Monday, July 20, 2009

teaching compsoition to kids

Over the term Andrew and I have been working with the level four kids devising their own compositions for mixed percussion groups.

The key concepts that we taught were:

1. The need for a bassline and its role – to hold the piece down harmonically and rhythmically.

2. A Melody line and what it does – adds character and individual taste to a composition – it’s the thing on top that gives spice.

3. An accompanying part either using a counter melody or chords and what it does – it enhances the melody and provides some substance.

4. An A section and a B section for interest sake – to provide variety for the listeners ear.

5. A Rhythm part.

The kids all worked in small groups of 5 and co-composed all the parts and then each person performed one part. Finally we filmed all the performances and did some quick editing using Final Cut Express

The kids love this and are all very confident in their ideas and with the idea of being able to compose. Marimbas and basic metalaphones are great to use when composing with kids because they are generally diatonic (all in the same key center) so allow kid to instantly play and sound quite good.

I often just encourage them to hit a couple of notes and decide if they like the combination of sounds and then they are off and running.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Minimalism, Clock Time, Stasis and Repetition in The music of The Escalators


As the sampler/turntables were the instruments that were the key to the music being composed, the music that was written for all the other instruments had to be subservient to the sound produced by the them. One of the roles of the other instruments was to set up a musical environment that the turntablist could work within or over. While the parts of the other instruments also had other roles to play, those roles could never overrule the sampler’s sound. The idea for the band’s repertoire and performance style was to play a number of quite long pieces (over 20 minutes in length) interspersed by short ones that lasted no longer than about two minutes. (The reason for the short pieces will be better explained in chapter 2.4.) Much of the music written for the other instruments contained the characteristics of minimalist music. These characteristics include the notions of stasis, repetition, nonlinearity and time stretching.

When dealing with memory in composition I believe it is important to create an atmosphere that attempts to play on the notions of clock time. Memory is so placed in a notion of time that providing an atmosphere that alters clock time assists in the rearrangement of those memories (memories that have been triggered by the samples). Music that goes for a long period of time and is of a repetitive nature starts to alter people’s perceptions of real time. What might seem like 5 minutes can easily be 20 minutes. What might seem like 20 can have actually have been 20. As Bob Snyder states, “Time is an abstract construction of the human mind based on aspects of memory and the concept of an enduring self. Time isn’t experienced in the same way that physical objects are experienced. Rather as humans our subjective notion of time is constructed from our perceptions of objects and events and its qualities at a given moment depend on the relationship between these perceptions. Indeed what we perceive in a given amount of time to some extent determines our sense of the length of that time” (Snyder 2000, 212).
As humans we tune out behavior to the environments we live in and events within that environment act as clocks for us to synchronize to (Michon 1985, 28-32).
Effecting factors on our memory and perception of time include:
1. Duration.
2. Succession.
3. Temporal perspective or the construction of a linear ordering.

In writing the music to be performed by the other instruments (apart from the turntables) I was attempting to work with all three of these factors. Musically there has been much work done in this area with compositions that include all of these concepts. Compositions that are long in duration, compositions that play with the natural idea of an ordering of events and nonlinear music.

Iannis Xenakis Bohor (1962) is a piece that is both nonlinear in construction and works on the notions of duration in an attempt to effect perceptions of clock time. In describing this music Jonathon Kramer says, “ It seems to have adopted the requirements of moments (via stasis) as their entire essence. When the moment becomes the piece, discontinuity disappears in favor of total, possibly unchanging, consistency. The result is a single present stretched out into an enormous duration, a potential infinite now that none the less feels like an instant…Thus I called the time sense invoked by such music ‘vertical” (Kramer 1988, 55).

After reading of Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories (1981), described as surgery of memory I started to think how I could effectively lengthen my pieces. David Toop says about Feldman’s piece “their organization of lengthy durations is compelling, yet the divisions between notes, those absences we call silence, demand a huge effort of memory in order to retain a grasp of this unfolding structure (Toop 2004, 90). This gives it an accumulative effect of time frozen. This was the effect I was after with the parts written for the other instruments. If I could play with the notion of memories within the structure of the music as well as through the manipulation of samples themselves it would give the music much more strength.

Steve Reich and Terry Riley’s idea of time contradicts traditional Western Music, in which the musical argument is the result of a subdivision of time. A lot of their music is ‘vertical’ in nature. When explaining vertical music Kramer states “ A vertically perceived piece does not exhibit large scale closure. It does not begin but merely starts. It does not build to a climax, does not purposefully set up internal expectations, does not seek to fulfill any expectations that might arise accidentally, does not build or release tension and does not end but simply ceases. A vertically conceived piece defines its sound world early in its performance and stays within the limits it chooses. Respecting the self imposed boundaries is essential because any move outside these limits would be perceived as a temporal articulation of considerable structural import and would therefore destroy the verticality of time (Kramer 1988, 55). In a similar way to these composers I am attempting to move to what Wim Mertens describes as “the idea of time as being an empty one so that a higher level of macro time can be reached” (in Cox and Warner 2004, 311).

