Building Compositions, One Slide Whistle at a Time

Ideas at Little Opera are often contagious. When you’re surrounded by dangerously clever kids and adults for hours at a time, strategies for opera-making are abound, and it’s easy for the best of them to rub off. This has certainly been the case with composing this year – music composition, which, as my teacher once said, normally falls into two schools of pedagogy: “it can’t be taught!” and “it shouldn’t be taught!”

Like myself, fellow Little Opera composers-in-residence Alex and Jenny disagreed with this statement, and set about finding a way to give our younger operatically inclined friends the know-how to write their own music. Almost immediately, I latched onto a two key concepts imparted by my composerly comrades:

1. Limitations are your friend.

2. Composing, more than anything, is about having the right tools in your creative toolbox.

 With these nuggets of wisdom in hand, I sought out how to work with my group (ambitiously dubbed the “Wagners”) to prepare them to become smart, savvy music makers, ready to tackle the daunting challenge of opera composition.

Since we are only a few months into our musical journey, I can’t claim to have perfected my recipe for composing success. However, I’d love to share with you a few of my recipe’s key ingredients at the moment: a few sheets of paper, post-its, and… of course… slide whistles.

Let’s start with the paper. It occurred to me early on that there are a LOT of ways to describe music, and even a single note: loud, soft, long, short, high, low… and when you add even more notes, a whole new can of worms is opened. How is one to make sense of it all, much less decide on parameters to choose when composing? It then occurred to me that when we decide to sing a note, we’re making a choice that rules out its opposite – a note can’t be loud AND soft, short AND long. When thinking in binaries, the task of deciding which musical traits to choose becomes easier: “AND” becomes “OR.” To illustrate this, I made five cards with opposing musical terms on either side:

music cards

        • Treble (high) – or – Bass (low)
        • Piano (soft) – or – Forte (loud)
        • Staccato (short) – or – Legato (long)
        • Allegro (fast) – or – Largo (slow)
        • Major (bright, positive) – or – Minor (darker, negative)

Suddenly, the treacherous pile of descriptive terms became a veritable flip-book of musical possibilities for the Wagners. A familiar song like “Brother John” could go from an impish jig to a somber dirge with just a few flips of our handy cards. Indeed, the limitations imposed on us by these simple musical “OR” decisions gave us more flexibility than ever before!

After testing out these new creative tools on a tune, we tried applying them to an important operatic concept – emotion. From a previous exercise, the Wagners had amassed an array of post-it notes with a different emotion listed on each. Drawing one at random, each Wagner was challenged to pick what they felt were the appropriate musical qualities for their emotion.



Later, we tried putting our tools to a different test by composing music for two scenes from the Orpheus myth using our new favorite instrument: slide whistles. With our cards in hand and previous work with emotions fresh in our minds, we figured out the musical qualities that would accompany each of these scenes:

1. Orpheus in the underworld: bass, legato, largo, piano

2. Orpheus in the forest, lamenting his loss: treble, legato, largo, forte (it was decided that the forest itself, unaware of Orpheus’ pain, continues about its business in a treble, staccato, allegro, piano fashion)

In the end, our creative tools not only helped us paint these scenes with ease – their restrictive “this OR this” nature actually made it easier for us to make interesting decisions on the fly. Had we not been able to musically articulate the contrast of, say, Orpheus in the woods with the indifference of nature, we would have ended up with a far less magical result. After all, what else is composing but a little know-how, practice, and magic?

I look forward to keeping you updated as the Wagners and I continue our creative journey together!

– by Danny Clay
Resident Composer, 2014-2015