By Laura Nyman Montenegro
I have fallen. Fallen over backward. Fallen into the messy world of theater.
How did it happen? I do not know. I do know that it is a world of story, just like our own picture book world. But I am now in the illustration, I am the collage piece moved about on the page by the hand of the director. I look over and see the other collage pieces on the stage with me. The director is looking for composition; arranging, rearranging, providing text. We listen. Tell us. Tell us what we are to do. Where we are to stand. The words we are to say. But then, let us listen. Listen to each other.
We are like a murmuration, a collection of starlings.
Murmuration. I love that word. It is soft and dreamlike—not like a heart pounding.
The doctor leans in toward you. He presses his stethoscope against your chest.
He listens. You listen with your eyes to his face.
He removes his stethoscope and folds it in his hands.
He says he hears a murmur.
A murmuration. A collection of starlings.
A bird flies close to your ear, feathers beating air.
You look up.
Above you, a murmuration. A collection of starlings.
In a single voice, hundreds of birds sweep across the sky, glissando, together shape-shifting, tumbling, turning, ascending.
Black, like a shadow thrown against the sky.
Twisting and turning, the spiraling ladder, climbing high and then higher, plummeting down, straight to the black dirt.
LISTEN. With eyes, ears, wings, feathers, listen.
Your heart pounds.
I have fallen. Again.
This time from the sky. I have fallen into my visiting chair right next to Iris in the dementia ward of the nursing home. Iris’s ear is turned toward the piano. She is so sick. She is lost. The music enters through her ear. She is suddenly connected to the pulsing energy of life and its tumbling, swirling, twisting, wild madness. She fills with tears—her face is red, she laughs, she looks like she will explode, the tears come, release. The piano is right next to her ear. The piano player plays in a minor key of longing, yearning. He plays. It enters Iris. She stares straight ahead. This music—the longing—it enters her. She suddenly feels the wild shimmering brilliance and the dark shadow, the magnificent birth of the universe, the stars colliding, turning, the light, sparks drifting in dizzy, slow-turning circles. Iris is connected and she begins to cry. Silently. If you didn’t look at her closely, you would not know.
The dialogue of shapes, the arrangement of notes, the flocking of birds, the position of actors.
Art is a game. Your audience, your reader, your listener agrees to play the game with you. To come with you. You agree to deliver its promise. But how?
By finding the composition that best tells your story. A composition that activates the alchemy of emotion. This is your promise.
But where in the world do you get this kind of composition?
We move our shapes around on the page believing we know what will evoke emotional response; the triangle sitting on the page with two points touching the ground will imply balance and stability. The triangle positioned with only one point touching the ground, instability and uncertainty. Arranging our shapes symmetrically will evoke equilibrium, positioning them asymmetrically conjures impulse and movement.
But even with the awareness of the effect of these arrangements, composition seems to defy formula. We place our figures, our musical notes, our story elements in accordance with these understandings and we wait for the combustion. We set our sticks just right but the fire refuses to catch.
The problem is that composition is really derived from the shapes’ interacting with each other and comes from within the picture rather than by being imposed from the outside. Combustion really comes from the shapes’ “listening” to each other.
Even the spaces between shapes, between notes, between actors onstage are busy creating composition. The vast white space of the page in which the tiny object floats, the crowded figure pushing against the edges, the juxtaposition of shape and shape, note and note, turn the elegant composition into the eloquent composition.
Inherently, within ourselves, we know these things about the positions of triangles and the effect of white space, because inside of us, we all have an intuitive sense of composition. We hurry home from the store to tell a story, and we tell it perfectly, in just the right way to make the other person laugh out loud.
We insist that the other person sit down while we play a song that we can’t help crying to when we hear it and we want the other person to cry too, to experience this. We play the Coventry Carol from the sixteenth century over and over and over because we need to hear the note at the very end of the song that switches it from minor to major key—so beautiful is the switch, the playing of one note, that it causes tears to pour out of our eyes.
Ultimately, this is why we are drawn to art.
It has to do with the promise that the artist made. To deliver a composition so beautiful, so intuitive that we can’t help crying or laughing,
Because inside that wild big vibrating world of relationship between artist and audience where one speaks through shape, rhythm, and note and the other listens, we are able to share with each other the human drama, the experience of being human.
A Little Exercise for Exploring Composition
Playing with shapes, arranging, rearranging, exploring the infinite possibilities is the window to building on the innate sense of composition that we each carry within us. It is really a matter of listening. Letting shapes have their effect on one another, letting notes clash or harmonize and feeling the effects, that is the study of composition.
For a beautiful film of a murmuration please see: http://player.vimeo.com/video/31158841?autoplay=1 created by Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith.
Laura Nyman Montenegro teaches children’s book illustration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is illustrator/author of A Poet’s Bird Garden, A Bird About to Sing (featured on Reading Rainbow), Sweet Tooth, and One Stuck Drawer. Her books have won Parents’ Choice Awards. She is a founding ensemble member, actor, musician, and visual artist of Theatre Zarko, Puppet Symbolist Theatre. www.lauranymanmontenegro.com; firstname.lastname@example.org