General Music Theory and Tutorials > Advanced Composition

Subtractive composition


Jamie Kowalski:
I've been working with an idea lately that has been getting me some interesting results, and I'm wondering if anyone else here does something similar.

I start by writing a big orchestral tutti chock full of goodies. Lots of contrasting lines, counterpoint, and overall "thick" writing. Everything works together, though it borders on being too dense and overwhelming. But this is only a starting point for the actual composition, and probably won't be heard as is.

I make multiple copies of this monstrosity and use each as a new template for a section of the work. I then start deleting multiple textures from within each section. Maybe the first one I will leave in only flutes and horns, then for the second I'll use strings and oboes. It's sort of an experiment to see how many different subsets of the full texture work well.

With a little luck, I get a number of related sections that work very well together. It's sort of a theme and variations idea, but arrived at in an oblique way. By starting with simpler versions and getting more complex, it gives the illusion of previously presented material "magically" fitting together in a surprising whole.

That's a very interesting idea.  I've not tried that before. 

Where I thought you were going with the idea was analogous to an artist's negative space drawing and maybe in a way is somewhat analogous. 

Anyway an interesting idea.  Thank you for sharing that. 

Yes, this is an interesting idea. I've done this on a much smaller scale with some pieces when I needed to thin the instrumentation. I've done this only in sections of perhaps a few measures. I try to be especially selective, though, on the new sounds I create, and that they fit the overall flow in a larger section (and whole piece).

I assume you delete textures by experimenting with the sound of the new texture that deleting creates. You could also do this visually just from looking at the score, although the sound is, of course, the main event.

Any chance of posting a sample?

I like this idea a lot, as well.  I have a habit, when composing, of beginning with relatively simple material.  Most of the time, if/when it repeats, I embellish and/or otherwise change it.  I often do it so much, so, in fact, that notated repeats are very difficult for me to write.

Oftentimes, though, if I'm not careful, these embellishments have a tendency to make the original, simpler material feel lacking, so I will go back and embellish it, some.  This imbalances, though, and I end up embellishing the subsequent statements again even more to provide some difference, resulting in an "arms race" of sorts.  It's a difficult juggling act to keep a handle on, sometimes.  I may have to put this idea to practice next time, though: I'll just let the embellishments and changes take hold full speed, and then pluck out bits and pieces from them and try to subtractively (to borrow your terminology) create music that will later build and add to the completed whole.

For the sake of continued discussion, I'd love to see peoples' examples of attempts at it.  I might have to see if I can cook up some, myself, to lead the way.


Jamie Kowalski:
Still plugging away at the current idea that uses this, though I'm starting to alter the iterations afterwards. This makes it sort of a second generation variation, where the first is never heard. I never know where this kind of process might lead, but the ride is fun.

--- Quote from: gogreen on April 08, 2013, 03:52:40 PM ---I assume you delete textures by experimenting with the sound of the new texture that deleting creates.
--- End quote ---

Yes, though I see it as exposing a texture. All of the subsets of sounds have a common ancestor, so they are always related at some level.

--- Quote ---You could also do this visually just from looking at the score, although the sound is, of course, the main event.
--- End quote ---

I do most of my writing with a sequencer, which makes this sort of thing a breeze to do. Selectively muting tracks and auditioning sounds only takes a couple of seconds, and I get the immediate aural feedback that I like.

--- Quote ---Any chance of posting a sample?

--- End quote ---

If this gets to the point where I feel it is shareable, I will post. I'm not happy with it yet.


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