Composition for MMA

This article appeared in the 100th issue of MMA’s Ensemble magazine. 

My year with the MMA focussed on composition this year and started with the Composition Day (the final of the Amadeus Composition Competition) at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. I arrived for the afternoon and worked with the students on how one might tackle the revised composition briefs for GCSE and A-level as well as exploring the possibilities of writing for the piano. My preparations for the day had been my recent work on the ‘Fanfare’ project with Royal Opera House Learning: the priority had been to engage with repertoire from the Opera House while encouraging a focus on the compositional process as a priority rather than the product. The resources pack we devised for the ROH project had far more questions to consider for the students than answers. For me, composing is questioning. We question what material we will need to achieve a certain brief, concept and emotion and we question what we will do to manipulate the material to create an interesting journey for the listener.

On the Composition Day back in March (2016) I worked progressively through the different styles of briefs students are likely to encounter (Film music, fusion, Western art music, popular music) and we considered them holistically (i.e. what will I need to consider to satisfy this Area of Study) and explored a worked example together as a group. My repertoire examples, as much as I could, came from the work of living composers. I want the students to see their writing as part of a longer term trajectory of compositional approaches that is ongoing, rather than spend too long in the distant past. However we did explore music by composers that are no longer with us. I find the ABRSM Spectrum series to be an invaluable compositional tool for GCSE and A-level students. It has an encyclopaedic quality containing a variety of composers and displaying a breadth of approach. What is most important for me is the length of the pieces; they are mostly short. Short works mean students can perceive their entirety in one viewing. A lengthy score can make it a challenge for less experience students to conceive as well as perceive the longer term structures, which should be the priority for considering works as models for our students’ composing.


I could not help but talk about Henry Cowell when discussing piano writing with the Composition Day participants. Not only is he far less recent than his output as a composer suggests, he reminds us that we can be brave to experiment with timbre when we consider the piano. I did warn the students against plunging metal chains onto the strings but there are other things students can consider that avoid any aggressive preparations. Introducing extended techniques was to open the students’ palettes to broaden their concept of what composing is. It too often becomes a note-combining exercise devoid of considerations of the sonic qualities these notes possess when they are produced on a particular instrument. Every instrument has idiosyncrasies that are worth exploiting to enable not only our students to gain the best marks they can but to allow their compositions to be the best pieces they can. Extended techniques encourage this focus on timbre as the key means through which we can compose in an authentic and musical way.

Later in the year I joined the MMA Conference in Lancaster to present a workshop on approaching composition in the classroom. I have worked a great deal with teachers on CPD courses over the past five years and it is endlessly enjoyable to share practice and discuss the approaches we can take to cater for the diverse musical needs we are presented with in the Music classroom. I always start with words. We explored activities that use words as a way of developing interesting rhythms, moving to adding pitch, exploring timbre, then developing textures, harmony and structure. Within ten minutes you can devise a class composition (only using voices) where each student has brought their individuality to the work (using their name to create a rhythm) and we can progressively explore the musical elements one can manipulate as a composer by building up the rhythmic strands from each student to create longer lines and ultimately layer these up to structure some music. This collaborative composing works well at the start of GCSE Music, helping to manage the transition from the group work of Key Stage 3 to the individual work at Key Stage 4 and beyond.

Modelling on pre-existing works forms a big part of my composition teaching approach, and one I’ve cultivated through the use of ABRSM Spectrum but also through projects such as the recomposing project I led with Pro Corda in 2013 and 2014. It shifts the focus from finding their winning musical idea to how one can experiment and manipulate an idea. I have found it is not too long before students start to form their own musical fragments and can use their experiences from doodling with pre-existing material to inform how they will approach their own original ideas. Fostering confidence in behaving like a composer should take priority in the classroom and behaving like a composer means spending time doodling, and refining musical ideas. The more time we spend looking at how other composers did this, the more confident our student composers can become.

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