Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Composition Class

After three weeks teaching I received a call from Anjli Mata, Trinity Representative in Delhi, to teach a composition class on Saturday afternoons. Fresh out of University, this seemed a rather daunting prospect. Just as there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the success of Heston Blumenthal's 'Bacon and Egg' flavour Ice cream, what could I say about the act of compositional, or for that matter culinary, chemistry?

In a group class I would be expected to make over arching generalizations about the key to a successful composition. Here are some questions I considered before planning the class:

Where do the first few notes come from?
How should you develop an idea?
How do you find your own 'style' in which to compose?

What makes a composition good?

Ouch! Anybody got any thoughts? Pen and paper down, glass of cold water. As there would be a range of ages and experiences I thought the best way forward would be to do the first lesson around increasing awareness of the 'Musical Parameters'. These cover every feature of a piece of music. In the lesson the important thing was to make sure they did all of the talking and came up with these ideas on their own.

(This next bit may be a bit technical if you were reading with the hope to find out what happened next to Neils fly-away doti!)

Musical Parameters:

Rhythm - how do we vary the length of each particular sound? Are we aiming to let the music breathe by creating balanced phrases? Or do we build suspense by creating patterns and displacing the accented beats as Bartok might?
Register - what end of the piano are your hands spread over: are the pitches high or low?
Pitches - together with contour, these two parameters create and govern melody. How do we select the first few pitches? Do they imply a key?
Contour - do the notes begin high and descend as is a feature in the second movement of Beethoven's 5th piano concerto?
Harmony - the grouping of pitches in both the 'vertical' chords and the 'horizontal' melody can imply a changing rate of harmonic development.
Tempo - just because alternations between two notes may be quick, the rate of harmonic change may still be slow. How fast does the piece unfold within this tempo?
Texture - is there one solo melody or several in counterpoint or rhythmic unison creating homophony/chords? Is this a blanket heading for all other parameters?

The aim of this approach is to move away from using vague words like 'atmosphere' or 'feeling' when discussing music. By understanding what a composer is specifically doing we can understand the choices that are being made and there for inform our own decisions.

If an aspiring composer can make a decision about just one of these considerations, they have already begun composing and the manuscript paper is no longer blank.

Though a rather academic starting point I believe this was a good foundation for later classes as it does not limit discussion to classical music. All following lessons have begun with a student playing a piece of music that they love to the class, (so far we have had prog. rock, and Sufi music) followed by a discussion of the features of the piece.

  • Compose a piece using only 40 notes. An introductory task that limits the amount of material that can be composed but requires that every note counts! Musical parameters must be fully considered if a piece is going to work.
  • Individual projects and aims to be discussed and agreed upon.

Upcoming lesson plans, as requested by group:
  1. Theory: Discussion of circles of fifths and common modulations with reference to jazz and classical music.
  2. Analysis: of Beethoven Pathétique Sonata with passages played on the piano, and photocopies of Beethoven's original sketches handed out.
  3. Film Music Class: Project to teach a 2 hour seminar at the Delhi school of Music on creating a dynamic score for a visual medium. How is this composition different from other compositions?
These classes cover a wide area of subjects and will introduce students to a number of areas that they are not familiar with. The problem will be that the students will have less time to work on their specific composition, however I have given my mobile number and email address out, so they are free to contact me with questions or to arrange extra lessons.

Now, time for some compositional chemistry!

Theo V. x

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