Musical magpies

The main reason I returned to Melbourne in November was to lead the last two Jams at Federation Square for the year. Both were well-attended (around 50-70 in each, I’d say) – I’ve been gratified this year to see our numbers of teenage and adult instrumentalist participants increasing. When they are in large number, they balance out the under-5s that are also enthusiastic attendees, and so the musical outcome is much stronger for all involved.

I’m a bit of a ‘music collector’, I’ve realised. I love uncovering new musical ideas, and finding ways to apply them to the musical environments that I inhabit. This is a strong motivation for collecting original and unusual pieces of musical material from around the world. Unlike an ethnomusicologist, who is fascinated by what the music reveals about the community that performs it, and thus tries to keep that music as pure and unsullied as possible, I am more of a magpie. I collect musical ideas – melodies, songs, rhythms, riffs – and find ways to apply them to my own world. They change straight away, the moment I take them and try them out on my clarinet.

The Jam I led for the MSO this month contained two musical ideas I have ‘collected’ this year. One was a riff that I heard Mulatu Astatke (Ethiopian vibes player and his band) play in his Melbourne International Jazz Festival gig this year. I took the 5-note Lydian mode that formed the backbone of the piece, adapted a riff from it, shifted the key up so that it would be playable by young players, and made this the starting point for the Jam.

Halfway through, I introduced the Fataluku work chant that I learned just a few weeks ago in Lospalos – the corn-kernelling chant with the words cele cuku cele cuku lao ta ta te. We used the rhythm of this chant as an initial idea, but then all the Jam participants invented their own ‘work chant’. I asked them to think of a task or job they ften have to do, and invent a word riff that they could say to make this task less onerous, less boring. One of the ideas that emerged was:

Wash the dishes

Dry the Dishes

Turn the dishes

Over.

We invented word chants, isolated and memorised the rhythms formed by the syllables, then set these rhythms to music using the 5-note Lydian scale.

By the end of the Jam everyone had at least three original riffs to play, and could change from one to the next quite freely. The next step on from this would be to improvise on the 5-note mode, creating solos; from there things could get even freer in terms of pitches and harmony.

I felt happy too, to be sharing something I had learned so very recently with all the participants. It’s great to have a forum in which to explore something that is a completely new idea even for you.

Jams will be different in 2011. I am only leading one set of Jams at Federation Square; there will also be Family Jams AND Under-5s Jams at the Melbourne Town Hall as part of the MSO’s Beethoven Festival.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] also enabled workers to turn their work into a social interaction. I taught the MTeach group the Cele Cuku corn kerneling chant that I’ve used in a few workshops now. We learned the chant (I’d written the words up […]


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