17 September 2009
Asia-Pacific Musics as an Impetus for Upper Primary Class Composition
Creating ‘a very fulfilled and wonderful piece’
The following extremely interesting report by composer Diana Blom and class teacher Anne Bischoff focuses on the use of Asian-Pacific musics in composition in the primary school classroom. The article is included in a newly published collection of essays, Music of the Spirit - Asian-Pacific Musical Identity (AMC 2009). The individual essays, by prominent composers, artists and academics, range from texts about gamelan in the classroom and reinterpretations of shakuhachi traditions in a contemporary music context to analytical articles about specific works by Australian composers. The articles were written as part of a practice-based research project of the same name, realised in collaboration with the Aurora Festival 2008.
Music of the Spirit, edited by Bruce Crossman and Michael Atherton, is now available for purchase from the AMC Shop at $25/$22.50 (AMC members). Blom and Bischoff's article is republished on Resonate with kind permission from the writers.
This essay investigates the introduction of Asia-Pacific musics, in particular music of the Malay Terengganu Joget Gamelan, and also the sounds of compositions by Australian composers Peter Sculthorpe, Nigel Westlake, and Stephen Leek, as an impetus for upper primary class composition. It attempts to trace musical ideas through the project weeks to answer these four questions:
- 1. What happens to the sounds and structures of the Asia-Pacific musics introduced during the compositional journey of the students' project?
- 2. Where do musical ideas come from in the group composing process?
- 3. How do the ideas fit together in the composing process?
- 4. What can we do with this knowledge in the classroom composing experience?
Class composition receives good and bad press, yet with one teacher, a 40-minute (or similar) time limit, and students of varying musical ability, it may be the only option. For primary students new to composition, group composing offers musical and moral support, the potential for co-operative learning, and a sharing and discussing of ideas, as they work collaboratively to build a piece of music (Brady, 1985; Webster, 1992; Blom, 2003; Byrne et al., 2003). Group or class composition is a kind of 'design by committee' (Owen, 1986, p.348) which is less than desirable. However, Paynter (1982, p.10) reminds us that in many musics (jazz, group improvisation, much of the world's music), a collaborative experience is concerned with process as much as with product, and this is especially important to remember when working with student composers.
Gamelan is a Javanese word, the root of which, gamel, means to strike a percussive musical instrument. The gamelan as an ensemble of percussion instruments is heard today in For primary students new to composition, group composing offers musical and moral support, the potential for co-operative learning, and a sharing and discussing of ideas...Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and parts of Vietnam.
The survival of the gamelan in Malaysia/Malaya during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries depended on the musical interest of the Sultans. Gamelan music was heard at weddings and celebrations in Pahang accompanying Joget dance displays by court dancers, from 1811 until the beginning of the twentieth century when interest waned. The Pahang gamelan was introduced to Terengganu in 1913 where regular performances by Sultan Sulaiman's musicians took place. Performances of the Terengganu1 Gamelan ceased early in 1942 after the Japanese invasion, and following the death of its patron that year, the gamelan gave its last public performance. Since its revival in 1966 by Tan Sri Haji Mubin Sheppard and Tengku Ampuan, this gamelan has enjoyed a renaissance and government patronage (Sheppard, 1983). Despite its origins as an ensemble performing exclusively for members of royal households and other nobles, it is now performed for the entertainment of all. It is also one of the traditional Malaysian ensembles offered through the 1996 Malaysian music curriculum for secondary schools (Hassan, 2004, p.4).
The Terengganu Joget Gamelan musical ensemble uses a pentatonic scale known as slendro, and the notes are given Arabic numbers - 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. The nearest Western equivalents are: B C# D# F# G# B. Instruments of the Joget Gamelan are: Bonang, a set of ten metal gongs on a rack; Gambang, a xylophone played with wooden beaters; Saron Peking I, a metallophone played with a bone mallet; Saron Barong II, a metallophone played with a wooden mallet; Gendang, a double-faced drum played with one hand at each end with a resonant strike of the fingers; Kenong, a set of six large metal gongs on a rack; Gong Kecil, a small gong with a boss, suspended on a large wooden frame; and Gong Besar, a larger gong with a boss, higher in pitch than Gong Kecil and hanging from the same frame.2
While today Terengganu Gamelan ensembles play traditional repertoire, there are also groups performing newly composed pieces and music which blends gamelan with non-gamelan musical ideas and sounds. One example of contemporary gamelan is the compact disc Rhythm in Bronze - New Music for the Malaysian Gamelan,which features traditional and newly composed works for the ensemble.
The Gamelan in Educational Literature
Educational literature usually focuses on Indonesian and Balinese gamelans, rather than the Malay gamelan. Indonesian and Balinese gamelans have a larger number of instruments than the Terengganu Joget Gamelan, yet there are performance and composition issues relating to the use of the Terengganu Gamelan in the classroom, which are relevant to this project.
