Composition Workshop – a layout of content
The teaching of music composition – as with teaching within any of the other art disciplines – is primarily about heightening the students’ awareness of their own personal, creative thinking and how to apply it to the composing process at hand. Thinking creatively involves improvisation, which is so essential in all the arts, where intuitive and spontaneous action gives the impulse, and imaginative and innovative thought shapes the form. Two levels of awareness working together in a dynamic interplay.
The application of creative thinking demands skills and knowledge, regardless of which medium is used, whether it is writing a score for live instruments, creating sonic art through electronic media or improvising music through performance itself. All expressions of music and sound rely on the basic ability and talent to confront and deal with the continual flow of ideas within the framework of a more or less consciously intended artistic concept.
The four phases of Composition Workshop
Phase 1 – PLAY
One of the most important activities a student of composition can do is to play, as children play, but with a goal. That is, to improvise freely and subsequently practice the art of sketching down ideas, not intending to create a composition at all, just sketches of impulsive and spontaneous ideas, so as to become familiar with personal intuitive resources and their character. How these sketches are preserved is irrelevant; notes or graphic signs on paper, a recorded sound object, or a description in words. It’s even of value to just let the ideas fly and try to recall them, like a poeticized image, their nature, their significance, and their gestural shape and sonic texture.
Phase 2 – THINK
The next phase of learning through improvisation and play, is to use one or more of these emerged ideas as compositional elements. Traditionally, composition is basically built around one idea. The experiencing of a composition is more to explore in depth what is happening with that one idea, rather than being presented several ideas where the explorative efforts are superficial. Other ideas may certainly be presented, but only in interaction with the one basic idea; to contrast, challenge, shed light, in short, engage in dialogue. There are numerous dramaturgical models also to be explored, in developmental temporal narratives and/or contemplative spatial dimensions. Again, the aim is to create a short sketch, or outline, for a composition with a duration of maximum 4 minutes. The aim not to compose a finished piece of music, but to exercise composing.
Phase 3 – COMPOSE
The performing and recording of the compositional sketches is of course essential. The students themselves play their instruments, sing, clap, etc., and use electronic media they know how to use. The point is here to capture the character of what they have made, not to produce a piece of music ready for concert. This performing phase is an important arena, affording the music to be ‘tweaked’ or even altered, as the students certainly hear new and unexpected properties of what they have written. Such allowances are encouraged, so long as they adhere to the intent of the original exercise.
Phase 4 – EXPERIENCE
This phase is equally essential. It is the listening phase. The recordings are played back for all the participants to experience. In this situation, the students of composition are, as part of their listening experience, encouraged to detach themselves from their professional terminology of knowledge and assume a non-analytical approach. In this way they become aware of music’s poetical, aesthetical qualities, putting themselves in the chairs of the music lover, so to speak. To respect, acknowledge and appreciate the aesthetical competency present in a general concert audience will no doubt give them insights into qualitative aspects of their music which is not that easy to discern through even the most professional scrutiny.
Through these phases of workshop activity, the students will have experienced the whole “life cycle” of a composition, from an idea becoming a concept, through the composing and performance, and on to becoming perceived, experienced and digested by listening participants. All other supporting subjects the students have to take within their curriculum can be related and applied to any of the phases in Composition Workshop, from music theory subjects to lectures in aesthetics and philosophy. But the central study of music composition is in the activities of play, thinking, doing, and listening.