This month’s Second Saturdays Hyperscore composition workshop started with a sound:
Striking and familiar yet uncanny, this sound, which we encountered in this 2020 article from The Guardian, is that of Antarctic icebergs melting. The sound of rushing water is punctuated by an eerie and percussive whooshing and popping sound, which, as the article explains, is the sound of primordial air breaking out of millennia-old bubbles, held no longer by the ancient, now melting, ice.
We listened to this in the context of taking inspiration from clips of sound from the world for musical composition. How might we translate the feelings that came up, and the rhythms of the sound of the melt itself, into music? We set out to find one answer to this question during the workshop.
We began by naming the feelings and atmospheres that were evoked for each of us when we listened to the sound of the iceberg. Themes arose as we spoke of familiarity, awe, uneasiness, uncanniness, and surprise. What sounded like rushing water in the clip was a familiar, even comforting sound, but the interruption of the strange popping sound gave an edge to this feeling. The additional context that knowledge of climate change gave to the sound – the melt reaching farther into the ice, and getting louder, every year – added a somber, even grim, undercurrent. We wanted to approach composition both mirroring what we were literally hearing (a constant, smoother sound punctuated by sudden and unexpected pops) and the emotional reactions that this sound and its context created in us.
Moving into Hyperscore, we decided to start with some melody windows that could serve as an ambient, slow backdrop to the piece, using notes with long durations and in a low register, using a timpani and strings for our instrumentation.
We then created some strokes to correspond to these motifs in the Sketch window. The result was melodically tense and rather menacing.
We had our “consistent” sound which we then wanted to break up with unexpected interruptions and percussive splashes. To add a rhythmic yet unpredictable element we composed two faster-moving melodic motifs on pizzicato strings – one with a measure broken up into 3 notes of equal value (in other words, a half-note triplet), and one with a measure broken up into 4 notes of equal value (in other words, quarter notes).
When played together and layered into the Sketch window, they created a kind of rhythmic dissonance and a sense of driving momentum that broke above the surface of the steady and slow sounds we started with. We decided to emphasize this sudden and inconsistent effect to introduce these new sounds in the Sketch window (represented by the light and dark green strokes) as fragments that would pop in and out before returning in earnest and persisting for what would become the climactic moment of the composition:
To add even more emphasis to this climactic section and create a mood of mounting urgency, we created another 3-against-4 rhythmic figure on woodblock in two Percussion windows and added this in the Sketch window as well:
We liked it but found that we were deviating some from the unpredictable sense that we got from the popping in the initial iceberg sound clip. To reintroduce that surprise, we created a version of the green motifs that was a bit more sparse, while still maintaining the 3-against-4 feel, and applied this to the green strokes only in the latter half of our piece.
We decided to tweak the percussion windows as well, making the note attacks much more rapid and inconsistent and adding in some triangle hits:
We continued on with this process of listening to our composition, reacting to what we were hearing, then making changes and additions according to our reactions. Through this process in the course of the rest of the hour-long workshop, we added a mournful, soft ambient drone of low flute and organ, and a jerking, syncopated melody played on pizzicato strings.
We arranged all of the building blocks we had created into a form that ebbed and flowed between themes of rattling urgency and dirge-like somberness. Without planning to, we ended up creating a rather atonal and dissonant piece that nonetheless carried in its undercurrent a driving movement that enthralled us when we listened to the final product. We ended by titling it, appropriately, “The Melt”.
Listen to the final, 80-second-long composition below, along with a recording of the full workshop including our brainstorming, composing and editing process.
Iceberg image courtesy of Angie Corbett-Kuiper via Unsplash