Composing with Rachmaninov

This week started with two days of MSO ArtPlay Ensemble workshops. It is the second time I have worked with this group of children (the third if you count the Open Workshops where I met them all for the first time). In these workshops the same group of 28 children come back every school holidays for 2 days of intensive composing, at the end of which we perform a new work for their parents and anyone else who wants to come along. I choose a piece of MSO repertoire to focus on (a piece that they will be able to go along and hear performed in concert in the weeks following the project) and get the composition started with a few key musical ideas or compositional tools that are featured in the stimulus work.

This June project we focused on Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2, a mighty piece of orchestral music. I love Rachmaninov. He wears his heart on his sleeve and teases his audience into all sorts of states of tension before releasing them in some glorious way. He also writes some great melodies.

I decided to start the project by focusing on three ideas:

  • melodic sequences – recognising these, composing them and improvising with them
  • triplets – Rachmaninov uses triplets to add momentum and tension to his big build-ups
  • tension and release – I examined lots of the build-ups in the score and their subsequent releases and identified kind of formula that Rach uses to first build tension and then to release it. I described this to the kids and we improvised around these ideas using body percussion.

Then we spent a bit of time improvising on the opening chords, creating what later become a whole-ensemble opening for our composition. Much of the composing work takes place initially in small groups – 7 young people in each, led by a musician from the MSO. I give the musicians a quote from the score that I’d like them to incorporate in some way (one quote per movement, sometimes two if I can’t resist), and ask them to keep the earlier skills work in mind (eg. sequences, triplets, releases) as their music evolves. At the end of the first day we have a listen to what each group has created.

The second day is spent putting the whole piece together, going through the compositions section by section and looking for points that might be enhanced by the whole ensemble joining in, rather than just the group of 7 that composed that specific idea. It means there is a lot of memorising taking place on the second day.

With this project in particular, I wished we had another day. Ideally, this would be a 2.5 day project, or even a 3 day  project. By the end, we have always created about 15-20 minutes of music… but the extra time would mean we have more time to digest and process all the ideas. It would mean I could involve the children more in some of the structural decisions that need to get made and that we could spend more time refining performance aspects such as intonation, which would make the pieces sound even better.

So often, in all sorts of arts and education work, not only that with children, we compromise on things like time and numbers of participants, in order to make the financials work. It would be great to have at least one project a year where you are able to work with ideals – the ideal workshop length, ideal numbers of participant and musicians, in order to demonstrate just what is possible when you aren’t required to work with less-than-ideal restrictions. I am often amazed by the music that emerges in these projects. It can be so beautiful, and so interesting. But I am also aware that the pace of the projects can be a little too intense for some of the participants. It would be great for us all to be able to relax a little bit more – it is a school holiday project after all!

This current riff – on ideal project conditions – is something I’ll keep mulling over. The other possibility is that I scale down the project scope…  we could do less, create less material, and so have more time to spend on a smaller amount of music. Would this impact on the number of participants? At the moment, I think that the amount of material we create is linked directly to the number of participants and the fact that they all have input into the music – I never decide how long the piece is going to be, it just always turns out to be around the same length once the children start composing. If we set out with the intention to make less music, we’ll need less input, so we’ll either be shutting some voices out, or we’ll be accepting a smaller number of participants. Interesting. We have a program brainstorm coming up at the end of next month – hopefully these issues are some things that we can tease out there.

Anyway, I love this project dearly. On the days when I start my planning and starting delving into the scores and recordings, I think how privileged I am to be able to work with this kind of material for my job!

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