Completing the ‘Aranea’ project
Students in Upper Primary also completed their composition project this term, performing a sequence of four compositions that told the story of ‘Aranea’ (by Jenny Wagner) in music and words.
This project ended up being fairly complex. We had to cut it down for the Refugee Week performances at Federation Square, unfortunately, but performed it in full at the school concert the following week.
We divided the story into four main sections: Aranea safe and happy, building her web; the Terrible Storm, that destroys her home and forces her to flee; her first place of safety, in the White Room, where she still feels that she could be in danger; and her eventual Return to the Garden, and rebuilding her life and her home.
The book is not (as far as I am aware) written as a metaphor for a refugee experience, but I like it for this. WE never made the parallels explicit for the students. However, throughout the term in their classroom work, the Upper Primary students were already exploring ways of telling their own journey stories, and so the music project provided a further backdrop to this.
The opening and final pieces were songs. The first had the class divided into two groups, playing contrasting instruments. The instrument groups alternated between verse and chorus. We wrote the words for the song in part by summing up the first part of the book, in our own words, and in part by quoting directly from the text.
Aranea, spinning and spinning. Living in the curl of a leaf in the tree.
She is safe and happy. She makes a spider’s web.
First the crosspiece, then the frame. Around in a spiral and back again.
The Storm music grew from our work the previous term. It created interesting rhythmic layers by working with chants and phrases drawn from the text in the book. It is a technique I use a lot, and I find it very effective with ESL students.
The White Room was my favourite piece of music – one of the most interesting and dramatic pieces of music I think I have ever written with a group of students. We wanted to depict the fear the spider was feeling in an unfamiliar and hostle space – even though in theory, she was now ‘safe’, in that she was sheltered from the storm.
We created an eerie soundworld using high pitched violin harmonic, long and constant, and harsh. Several students dragged a metal triangle stick around the rim of a cymbal. Another student played a triangle, but gripped it very tightly so as to thoroughly dampen its resonance, and jiggled her stick at high speed in one of the lower corners of the triangle. It sounded like teeth chattering.
The remaining students stood in formation, heads bowed, and hands gripped into frightened fists. On a cue they began a slow stamp, in unison. Then cried out the following:
Her heart is running very fast.
[The rhythm of the phrase echoed by drums, shockingly loud, like gunfire]
She can’t hide anywhere. PEOPLE COULD COME AND KILL HER!
[The syncopated, uneven rhythm of this last phrase is then played by all the metal instruments, struck hard, with full damping]
The music for The White Room had extraordinary emotional impact. It was intense. The children performed it with utter conviction. I am not sure I have made anything like it before. It lasted only about a minute and half.
We closed with a song, more upbeat, but still with a slight dark edge to it. It included chanted sections, sung sections, and a body percussion accompaniment.
She goes outside, she finds her leaf, and remembers what happened.
She is so tired! But when she sleeps, she dreams about the storm.
Now she makes her web. Now she catches food. Everything is better now.
She has a new life, safe and happy, she has a new life, safe and happy.
The storm is gone, the sun is coming out,
And she will live in her leaf in the tree.
Remember they wrote these words. I prompted them with questions (such as, “how is the spider feeling?”), but the song is made up of their responses. I find the observation that ‘when she sleeps, she dreams about the storm’, very poignant.
It was a long term (literally – 12 weeks, instead of 10), and while I never intended this project and the others to get quite so complex, they did become very involved. But there was a huge satisfaction for all of us, I think, in realising these projects, to start with just an idea, and a book, and each week to develop new material. At the time of creating the new material, I suspect many students don’t really know what is going on. What I hope, however, is that by the end of term, when they perform their music, they will remember how it cam to be, and remember that they were all involved in making it, step by step.
Next term – no plans as yet! But hopefully something a little more low-key!