Dunbar-Hall learnt to play the Balinese gamelan in Bali with a Balinese teacher. Although no notation was used in the teaching/learning process he undertook, '…the system of notating elements of Balinese gamelan music is discussed and demonstrated' (Dunbar-Hall, 2000, p.132). This notation 'only showed the notes to be struck to produce the … skeletal melody, from which other parts of a piece could be derived' (p.134). Through learning a short section by imitation on one instrument, Dunbar-Hall found that 'completeness' of sections, and performance of a piece seemed to be the objectives - 'The daily lesson focused on the accomplishment of completeness on a micro level, and a number of lessons on completeness on a larger scale…' He observed and experienced a 'cyclical process, as the ability to play one part or section became the beginning of the learning of the next' (p.133). Using Orff metallophones, xylophones, gongs and drums, these principles, including embellishment of the skeletal melody, can be introduced into the classroom through performance activities for learning about pentatonic scales and Indonesian gamelan (Hodge et al., 1987; Myers, 1976).
Davies uses the Balinese gamelan gong kebyar tradition to describe an approach to learning a new piece, similar to that outlined by Dunbar-Hall, wherein 'repertoire is conveyed by example' (Davies, 2001, p.21), sometimes taking about three months to teach the work to a gamelan of already skilled musicians. Davies notes that 'the Balinese do not approve of mechanical copying. Each group introduces its own modifications and variations and, over the years, continues to alter its account of the work' (p.22). Therefore, despite works being introduced and preserved over extended periods within an oral tradition, this tradition 'is never static or backward looking…' (p.22)
My own experience of learning the Terengganu Joget Gamelan from 1987 to 1988 in Kuala Lumpur, reflects these experiences. Notation (Arabic numbers) was the 'skeletal melody' of several short pieces 'from which other parts of a piece (horizontally speaking) could be derived'. While some members of the ensemble preferred to stay with one instrument throughout many lessons, several of us (those with knowledge of, and experience with, Western music) chose to play and learn the roles of several different instruments in the ensemble. 'Completeness' in these short pieces could perhaps be seen in the gradual introduction of increasingly more complex 'variations' of the skeletal melody demonstrated to the 'bonang' player by the Malay gamelan teacher.
Different styles of Indonesian gamelan (angklung style, legong music) are introduced by Craig for 'composing together Asian style', before students are asked to make up two new parts, to accompany the legong dance-drama, using the pelog scale. Students are: to invent four measures of nuclear melody in bass clef in half notes and whole notes, writing 'each of the same notes in quarter-notes and a few longer notes an octave higher, making the top part come out even with the bass'; to evaluate the sound - 'Do you like it? If not, change a note at a time until you are satisfied with the result'; and to listen to real Balinese or Javanese music, then go back to their own composition and revise it (Craig, 1984, pp.7-8).
Arabic number notation of the skeletal or nuclear melody, stylistic embellishment of this melody by the different instruments, use of classroom instruments, and completeness of a short piece, all formed the basis for introducing the Year 6 students to the Terengganu Gamelan.
The Asia-Pacific Class Composition Project
In her ongoing role as music teacher, Anne Bischoff, at the end of the previous term, had introduced an excerpt from Peter Sculthorpe's orchestral work, Sun Music III, drawing on teaching ideas from the Sydney Symphony resource kit to focus students on 'dynamics, tone colour, mood, use of percussion, pentatonic scale, the lack of an obvious beat' (Oberg, 1995, p.27) through listening and observations, followed with improvisatory sound exploration activities. The class then undertook the 'Rainmaker' composition exercise3 , firstly with body percussion then using percussion instruments.
In the term following, I was invited by the music teacher to work on the Year 6 class composition project as composer-in-the-classroom over ten weeks. During the group composition project, a multi-model (that is, several different Asia-Pacific musical models) and multi-media (that is, listening, improvising, composing and performing) task design was interspersed with journal writing (see Appendix 14.1 in Music of the Spirit). This enabled the students to experience the sounds of the Asia-Pacific musics aurally and through notation - listening to, then improvising based on, Sculthorpe's Tabuh Tabuhan; playing 'lagu' Perang, a piece for Joget Gamelan Terengganu; listening to Antarctica by Nigel Westlake (Canyons of Ice, sixth movement); performing Inanay, a traditional Aboriginal song in three parts; and listening, experimenting with sound ideas, and singing one of the themes of Gabagong by Stephen Leek.
The participants were 19 female Year 6 (upper primary) students in a general music class at a private, denominational girls' school, who undertook a focused composition module over one term. The two researchers were the participants' primary music teacher (Anne Bischoff) and composer-in-the-classroom (Diana Blom).
