Archive for the ‘chance composition’ Tag

Writing songs of home

This term at the Language School, we are focusing on the theme of ‘homes’. We explore this in different ways with each of the three classes, but the starting point is the same – I ask each child to draw a picture of their home in their country of origin, and interview them about what it shows. I use the words from these interviews to create song lyrics.

Sometimes the process throws up interesting challenges. For example, in Middle Primary, the students had been learning lots of ‘house/home’ vocabulary and had little pictures of various kinds of dwellings stuck to their desks. When they started on their drawing task I realised that many of them were copying these archetypal images (square plus triangle plus small rectangle equals ‘house’) rather than drawing a picture of their own home. Did they worry that their real home might be considered ‘wrong’? Or were they just keen to copy a picture? Also, some students had been in temporary housing and countries (refugee camps, second countries) for so long they had only vague memories of their home in their country of origin. For some, recalling these temporary shelters was unpleasant as life had been hard – even awful – there.

Lower Primary painted their pictures – large, brightly coloured images that filled the corners of the page, and the detail led to two verses – one about kinds of houses (lots of apartments, reached by going in the lift/elevator, and pressing a button to go up, up, up…), and one about the people and things they left behind and now miss (grandparents, toys, even a baby brother and an older sister).

Upper Primary had access to some excellent books showing different kinds of houses around the world – mudbrick homes, bluestone farmhouses, igloos, simple dwellings from cow-dung or bamboo, glass and steel mansions, even emergency shelters made from UNHCR-branded materials. Their song – slow to emerge but now progressing well – considers all the different things you can build a house from, and the fact that shelter is a basic human right for everyone around the world.

Middle Primary’s song has emerged from the interview-to-lyrics process (I typed up their words and they read from these sheets to select the lyrics), and a ‘cycle of 8’ graphic score process to create melodic material. In today’s class we sang three of these melodies and improvised with words from the typewritten sheets to come up with a chorus and three verses. I think this song is my favourite, which is interesting because it came about through the most chance-driven processes, rather than me getting things rolling with a chord progression or catchy riff.

Some sample ‘cycle of 8 ‘ scores – first we practised counting the cycle, then they colored in the boxes they wanted to clap, then they assigned pitches, then we learned to play them and decided which ones would work well as song melodies.

MTeach, week 4

(Posts written on this subject are written with the MTeach students in mind, as a way of giving them notes on what we do in each class – but hopefully of interest to others as well).

Last week’s session with the MTeach students at Melbourne Uni was focused on inventing melodies. I taught them a workshop project I like very much, that involves inventing melodies through chance processes. Several people in the group had brought their own instruments with them, others played tuned percussion, guitar (including bass guitar) or piano.

This is an outline of the project:

Cycle of 6

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Regional Teachers’ Forum

A couple of weeks ago, a group of music teachers from around Victoria came to the ABC Southbank Building to take part in a forum about what their needs are, as music teachers working outside city centres and well-resourced areas, and to hear about the kinds of things on offer from different arts organisations that are based in Melbourne but have regional programs.

I presented a short workshop for them, to give a demonstration of the way the Orchestra I work for creates music with participants who may have very little prior music-making experience (as well as those with lots).

We started with one of my favourite games – Zip-Bop, which I have described in a post a few weeks (read it here). This game is a good warm up, covering things like:

  • loosening everyone up and encouraging a playful, non-judging energy
  • Encouraging a range of vocal sounds
  • Encouraging strong physical gestures
  • Developing quick reactions, and fast decisions (demonstrating the kind of teamwork you get when everyone contributes to the whole flow of the game, rather than focusing on their own contribution).

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MTeach class, week 1

I am teaching a new class at the University this semester – a group of MTeach students who all have backgrounds (to varying degrees) in music. The focus (as much as has been given to me so far.. it seems to change every time I speak to one of the coordinators) is on contemporary art music, improvisation and composition.

I’ll keep things as hands-on as possible – everything we learn, we will learn by doing, and exploring with instruments and our voices. We’ll cover a number of different approaches to group-devised composing, and work towards a large-scale piece that involves all of us, by the end of the 12 weeks.