For instance I attempted to deal with the notion of “timestretching and memory” in what was composed for the trumpet and trombone in the piece Log Lady. The basic structure is: the brass instruments play a melody and then rest for as long as I, the leader, can mentally hold out before bringing in the second melody. In using the phrase “mentally hold out” I am referring to the onstage pressure one feels as bandleader to move the music forward and to bring in the next section. That pressure can emanate from the audience, the musicians on stage or from ones own self and preconceived ideas of what makes for good music. In the rest period the remainder of the band continues to play as instructed. Their parts are repetitive in nature. They achieve stasis by never altering in regards to intensity of playing and dynamics. Each melody (written for the trumpet and trombone) is an expansion on the last. I took the opening 2 phrases, a B flat leading to C and started interspersing them between each new phrase. The idea of the new phrase is to build in length as another note of the 12-tone scale is added. Each phrase also develops rhythmically on the previous phrase. So I interspersed them with the beginning two notes and always stretched the length of those two notes out as well. Each phrase or melody is referencing the previous phrase and the phrases that have gone before. This gives the listener the feeling of familiarity while stretching that idea and subsequently stretching time.

There is repetition in the melodic structure but only after a long time (approximately twenty to twenty five minutes) and each repetition isn’t quite exact. Log Lady as well as the other lengthy pieces also apply the common “Aleph” type techniques which are a type of texture that transcends time by juxtaposing fast tempi and slow melodies (Trochimczyk 2002, 278). This is a technique used by Louis Andriessen in his masterwork De Staat (1972 – 1974) and De Tijd (1979-1981).

De Tidj (1979 – 1981) is Andriessen’s attempt to capture the essence of timelessness or where real time stands still (eternity). He devised many techniques in an attempt to replicate this ambience of eternity or timelessness. He speaks of attempting to create a situation of “sustained, glorified musical motionlessness…. A feeling that time had ceased to exist; the sensation of an eternal moment.” (Trochimczyk 2002, 113) . His inspiration for this was the writing of St Augustine. Augustine says,

“ If only their minds could be seized and held steady, they would be still for a while and for that small moment they would glimpse the splendor of eternity which is forever still. They would contrast it with time, which is never still, and see that it is not comparable. They would see that time derives it’s length only from a great number of movements constantly following one another into the past because they cannot all continue at once. But in eternity nothing moves into the past, because they cannot all continue at once. The past is always driven on by the future, the future always follows on the heels of the past, and both the past and the future have their beginning and end in the eternal present.”

This feeling of stillness or stasis is what Andriessen is attempting and what I also am attempting in my music. It is obviously an impossibility but the illusion is achievable.

Referencing some of Andriessen’s investigation’s into time manipulation I have built slight accelerations and decelerations into my drum patterns across almost all of the pieces written for The Escalators. There are moments where the drum pattern pushes slightly in front of the beat and others where it deliberately falls off the beat while the bass is unmoving. The drums circle the beat as it were, but over a great space of time so it is virtually unnoticeable. Andriessen speaks of the need to fix attention, since without attention time doesn’t exist at all. He built scarcely noticeable accelerations into the motion which precisely create the impression that everything remains the same but not quite the same; more in the way cathedral towers are the same and yet not the same. (Trochimczyk 2002, 124)

When talking about repetition in hip hop music Paul Miller states, “The repetitive nature of the music allows for the unfolding of clock time in a recursive spatial arrangement of tones that has parallels in the world of architecture where structural integrity requires the modular deployment of building materials to create a buildings framework.” (in Cox and Warner 2004, 350).

Repetition as a technique is also being used in my music for all the same reasons that many minimalist composers use repetition. Composers such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass as well as Techno producers Derrick May, Carl Craig and Kevin Saunderson who have popularized the technique. By using repetition these composers are discarding and challenging the traditional harmonic functional ideas of tension and release as well as the musical narratives that go with them. It is used to try to eradicate the expression of subjective feelings through the music. It is used to move beyond the linkages of clock time and real life experience with the music. As stated by Ron Rosenbaum, “It is trying to create an extra historical experience of time brought about by discarding teleological and dramatic elements” (Ron Rosenbaum in Cox and Warner 2004, 309). It is attempting to express nothing except for itself. Minimalist music tends to restrict itself to a small number of ideas while stretching those ideas over a long period of time. Kyle Gann says “The length of the work actually underlines the intense restriction of materials: you might write a four minute piece using only seven pitches and no one would notice, but write a 30-minute piece, and the austere limitations become a major phenomenon of the composition. (in Cox and Warner 2004, 299).

In the use of repetitious grooves I am allowing the listener a way in, giving their ear something familiar as an access point. However by locking the groove completely, almost in the way electronic instruments loop, I intend the listener to move into an area of discomfort. The music becomes vertical in nature rather than linear. This repetition can be found in the way the drums are performed on Log Lady. The ride cymbal was to be played in a fast continual fashion. The drummer was instructed not to move from the original dynamic setting and technique used on the ride cymbal. Only after 10 minutes is he allowed to add a second drum (say the bass drum) and this must then lock in the same fashion as the ride cymbal. While doing this on percussion I want the bass player to play sliding grooves that both move the time and placement of the ‘one’. These types of parameters for all the instruments were set to avoid clich├ęd ‘groove’ sounds.