A great deal from not much: composing with small ideas

Take two tiny ideas: first, this one.

Add this one.

Not much to look at on paper, really.

But wait. Add a driving rhythm, an insistent pulse, and you get this:

Well, alright, perhaps there’s a little more to it than that: choice of instrumentation, texture, articulation. But that’s all it boils down to, really: two simple ideas, from which a fantastic energy is created. And the ambiguity of the C# – C natural motion in the second idea: is the piece in A major, or A minor ?

I remember the exact moment when I heard this for the first time: at a friend’s house at university; he was playing it in the living-room of his house near the river, and was playing it very loudly on an extremely good hi-fi. (Tim Ward, wherever you are: I salute you!).

Or how about this: a descending minor third.

OK, fairly straightforward. But to build a whole line from this, nay, a whole piece ? Begin stringing descending thirds and variants together, and you get this.

One of music’s great strengths is its ability to create interest from small ideas, which can be sustained over the length of an entire piece. Whether it’s a Baroque keyboard prelude, a piece of Steve Reich, or a pop song: music can unlock magic from the tiniest of blocks of material.

Bach and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers: creative with small ideas.

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