Extending a game into a composition

So many music games and activities have more depth than we credit them with. If we bring our musicianship and musical imaginations into the mix, then they can take us off into directions that yield interesting and often complex compositional outcomes. This post describes the workshop I led on Monday with a group of MTeach music students, looking at three games that I’ve collected/learned from around the world, and the compositional possibilities of each.

Activity 1 – Stick-passing

The first game I taught was stick passing game that I learned as a stone-passing game from a South African musician. I’ve written in some detail about this game in the past, and the song, Bhombela, that I often teach with it. With the MTeach group, we experimented with passing the sticks in a duple time signature and singing a song in a triple time signature (Edelweiss) or a changing time signature (Dham Dham Dham – a children’s song from India). How could you build upon these starting ideas, I asked the group, in order to develop a more intricate, varied compositional outcome? One group took on this task, and developed some complex stick passing patterns that included tapping two sticks together, tapping one on the floor, and passing it around after a set number of taps in a 7/4 time signature, which they then varied into other time signatures by changing the number of floor taps. They also experimented with dividing into two groups and having unison sections contrasting with polyrhythmic sections (with each group working in a different time signature). They also explored hocketting melodies while passing sticks… at which point things start to get more complicated than the timeframe allowed! (More thoughts on hocketting here).

Activity 2 – Kecak

Next we learned the interlocking rhythms of the Balinese kecak (pronounced KECH-ahk). The Kecak isn’t really a game, but in the way that I teach it, it is learned quickly, and has playful properties in the characters it introduces. The three rhythms are essentially the same rhythm, but phased, so that each subsequent phrase is an eighth note out from the previous phrase. We learned them as three word-phrases, in order to lock the rhythms into our heads:

Rescue the princess.

We defeated him.

Give us Rawahna.

We discussed ways of extending these rhythmic ideas into a composition. Students suggested:

  • arranging the rhythms onto instruments
  • keeping the rhythms on body percussion and vocal sounds but indicating changes of section and instrumentation with a Gong sound (vocalised or using an instrument)
  • Developing new rhythmic phrases using new words
  • Creating new interlocking rhythms using the phasing technique.

The group that chose to explore this idea worked on the third suggestion, and invented three new rhythms/phrases (continuing the princess story), and played them on instruments in addition to vocalising. With more time available to explore, I’d be keen to encourage groups to work on the fourth suggestion, and explore first the idea of inventing a new rhythm (perhaps taking inspiration from the 2-2-1 grouping of the Kecak rhythms, and selecting different numbers of beats and maintaining an eighth-note rest in between each group), and then how to establish the phasing technique. These new rhythms could then be applied to instruments, and a composition developed that used only material from the original Kecak and the new rhythms, exploring different options for voicing and arranging the material.

Activity 3 – Work chant

Our last activity explored the rhythms of an East Timorese work chant. We discussed first the way that much of the traditional Timorese music that I learned about while living there evolved as an accompaniment to work, rather than as music for ritual, celebrations, or social gatherings. Work chants and songs eased the tedium of repetitive work, and 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 on the whiteboard so that people could read it and needn’t memorise it), and then explored the rhythmic properties of different verses by developing partnered clapping games/pieces to go with the words.

The partnered clapping patterns were great fun – by now people were being very inventive and playful, and their patterns included beats tapped on the floor, cross rhythms, and patterns that aligned particular sounds with particular words from the rhyme (creating yet more hocketting effects).

Ideas for extending the work chant idea into a larger composition included:  exploring ways of presenting the original chant and rhythms in canon; aligning particular pitches to particular words; and inviting students to write their own work chants, and build compositions from the rhythms of these chants. The latter is the idea that I explored in a jam in November last year with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Once you allow the possibility that the original game or activity is only a starting point for composition, and that the resulting new work might not necessarily include musical material from the starting point, then options really start to open up. I think it’s important to hand over that kind of ownership to participants quite early in the process, and it was interesting in the MTeach group that their interpretation of the task was (initially at least) one of needing to stay with the original musical material.

1 comment so far

  1. Timothy Jones on

    Hi Gillian, great post what a lot of material. Do you have a Twitter account? It’s a great way of letting others know about your work T J

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