MTeach class, week 5

From now to the end of semester, the MTeach students and I will be exploring the music of different twentieth and twenty-first century composers. Today we explored Shostakovich.

For me, Shostakovich is immensely approachable as a composer. For one thing, he is very well documented, with a lot of footage and quotes available that features people who knew him and worked with him, and heard his music performed. If you haven’t seen it before, Shostakovich against Stalin – the War Symphonies, is a must-see documentary that really depicts the times in which he lived and worked. I love it. I probably watch it every year. The interviews and archival footage are interspersed with performance footage of the symphonies by Valery Gergiev conducting the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. If you don’t know Shostakovich’s music, this film is an excellent way in.

He was a composer of his times, and justly celebrated, in a way that we don’t see these days in the ‘western art music’ world. He wrote about current events in a way that his audience connected with very directly. His use of musical symbols (quotes, rhythmic figures assigned specific meanings, melodic fragments) is in dispute between scholars, but his musical vocabulary is certainly a rich one to mine for workshop starting points.

I have led several composing projects based on Shostakovich’s music. My main points are to:

  • identify a current event or topic about which the group feels strongly, to depict in the composition
  • Develop ‘word-songs’ (following Shostakovich’s example with his ‘name-song’, D.SCH) as the main melodic material and mode to stick to for harmonies
  • Choose several rhythmic figures or cells from Shostakovich’s music to incorporate into these pieces.

I find that this is enough to get some really interesting music happening. It did today – even limited to mostly tuned percussion instruments, each group created highly individual pieces of music. The group chose the current controversy over the photographer Bill Henson as their composition focus. They developed word-songs on words like ‘dirt’, ‘art’, ‘pervert’ and ‘photos’. Some of the small-group pieces sounded more ‘Shostakovich-y’ than others, but that’s fine. We are not looking to imitate him wholesale, rather, the intention is to create strong listening pathways into his music for all the participants.

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