Archive for the ‘Symphony’ Tag

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!

Jamming on The Rite of Spring

Yesterday I led two ‘Jams on The Rite of Spring’ for the MSO, working with five of the orchestra’s musicians and crowds of well over 100 participants. We had some of the tiniest violinists and cellists you’ve ever seen turn up! We also had a plethora of bright yellow egg shakers to include, thanks to a giveaway by local music retailer sponsor. Not quite the percussion sound I’d imagined, so we also distributed some other instruments – drums, tambourines, xylophones – for people to use in the workshop.

I prepared a page of music for each of the instrumentalists (trumpets, trombones, strings, woodwinds) which had three riffs from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. We used these to get us started improvising, and over the course of an hour we put together three sections of music all inspired by the Stravinsky originals. My favourite section was what we called ‘the 20s’. This was a shortened version of the very rhythmic opening to The Augurs of Spring movement in Stravinsky’s work – everyone counted to 20, twice in a row. The percussion section and the violins played quietly (on any notes from the A natural minor scale) on all the numbers. The rest of the instrumentalists played loudly on numbers 10, 12, and 18. If you know the piece you will know the section we were recreating.

I love the Jams. We get a whole crowd of people who don’t know each other, and most of whom are total beginners on their instrument, playing together and sounding good. I think one of the secrets of the model is that we focus a lot on rhythmic ensemble. I accept/expect that many people who come along may not have full command of the notes yet. However, even the smallest, youngest person can be encouraged and motivated to play at exactly the right time (and to stop at exactly the right time too), so I pay a lot of attention to the rhythmic ensemble and getting it as strong as it can be. It means that everyone there will have an intense and satisfying musical ensemble experience – even if they are only playing on open strings. They’ll have the experience of connecting with other people through sound.

There are always moments of great delight for me, where I see that an experience has taken place that could be of great significance for the person. One little girl brought her violin along to the 10am Jam. Her parents sat in the seating bank watching and her older brother played in the guitar section. Both kids were total beginners, and the little girl had only had a few lessons on the violin before coming along. At the end of it, I spoke to her mum and dad and learned that she had found the whole thing a little overwhelming.  “You haven’t ever played with other people before,” her mum reminded her reassuringly. “You’ve only played in your lessons. It’s different when you play with other people, isn’t it?”

I crouched down so I could talk to her, and she looked at me with a very woebegone face. “I didn’t know the notes,” she told me.

“Oh, but that’s okay,” I answered, smiling. “The most important thing is playing with the group and knowing when to play, and when to stop.” I went on, “I looked at you during the Jam and every time I looked I could see that you were listening very carefully, and looking and concentrating hard. So you did very well at that.”

“It’s hard when it’s the first time too. It’s hard for everyone! But the next time you come, you’ll feel much better. If you come again at 2 o’clock” – I looked up at her parents – “then you’ll definitely know everything, because we’ll be playing the same music again! You’ll know all the tunes this time because you’ve already tried them before.” She didn’t look convinced.

But the family did come back at 2pm, and she bounced over to the violin section, where there was a whole crowd of children gathering. Her parents went off to play in the percussion section and I got her father to play the tam-tam (a key role).

At the end of the Jam I went over to her parents as they were getting ready to leave. “How was it this time?” I asked. “Oh, much better!” they started to answer, and then the little girl appeared out from behind their legs and came over to me and gave me a great big squeeze-y hug. Which was very sweet, and very gratifying. She’d obviously had a much better time the second time around, and realised that she did in fact know all she needed to know, and felt much more confident and sure of herself. I felt so pleased they’d been able to come back for the second jam.

My friend Louise is a cellist and she came along to the morning jam with her cello, to check out just what it is that I do in these workshops. It was great to have her there as we didn’t have a lower string representative from the MSO, so it meant that Louise would be able to help out any beginner players who turned up.

One of the cellists who came along was a boy of about 12, with a very open, intelligent face and and a great willingness to get stuck into the workshop. His confidence and readiness to play gave me the impression he was quite an experienced player, but Louise told me later he really only knew the basics. He played a little bit of piano and had only just started on the cello. Around the middle of the workshop a very small boy arrived (with his own small chair as well!) and so they were a section of 3.

At the end of the workshop Louise sent me a text message:

The bigger cellist said, “that must be what it’s like to play in an orchestra!”. His mate [who was playing the bass drum] said “That was awesome”. What a great experience for kids!

Then there was the girl who arrived quite early for the afternoon jam. I saw her hovering at the edge of the space, not sure where to go. “Are you going to play some music with us this afternoon?” I asked her. “I don’t know!” she said. “I haven’t played music before.”

“Well, how about you play the bass xylophone today?” I suggested. She looked doubtful. “It’s pretty nice to play,” I went on. “And if you know your alphabet letters, and if you can hammer a nail” – I looked at her enquiringly and she laughed and nodded – “then you’ll be fine!” She went over to the instrument and after a few minutes I went to see how she was going. We adjusted her mallet hold a little and I showed her one of the riffs that the xylophones would be playing.

At the end of the Jam I saw her talking with some of the girls from the violin section. It turned out they were all friends and had come along together, but, as her friend explained, this girl “hasn’t ever played music before, but she wants to, and now she thinks she’s going to play the flute…”

“Or the clarinet,” added the girl quickly, and her face was lit up with the fun and possibility of it all.