions; these songs can be a catalyst for relief.