These ‘MTeach’ posts have two functions – the first is a planning space for me, to log what we are doing each week, and how the classes (which are 60 minutes long – only – every Tuesday morning) link up and develop; the second is for the students to have a place to recall what we did in class, and use as a resource should they want to revisit the activities with their own classes.

I tend to structure most of my lessons with an initial warm-up game ( I think it is useful for all teachers to have a number of these up their sleeve, so see a lot of value in introducing them to the group), followed by content that is more focused on invention, composing, and structure.

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Musicircus planning

This Friday (two days after the Hunger season finishes) the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble will perform a new piece in the Melbourne Festival’s Musicircus. We will meet at 3pm at ArtPlay, and perform that evening, not long after the event begins at sunset. (Performances will continue throughout the night – until sunrise!)

I have a group of 30:

  • 12 who are currently members of the Main Ensemble (with whom I last worked in September)
  • 8 who are members of the Graduate Ensemble (with whom I worked on the Note To Self puppet project)
  • 2 siblings who play instruments
  • 8 family members who are not bringing an instrument
  • 1 professional violinist who will be assisting me (Mel, who works with me at the Language School).

Things I would like to happen during the performance:

  • Something tonal and memorable that everyone takes part in (singing if no instrument)
  • A section based on the ‘Walking, standing, sitting’ score that I used in September and with the AYO people, using set pitches.
  • Something that involves chance or random processes on the day, that might involve the newspapers or mobile phones I have asked participants to bring with them.
  • I might use the idea of unpacking and packing up of instruments ( also used in September, that worked beautifully).

Ideas for the mobile phones, newspapers, and notebooks and pen:

  • I could ask each of the adults to set their alarms to ring at key intervals; each time one rings, the next section of music starts.
  • The newspapers could be read aloud, starting very quietly, then getting louder. This could happen with the whole ensemble, away from instruments. Perhaps the rule could be that they must be newspapers from that day.
  • Notebooks being written in could be a cue for a solo during  the ‘Walking, Standing’ score.
  • We could have a chorus of mobile phone rings.
  • Members of the ensemble could call each other, and have a conversation. “I can’t talk now – I’m just in the middle of something.”
  • The newspapers being read, or held in different ways, could be what the musicians respond to in the “Walking, standing” score – for example, turning a page means a change of pitch. Standing up to read is a different pitch or musical gesture, as is folding the newspaper and tapping it into your hand.

I’ll add to this during the week. I don’t expect I’ll finalise the plan until Thursday or maybe even Friday morning. A main concern will be the use of time on the day – I don’t want to exhaust the group, but I do want us to create something that could last for 15 minutes. When we perform in the space there won’t be any other groups close by us, which is good – we’ll have a lot of sound-space to work within.

Seeing with our ears

Today I worked with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble, the coolest bunch of 8-13 year olds in Melbourne, in my opinion. We are doing a two-day project exploring ideas of John Cage, as part of our preparation towards the bigger Musicircus project in October.

I decided to approach this project in a very open, experimental way. Literally experimental – I planned a series of open-ended musical and theatrical experiments and today we went through them one by one, noting the ones that were most effective for the group. Here are a couple of the things we did:

  • Creating theatre and music out of the everyday – entering the space one by one with instrument in case, unpacking it, warming up, putting it away, changing places, unpacking it, warming up, etc. Some interesting montages of sound, movement, and incidental noise.
  • Composing in the space. Two groups of children, group A is in the performance space, allowed to walk, stand still, or sit on the floor. Group B is around the edges of the space, with instruments, and tracking a certain person in group A. When their person walks, they play pulses on A, timing it to the person’s stride. When they sit on the floor they play E. They are silent when the person stands still. We tried some variations of this idea, but this was the basic idea.
  • Composing melodies using chance processes. You can see descriptions of our process here.

We also had a lengthy discussion on questions like : What is music? What is composing? How do you know when a performance is taking place? How do you know when it begins/is finished?

