John Cage project – update

Yesterday I worked with the musicians from the Orchestra who will be involved in the John Cage project that I wrote about a few weeks ago. We had a 2-hour session to go through some of the ideas, and in particular explored two ways of generating melodic material through chance processes.

Cycle of 6

This task involves dice. The 6 numbers on the dice represent each beat in a repeating loop (or cycle) of 6 beats. Each player chooses a note to play on their instrument (with young players I ask for their ‘favourite’ note, or most reliable note… Less of an issue with orchestral musicians!) and then throws the dice. If it lands on 3, they play their chosen note on beat no. 3 of the cycle of 6. We do this until each person in the group (6 players per group) has their number and is playing in the right place. It doesn’t matter if two people are playing on the same beat, or if some beats don’t get covered by a note.

Then 2-3 people are asked to shift their note to the off-beat in between their chosen number, and the next number. Thus the note that was on beat number 3, is now played on beat number 3+ (‘and’).

A melody, made up of all these different notes, starts to be revealed. We write out the melody (or work it out by ear) so that everyone can now play it in unison.

These two versions of the melody (the single notes version and the unison version) form the main content for the piece. An arrangement can then be made, that might include:

  • Playing the melody in canon
  • Harmonising the melody with accompanying riffs
  • Playing the melody backwards
  • Playing the notes short and spiky, or long and sustained
  • Playing the single notes version so that each note is sustained

We did this exercise twice, and came up with two very satisfying little 2-minute pieces. It’s so simple, but is a beautiful way to generate melodic material that no-one would have come up with on their own.

Melodic Fragments

This involves dice and 4 playing cards per person, and requires manuscript paper. I chose 4 different 5-note modes, one for each musician. They rolled their dice, and had to create a melodic fragment using only notes from their assigned mode, and only the number of different notes as indicated by their dice-roll. Thus a roll of the number 1 would mean a melodic fragment consisting of only one note. There were no restrictions on time signature.

There were some heavy sighs from some people as they rolled their dice and threw a “number one again!” and then gleefully muttered “yes!” when they threw something more substantial like a five or a six.

They went through this process 4 times, and wrote each of the melodic fragments onto a small line of music manuscript, whcih they stuck to their 4 playing cards (1 fragment per card).

They then had to shuffle the cards (or use a similarly random process to order them, such as throwing them up in the air and seeing where they landed) then line the cards up in their new order, and play the melody that was indicated by the order of the fragments.

We found a number of ways to arrange this melodic material:

  • The modes worked well together, so two melodies could be played at the same time. They were usually of differing lengths, so would go in and out of phase with each other.
  • A melody could be harmonised by another player (using the notes of the melody’s mode)
  • Accompanying riffs could be drawn from a re-shuffle of the fragment cards, choosing the first of the shuffled deck to be a repeating riff or ostinato, and these could be layered together, or used to accompany one of the melodies.

It was an inspiring session for me. I’d gone in there a bit under the weather, and still uncertain exactly how the whole John Cage project will play out when we do it next week, but by the end of this session I was starting to structure it a lot more in my mind. I think it will include a number of visual elements… big focus on listening, and on the questions of ‘what is music?’ and ‘what makes one thing music and another noise?’… More updates after we work with the ArtPlay Ensemble next week…

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1 comment so far

  1. Seeing with our ears « music work on

    […] Composing melodies using chance processes. You can see descriptions of our process here. […]


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