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Archive for December, 2013

About time I wrote up my experience earlier this autumn at the Tippett Music Centre. Two aspects of the project are particularly interesting:

 – composing using musical material provided by other people, in this case the performers.

 – composing for an ensemble of learners, from beginners up to more advanced secondary school pupils.

 1. But first, to describe the project.

For the last two years a three-way collaboration has taken place as part of the Herne Hill Music Festival. The partners have been Lambeth’s Council’s Saturday Music Centre, which meets at the Michael Tippett School in Herne Hill, Dulwich Symphony Orchestra, and an invited composer who writes a new piece of music for performance by all the musicians at the event.

In 2012, the composer was John Holland. He wrote a conventionally notated piece of music in which different groups of the performers played different sections. I was the composer in 2013.

I began the 2013 project in by visiting the ensemble which meets at the Centre every Saturday morning. It consists of string, wind, brass, and percussion pupils at every level from beginner to quite advanced secondary school pupils. I suggested that film music often consists of sound effects, and demonstrated some. I divided them into pairs and asked each pair to invent a sound effect, and came away with about 30 different sound effects.

I then worked out ways of notating these, and assembled them into short phrases. Early in September the ensemble played through these short phrases. I learned a great deal about which sound effects worked, which ones the pupils played well. One clear-cut lesson was that effects notated to begin somewhere other than on the downbeat of a bar were often played inaccurately.

I then composed the piece, using the majority of these short phrases. I developed them mostly through sequences, in which ideas went one step up or down on each repetition. I eliminated phrases unlikely to work, and placed each idea so that it began on a downbeat.

The pupil ensembles met with players from DSO to rehearse and perform the the piece in October. We then performed the piece to a large audience of parents and siblings. There was an wild and enthusiastic response at the end, shouting and stamping with enthusiasm. I had never had a response to a piece like it, though I am sure the cheering was at least as much for the players as for me.

The greatest reward to me was that one parent spoke to me afterwards to explain that taking part in this performance has re-kindled her son’s enthusiasm for playing his violin, since he had now seen that he could play it expressively in a way with which he could engage.

2. Composing using other people’s material.

Composers expect to invent their own material, though in some notable cases they have chosen to use material by other composers. In this case I was faced with composing using material I had not chosen, though it was invented in a context – film music – which I had specified.

I had control of the process of composition, by which I means the process of building a coherent composition out of the material I was presented with. I did the work in two stages. The first consisted by assembling small groups of musical ideas into short phrases. I then tried these out with the pupils. This led to the elimination of some of them, and the simplification of the notation of others.

I then developed a structure consisting of clearly separate sections, each using one or more of the phrase groups. The overall scenario was one of change from the slower, quiet and mysterious music of the start, to faster and increasingly exciting and chaotic music in the middle, with a return to quiet material at the end. The dramatic profile was one with which I was happy, and which I am sure communicated well.

The consequence of composing with ideas provided with others was the necessity of thinking in terms of the dramatic structures which could be produced with the music, and using my compositional craft skills to produce a structure which used the material effectively. Since the ideas did not arise from my own subconscious process in any way, therefore the piece does not have any relationship to a deeper sense of experience, and relies entirely on my judgement on which effects to pace where.

Equally, each musical idea is taken forward through repetition and sequences, rather than through development. Again, the result was to limit the input of my less conscious mind into the composition process.

3. Writing for instrumental learners

The pupils were highly inventive when it came to suggesting musical material, but much less good at playing it. None of the material was technically difficult to play, but I quickly found that I had to keep the notation of the music to a simple and clear level, to ensure that all effects were doubled, and to make sure that the timing of entries was straightforward. In the final version there was only one section with a more complex rhythm, and we rehearsed this more fully.

Each section of the piece was based mainly on one or two ideas repeated and shifted up or down. Each section of the ensemble played almost entirely in unison – strings, winds, brass. The percussion parts were in some ways more challenging since there were 5 independent parts, but again all actions were doubled with at least two players instructed to play at all times.

In these ways, potential barriers such as timing of entries, exposed material, and technically harder material were avoided, and the pupils enthusiasm was engaged through the extremity of the material. By extremity I mean the use of quiet sounds and silences in the opening and closing material to produce an atmosphere is mystery and suspense, and then the very assertive material used in the central faster section leading up to a section of complete chaos. The pupils were given material to play, such as fortissimo scratch tone for string and mouthpiece-only screams for the single reeds, which they could go to an extreme in performing.

The effects used were labelled with text in the parts throughout, so that the pupils did not have to remember what the unusual notation stood for.

The effect of these various methods of making the music very simple to play and clearly structured, with plenty of time to move from one musical idea to another, was one of the most committed performances I have ever been involved in. The pupils  fully deserved the wildly enthusiastic response from the audience.

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