I was watching the film the Martian the other day at the theater and, while it’s not a bad film, it does lend itself well to a certain amount of mind drift. Naturally the premise is ridiculous and I’m quite sure that the science probably has some holes in it but it occurred to me that this doesn’t matter because the point is we’re meant to imagine a person left behind on a desolate planet far from home who has to use his skills to stay alive until help comes.
In other words the premise and the plot itself are completely immaterial and the film works largely because it successfully gets the audience to invest in it. This is a revelation of sorts for me as a composer. I have thought numerous times how interesting it is to think about the moment that a chord progression becomes a song, when the songwriter invests it with meaning which is ideally shared on the part of the listener and it becomes more than the sum of its parts
I’m writing a solo flute piece at the moment and thinking about the flutist coming on stage and playing the first few notes. When I first began the piece that’s exactly what they were, just a C and a C#, not a piece of music but notes. I liked the notes but still they did not comprise an artistic statement as of yet.
Then I started thinking about how I’m in a time of transition in my life and I named the piece Half State. I then looked up that phrase and saw that it also applies to a state between sleeping and waking which is appealing to me and I decided that I liked the title. Now the C and C# in the opening are ambiguous and I added a pitch bend between them to highlight this fact. Now we are in a half state and the piece can progress. Now it is a piece, not notes.
Hopefully the audience will invest in the piece as well. That is the true measure of success in art. The piece can be well constructed but no one invests in it and by the same token there are highly successful pieces that are not well constructed but communicate and invite the audience to invest in them. Hopefully my piece will be both well constructed and communicative but ultimately I’ll judge the success of it on whether or not the listener invests in my premise.