If you asked seventh-grader Julia Scott Carey to tell you one of her favorite stories, she would tell you with music. Instead of talking or reading words to you, shed use the sounds of fluttering flutes,
soaring violins, or crashing symbols. Julia is a composer.
Do you know a story called "The Snow Queen," by Hans Christian Andersen? He wrote such other tales as "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Steadfast Tin Soldier." Julia has transformed his story about the children Kay and Gerda and their battle with the wicked Snow Queen into an orchestral fantasy. She uses instruments like the oboe, the harp, and giant booming kettledrums to depict what happens in the story.
What she came up with was so interesting and admirable that her composition was performed recently by the Boston Pops Orchestra and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Everyone was surprised when they found out the composer is only 12!
Julia lives outside Boston with her mom, dad, and younger sister. They have lots of musical instruments in their house, such as a grand piano, cello, trumpet, clarinet, French horn - even a harpsichord, an early keyboard instrument. Julia mostly plays the piano, but she has to be familiar with many other instruments and how they are played in order to write music for them.
It wasn't so long ago that Julia was making up little operas (musical stories) for her stuffed animals, pretending they could sing and act. "I called them 'my neighbors,' " she recalls with a smile. Even as a baby, she wouldn't go to sleep at night unless the classical radio station was playing.
So how does her music sound?
'MY MUSIC music almost always has a specific melody that people can walk away humming and will stick in people's minds," Julia says. "I write a mixture of strong melodies with very powerful harmonies and dissonance."
Julia explains that "dissonance" means "not pleasing to the ear" - maybe like someone hit a wrong note! But actually, she says, some types of dissonance in music make it sound beautiful.
"The Snow Queen" had always been one of Julia's favorite stories. Her composition can be considered "program" music (see story on page 23), because it tells a story. The piece begins with a single oboe melody, slow and haunting, "sounding like a human voice," says Julia, and "drawing us into the story." Violins and other instruments join in, as the melody grows stronger.
Suddenly - crack! An instrument called a whip (it sounds like a real whip cracking) signals the start of Gerda's sleigh ride through the frozen winter air, bells jingling. The violin players pluck their strings with their fingers, called "pizzicato." Julia says this depicts the quick motion of the sled. Sweeping harp sounds, called "glissandos" "bring us flying into the air," she says.
The sleigh ride ends and we descend into the ice palace of the Snow Queen, "a cold and empty place," Julia goes on. The notes creep downward. Things sound more dissonant, too, which creates a hushed and scary feeling.
"Pop! P-P-P-pop!" knocks a wood block from the drum section. Could that be brittle ice falling or cracking?
But wait - here comes the Snow Queen herself, about to face Gerda, who is trembling with fear. (And so is the listener! - well, almost.) Drums in the shape of giant kettles, called timpani, bang out an agitated solo, showing "the Snow Queen's thundering evil forces," Julia says. "However, these forces are met by angels with trumpets - and the end is a triumph of love and loyalty."
Imagine having to write down all that music for 20 instruments! Each player has to have his or her own music. Plus, the conductor has to have the music (called a score) that shows all the instrumental parts together.
How does Julia keep track?
With her computer, of course. She composes on the computer, too. She may start with a little tune in her head. Then she plunks it out on an electronic piano keyboard, which is hooked into the computer. As she plays each note, it appears on the computer screen in its right place on the musical staff, the five lines on which music is written.
When she's done filling in all the notes, and taking out ones she doesn't like, the computer prints out the music, page after page, perfectly neat. (Composers like Bach and Mozart didn't have it so easy. All their music had to be carefully written by hand. Correcting mistakes could be very messy!)
Julia remembers when she was five years old - before she learned how to write musical notation. Her mom had put stickers on the piano keys with the letter names of each key, A through G. When Julia made up a song, she'd write the letters of the tune in little boxes. Upper-case and lower-case letters, to her, meant long and short notes. She used other symbols to mean loud and soft. "I even had stars in there," she recalls.
Her mom had no idea what she was writing! So she threw out most of Julia's earliest compositions, "because, she thought, 'Why can't my daughter write the alphabet beyond the letter G?' "
TODAY, Julia often begins a composition with a basic plan on paper. "Sometimes it looks very much like a map," she says. "I make a grid, and let's say, it's for an orchestra piece, and I'll put 'Section 1: flutes, clarinet, trumpets.' Then Section 2 will be something else. It continues on, just like a story would, in which different characters come and go, and new things happen.
Composing may sound hard, but anyone can try it.
"You can compose on any instrument," Julia says, "but it's especially good if you can play piano. You can play many different 'voices' at one time - it's like having a whole orchestra in front of you."
One way to start composing is simply to improvise. "It's kind of like composing on the spot - you make it up as you go," Julia explains. "It doesn't have to be good or anything, but you may hear something in it that you like."
For her, the most exciting moment is when she hears her music being played by musicians. "It always seems like magic to me - to hear my ideas on paper move to living sound."
To hear a selection from Julia's 'The Snow Queen,' as performed Oct. 3, 1998, by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (Raymond Leppard conducting), go to: www.csmonitor.com/durable/1999/01/ 26/fp22s1-csm.shtml