Found in Translation: Connectivity in Concepts and Composition

I have always vacillated in methods of my composition process from initial concept to final product: sometimes the first spark is a title or an idea that I then try to compose to express, sometimes it’s a melody, chord, or rhythm that I develop musically and then assign some further conceptualization to (or not) afterward. In all other situations outside this project, however, I usually make it a point to let the music itself take precedence over the concept, title, or extramusical ideas that I may want to associate or express.

This project, however, is perhaps the most extreme departure from that hierarchy I could conceive of. While the titles in my abstract and initial concept were deliberately left open to change, I found that the amount of time and energy I had spent developing how each marine biome and group of organisms of each piece related to and flowed into one another (even before officially beginning the project) guided the direction and nature of the music I was composing more than the other way around. During the day to day work of recording and composing, however, it took me somewhat longer to adapt to following the concept rather than the music than I would have expected looking back. The difficulties arose particularly with the middle pieces of the album, that had not been as musically fleshed out as the beginning and end; as a result, it took more attempts to match the varied musical directions I would explore to the hardened musical and conceptual bookends of the album but also to appropriately express the variety of the biomes and organisms I sought to express.

The album is not quite a strict tone-poem or program piece: there is no singular strict narrative or specific associations of instruments, melodies, or themes with any particular creature or concept. The only general fixed program that I insist is still present in the music (and was intended to guide the cycle) is a general sense of direction and time: the cycle begins on the shore, departs out to the open ocean, and returns to the same shore. The shore is therefore the fixed “setting” for both the start and finish of the whole cycle. This felt natural to convey via field recordings: in this case, waves and a very distant lighthouse bell. Over the many drafts and edits that these pieces went through, the lighthouse bell has been added and taken out more than any other single component of the whole album: the final version leaves it in. As I described in my previous post, the purpose of these field recordings on the first and last pieces is to convey space and the natural but imagined sound of a place. The lighthouse bell, easy to miss amid the breaking waves and pulsating synthesizers, is a detail of setting that I feel is one of the unique benefits of using field recordings: its familiarity grounds the otherwise alien and unnatural sounds in an almost comforting sort of reality. I believe that this sense of specific location and inclusion of the described biome’s natural sound in the piece made conveying the place musically easier, both as a composer and for the first-time listener to the entire cycle. The album is, after all, about the ocean, even when all that is heard is very non-oceanic instruments and voices. Having the ocean speak for itself through these field recordings eases the listener into the more abstract inner pieces.

The level of connectivity between each of the eight pieces is musically quite strong. I originally expected that they each would be able to stand on their own as a piece in their own right; now having composed and listened to all of them thoroughly, I am not so sure. It seems that like the biomes they are named for, they rely on each other in both subtle and obvious ways. This connectivity is what I feel I have discovered through this project, and this discovery was only brought to light by focusing on how to translate the biological and oceanographic concept behind the music. My understanding of the interwoven nature of the different organisms and abiotic facets of the ocean has helped me to conceptualize my own creation in a completely different light. While I still feel each of the eight pieces is its own completed work, I have come to think of the whole project as a sort of extended piece in eight movements. The distinction is one of musical semantics, but I am pleasantly surprised to have discovered a new interpretation of my own work via conceptualizing my compositional process in a new way.


  1. bmbuncher says:

    This looks great, I cannot wait to hear the final product! Where were the field recordings recorded?