Creating Music

Composition Music Workshop and Professional Development Notes #1

(1) All students (irrespective of age, instrument and standard) are capable of creating music quickly and easily given expert direction
(2) Experimentation is essential, but must be organised and fall into specific areas of focus (explained below)
(3) Musicians and music teachers have an obligation to encourage an appreciation of "modern" and unusual types of music. (Why do we have an obligation to do this? The belief amongst otherwise intelligent people that Mozart can heal sick babies whilst bebop prolongs their illness is reason enough. This is conditioning that comes from somewhere.)

When I started doing composition or "spontaneous music" workshops, as I called them, I inherited/copied a faulty old model that I can summarise with one student song entitled "The happy kangaroo fell in some poo". True. Here is a method of moving away from this sort of blackboard rhyming and compositional quatsch.

• is introduced in a whisper; it's privileged information!
• close eyes and punctuate the silence with gentle reminders (these are ideas adapted from Jon Kabat-Zinn):
let sounds/noises be themselves
put your attention onto "hearing" as a tool
we live in a loud world
let the sounds come and go
if you feel yourself falling into the "soundstream", gently get out again and observe
wanted or unwanted? doesn't matter
"detached" listening
• pass a piece of A3 paper silently around the room (adapted from R Murray Schafer - I highly recommend his various books.)
• play the paper ensemble - not too much noise; remember the huge potential of silence!

• throw an (imaginary) orange from person to person - on release the thrower makes a sound, any sound. Don't consider or plan or try to be original. Concentrate on backswing (in breath), delivery (sound), and follow through (projection). Aim with the eyes.

• discuss noise versus music
• how soft is really soft? how loud is loud enough? Be gentle with the louds, be agressive with the softs (this direction is recalled from a private lesson with trombonist Michael Mulcahy)
• explain and discuss compression in music recording - apply to playing, composing. Dynamic range is an illusion, it has more to do with intention and sound quality (mention the stage whisper, or refer to loudly recorded playing that is low in the mix)

• start a "three-note" conversation going around the room. Get away from triads, introduce unusual sounds. Discover the strange rhythms of speech mixed with singing. React and interact with what you hear
• recreate a "street seller scene" (imagine the beginning of My Fair Lady) comprising layers of small autonomous melodic material successfully coexisting

• create a choir and conduct using all sorts of gestures (I got the conduction idea from Adam Simmons). Each person (who wants) should have a go. Experiment restricting the "allowed" sounds to just vocal, or vocal but non-sung, or just body, or any other parameters if instruments are being used.

• rhythm has to be felt and experienced with the body before it can be internalised. Start a gentle stationary march (choose a non-march tempo!). Snake around the room, making up silly fragments of marching songs
I'm a pacifist LEFT - LEFT - LEFT
Ants ants ants ants....
Make LEFT, not war
money money money money....

Leave the building, freeze, go backwards, slow motion, change from light steps to heavy. Insist on great timing - don't get faster.
• pretend to be a clock - one arm as the second hand (refer Schafer) Who's really got a good sense of time? 5-4-3-2-1
• Einstein's Fish*: start counting in groups in different meters simultaneously (i.e., 3, 4, 5 together). Ramp up the difficulty - faster, leaving out all numbers except the "1", then substitute other sounds for the 1. Change meter at designated points, and/or fan out from a central pitch. This is a great exercise that can develop into a most interesting piece.
[Note: this probably needs a more detailed explanation - will post it separately at some stage. *The title is an amalgam of Einstein on the Beach and Once I Caught a Fish Alive]

• My Minimal Machine: create a groove that simulates clunky old-fashioned industrial machinery - don't crowd the "1", create different versions by switching levers
• once established siphon off smaller groups on the fly, and encourage them to go onto other elements that have been covered during the session. Try to do this without verbal instruction. Let the piece reach its own climax, and ending. Don't rehearse.

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