Scoring a Short Story: Students Find Music in Cortázar’s Surrealist Narrative | Berklee Valencia Campus

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Scoring a Short Story: Students Find Music in Cortázar’s Surrealist Narrative

Student conducting a string quartet for the assignment at Palau de les Arts. Photo by Tato Baeza. Student conducting a string quartet for the assignment at Palau de les Arts. Photo by Tato Baeza.

“A cronopio is about to open the door to the street, and upon putting his hand in his pocket to take out the key, what he emerges with is a box of matches, whereupon the cronopio grows extremely upset and begins to think that if, in place of the key, he finds matches, it would be horrible if at one stroke the world were to be transposed, and at best, if the matches were where the keys should have been, why shouldn’t it happen that he would find his wallet full of matches, the sugar bowl full of money, and the piano full of sugar, and the telephone directory full of music, the wardrobe full of commuters, the bed full of men’s suits, the flowerboxes full of sheets, the trams full of roses, and the countryside full of trams.” — Julio Cortázar (as translated by Paul Blackburn)

Recording

These are the opening sentences to Argentine writer Cortázar’s short story The Photo Came out Blurred, included in his 1962 book Cronopios and Famas, in which “cronopios” are a fictional type of person. It’s also the basis of a scoring assignment in Assistant Professor Alfons Conde’s Advanced Dramatic Orchestration course. Students in the Master of Music in Scoring for Film, Television, and Video Games program had to provide a musical narrative of approximately two minutes using only a string quartet.

“The purpose of this exercise is to practice composition for a group of strings, after we studied the particularities of each separate string instrument,” says Conde.

For student Fernando Furones, who recently conducted his first orchestra, it was “a very intimidating adventure,” especially since, when writing for full orchestra, poorly written lines may pass by unnoticed, but in a string quartet with only four voices, all of the composition is exposed.

“I mainly focused on the dreamlike and surreal aspect of the text by creating a familiar atmosphere, but at the same time, making the listener feel slightly uncomfortable,” Furones says. “I tried to play with unusual harmonic and meter changes to achieve this.”

Watch Furones conduct the string quartet for this exercise:

Fellow student Ho-Ling Tang also enjoyed the challenge, noting, “I didn’t really see it as a limitation. I wanted to take advantage of this instrumentation and explore musical ideas in many ways.”

Capturing the Mood, from Prose to Notes

Conde provided his students with some insight into Cortázar’s surrealist text, noting that the author was influenced by everything from fantasy films and Disney animated classics to Warner Brothers cartoons and Japanese anime.

“It’s a good exercise to practice the musical conceptualization of narrative languages,” he says.

The students embraced the author’s tone. Brazilian student Mauricio Vasconcelos explains that the narrative lacked breathing room, “intentionally of course.” This inspired Vasconcelos to write something in a similar direction, with a lot of moving musical elements and no pauses in the music.

Listen to Vasconcelos' piece:

“I was looking for a sound that has a quality between dream and reality, playing a lot with the melodic lines, texture, and timbre to achieve the sound that I wanted,” says Tang.

Tang aimed for a more fragmented composition, inspired by the rhythm of the phrases in the story. To achieve a more distant, somber timbre, her piece was played in muted “con sordino” fashion.

“I kept the cello in its high register almost throughout to make the piece feel ‘up in the air’ and saved its lower register until the climax to create contrast,” she adds.

Watch Ho Ling Tang conduct the string quartet for this exercise:

How does one go about grading such an assignment? Conde says the results of the assignment were “quite diverse” and he kept in mind that the interpretation of a text is often quite subjective, and that everybody has a different compositional style. When evaluation time arrived, he focused on the proper use of string idioms, notation, adherence to the narrative, and overall musicality.

After getting beyond the initial intimidation of the project, Furones found scoring a short story was like a quest for a hidden treasure.

“Many times, you feel like you are completely lost, but you have to learn to embrace that feeling and accept it,” he says. “Sometimes the best pieces come out of those experiences, if you keep an open mind and try new things out.”

Tang draws clear connections between the acts of prose and music composition, noting, “Writing music is very much like mastering a language: the more vocabulary we know, the more capable we are to express our thoughts and emotions effectively.”

Vasconcelos concludes that the creative exercise serves as excellent practice for composing in the professional world, where composers often must write music based only on non-musical inputs.

“Improving this skill,” Vasconcelos says, “is a plus in a film composer’s education.”