I was impressed by their responses. Comments included observations about intention:

“Even just the sound of feet walking down the street can be a composition – if I think about it, it’s composing.”

We listened with eyes closed to the sounds of the world, and I asked them to listen the first time, simply noticing all the detail, and the second time as if it was a recording of a composition. They agreed that they listened in a different way the second time; one girl said,

“When I listen as if it is a composition I’m interpreting it.”

And lastly, just a lovely musical turn of phrase:

“I see better with my ears.”

I came home today and pieced together a structure collating the results of all our experiments into one performance. We start rehearsing again at 10am, and perform at 3pm.

Days like today remind me of how much I love what I do, and give me a very satisfying sense that I am doing exactly the work I should be doing. My work sometimes feels overwhelming and draining, but mostly that is because of all the peripheral stuff – logistics, coordination, budgets, communication, tricky personalities etc. (Same things that come up in any job). The actual music work is in fact really inspiring, challenging, and a lot of fun. I make an effort to remind myself of this when I get frustrated with having so many different jobs and so many different projects in my head.

John Cage project – update

Yesterday I worked with the musicians from the Orchestra who will be involved in the John Cage project that I wrote about a few weeks ago. We had a 2-hour session to go through some of the ideas, and in particular explored two ways of generating melodic material through chance processes.

Cycle of 6

This task involves dice. The 6 numbers on the dice represent each beat in a repeating loop (or cycle) of 6 beats. Each player chooses a note to play on their instrument (with young players I ask for their ‘favourite’ note, or most reliable note… Less of an issue with orchestral musicians!) and then throws the dice. If it lands on 3, they play their chosen note on beat no. 3 of the cycle of 6. We do this until each person in the group (6 players per group) has their number and is playing in the right place. It doesn’t matter if two people are playing on the same beat, or if some beats don’t get covered by a note.

Then 2-3 people are asked to shift their note to the off-beat in between their chosen number, and the next number. Thus the note that was on beat number 3, is now played on beat number 3+ (‘and’).

A melody, made up of all these different notes, starts to be revealed. We write out the melody (or work it out by ear) so that everyone can now play it in unison.

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John Cage for primary school musicians

I spent my afternoon in the LaTrobe University library looking through John Cage scores. The Orchestra has a project coming up that will be part of the Melbourne Festival’s Musicircus , a big sunset-to-sunrise performance event. I will have a group of about 30 child and adult musicians creating a performance event to be part of this, so I went with the co-curator of Musicircus Tim Humphries to do some research among the Library’s collection of Cage scores, and get some ideas.

Here are some early thoughts:

  • Inspired by Cage’s A Dip in the Lake – ten quicksteps, 61 waltzes, and 56 marches for Chicago and vicinity, a vocal section using addresses of places in Melbourne. (I need to find out what Cage actually did with all the addresses in A Dip…, too).
  • Mesostics, that might then be sung or somehow played – but created by the group in the first place. I think we might create them from the day’s newspaper. (What’s a mesostic?)
  • Include instruments such as tin cans (paint tins?), a battery-operated buzzer (this is how John Cage describes it – the mind boggles – it could be any number of things!), transistor radios, mobile phones…
  • Transparencies with various lines, dots and markings on them that can be randomly superimposed upon each other to create unique graphic scores to be read by the group.
  • Creating compositions using elements of chance (eg. dice) and an idea I had today using coloured squares and rectangles… I’ll make a template of this idea and post it soon. I’m quite excited by it as I think it will be simple to do but will sound very effective…
  • Unison sounds of inhaling and exhaling (following either a graphic score, or a conductor who indicates the pitch contour of the sounds and when the group should inhale or exhale.
  • Metronomes (the old-fashioned, visually-interesting kinds) all set to different tempi, ticking away constantly in what will be a very resonant performing space.

We’ll only have about three hours to rehearse all of this on the performance day, which will mean setting tasks for small groups to develop on their own, and then ordering each of these responses to make one big piece. We’ll work at ArtPlay.

Then again, we may perform in separate groups – either concurrently and independently of each other, or consecutively. It’s all in the spirit of the Musicircus!