Spitalfields Festival Composition Projects
Bow Boys School and Mulberry Girls School
"Creating Contrasts" was a major GCSE composition project working with Year 10 music students from two schools in Tower Hamlets, London. Each school received ten workshops over a six-month period. The project was tailored to tie in with both GCSE syllabus requirements and themes/trends presented in the festival concert performed by CHROMA. Each student produced a composition, which was performed in a public lunchtime concert during the summer festival. In addition three student’s works from each school were programmed in the evening performance.
For the majority of students taking part, this project was the first opportunity for them to write an individual composition.
Musical themes/techniques that were explored during the project included the use of Eastern European modes in Bartok’s "Contrasts", the theatricality of Thomas Adès’ "Catch" and Thea Musgrave’s "Pierrot" and Minimalism, which was chosen from the GCSE syllabus as the most accessible and relevant compositional style. Steve Reich’s "New York Counterpoint" was used for illustrative purposes.
Each week new concepts/techniques were introduced starting with the basics. The majority of students did not read music fluently so rudimentary notation needed to be discussed. The earliest sessions concentrated on practical awareness of rhythmic layering through clapping games. These demonstrate one of the main tenets of minimalism that great complexity can be achieved by layering simple rhythmic cells. Generating rhythms without using standard notation was the next step. We devised a basic system using a grid of 8 boxes representing 2 bars of 4 time; where each box corresponds to a quaver beat. By placing a cross in the boxes of choice a simple rhythmic riff could be created. In turn a grid of 8 boxes when made into a grid of 16 offers a more complex riff.
For some students this method presented a relatively simple tool for generating material. Other students chose to think of a rhythm first and notate using the cross-in-a-box method with the assistance of the musicians.
Having chosen a number of contrasting rhythmic cells, each student proceeded to choose pitches for each beat, thus creating a riff. These riffs formed the backbone of the students’ compositions and by implementing the techniques outlined above they were able to produce individual pieces.
In addition to the important goal of learning about and understanding a key syllabus area of study, the project aimed to enhance the students’ core compositional toolkit. It was essential that each student produced properly notated music both for coursework submission and practically as performance materials for the two concerts crowning the project. The cross-in-the-box method of note generation neatly removes the complexity of proper notation whilst enabling the students to work with more rhythmically stimulating material. Each student moved on to computers working with Cubase or Sibelius notation software to input their work. By using cut and paste tools they were able to manipulate their base material into more complex compositions.
All of the students understood basic concepts of musical form such as binary, ternary and Rondo. We decided that some of the more advanced students might like to experiment with graphic notation to produce a contrasting ‘B’ section to their minimalist ‘A’ sections. Basic graphic notation was discussed and demonstrated in one session. The students were encouraged to devise their own notation to correspond to a wide variety of instrumental techniques, such as pizzicato, col legno, sul ponticello, ‘Bartok’ pizzicato etc. Students were encouraged to use storylines or work with different emotions to give shape and form to these free, improvisatory sections. This helped to focus the students’ ideas and ensure that they could accurately communicate their intentions to the instrumentalists via concise and considered performance directions. In order to help the students write idiomatically for each instrument, the musicians worked with each student individually as well as presenting mini-masterclasses to small groups of students.
Throughout the project, all aspects of minimalist composition were tackled including additive and subtractive phase methods and more general compositional approaches such as augmentation and diminution.
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