Data was collected through:
- observation notes (field notes, reflective notes, joint discussion notes) made by the two researchers in their role of participant-as-observer, observing in a 'natural … situation … in the field of interest;' (Flick, 2002, p.134)
- recordings of the class compositions
- access to individual entries in a group composition process
journal designed to encourage reflective thinking (Towell et al.,
1995; Ronalds, 2004) via three prompts:
- a. where did your ideas come from?
- b. how did the ideas fit together in the composing process?
- c. write some comments about the composing process.
Participants were also invited to add other written comments about the composition process thereby creating another space, away from the 'verbal' group composing environment, for students' voices to be heard 'generating, analysing, synthesising, and evaluating musical choices…' (Younker, 2003, p.32).
Data from these sources were analysed by:
- coding information drawn from the journals, seeking:
- a. evidence of the sounds and structures of the Asia-Pacific musics introduced;
- b. where ideas came from;
- c. how ideas fitted together in the composing process
- investigating the recording for:
- a. evidence of the Asia-Pacific musics introduced
- b. evidence of other musical influences from in and outside the classroom music environment
- coding information drawn from the teacher/researcher notes for how the material was being used compositionally.
Findings from the Project and Related Literature
What happens to the sounds and structures of the Asia-Pacific musics introduced during the compositional journey of the students' project?
The sounds and structures of the Asia-Pacific musics were clearly evident in the early stages of the composition, but they progressively combined with previous and current classroom experiences and musical experiences outside the classroom to become reflections rather than obvious aural features. A multi-model task design offering a range of musical experiences immediately presented 'opportunities to make decisions and choices and enable[d] exploration beyond pastiche writing' (Blom, 2003, p.91) and also focused attention on particular sounds, The sounds and structures of the Asia-Pacific musics were clearly evident in the early stages of the composition, but they progressively combined with previous and current classroom experiences and musical experiences outside the classroom...requiring students to only think about sound (Durrant and Welch, 1995, p.22). This allowed us to introduce students to different musical concepts within short class time periods, which could be developed over several weeks. Miller adopted this strategy for class composition with fifth grade primary students for the same reason and to allow a 'less hurried atmosphere' (Miller, 2004, p.64).
The Terengganu Gamelan4 served as a composition starting point and performance task in the first composer workshop. All students played the traditional piece, 'lagu' Perang, (see Appendix 14.2 in Music of the Spirit) substituting Orff and professional keyed percussion instruments for gamelan instruments as well as large drums playing simplified rhythms.5
Composition task designs play a large part in determining the compositional outcomes of students' work. One task design can offer different experiences according to whether students are working as individuals or in groups. A prescriptive task design is characterised as 'a high degree of control operating on, and governing decision making' resulting in isolated instances of divergence, but overall creating a similarity of music (Burnard, 1998, p.37). It can represent '…adult experience which [does] not correspond with the child's mentality' (Tichavsky, 1989, pp. 162-163), with standards of work often unsatisfactory (Major, 1996, p.189).
In the project, the gamelan as a defined prescriptive composition task, offered students a chance 'to conceive of a whole, create individual parts…' (Kaschub, 1997, p. 26) and generate a whole piece in one 80-minute workshop, an experience shared by Kaschub in group song writing with upper primary students. After playing Perang, students were asked to invent short melodies using the five notes of the 'Westernised' slendro scale, adopting what composer MacGill (MacGill, 1988) describes as 'instant composition' - writing down (for us, on the board) simple ideas so that the raw material can be altered, expanded or discarded. The pentatonic scale imposed limits which Cain (Cain, 1985, p.11) suggests gives students 'a sense of direction', especially during their first attempts at composition.
Through this process a class piece, Lagu 6F6 emerged which was a 'pastiche' copy of 'lagu' Perang. However, by changing the shape of the melody, rhythm and pitch set, yet retaining the structure (while encouraging consideration of the introduction, ending and textural roles of instruments), students were able to play a traditional gamelan piece and a newly composed piece and experience the composing process. This new composition for gamelan reflected the move towards new music for a traditional ensemble discussed earlier in the paper.
'Snake', 'Chord' and 'Shimmer'(see Appendix 14.1 in Music of the Spirit), three composition exercises, were also prescriptive in design, although each progressively less defined and more open-ended and improvisatory in character. The two Australian choral works offered opportunities for observation and composing exercises. At primary level, Moore (Moore, 1990) recommends introducing a variety of contemporary listening experiences in class that expose students to the musical expressions and techniques similar to, or suggestive of, those with which they are experimenting. In this project the teacher played Balinese music for gamelan and flute (see Appendix 14.1 in Music of the Spirit), as well as Sculthorpe's Tabuh Tabuhan, to show how gamelan sounds can emerge in a Western composition, and borrowed a short rhythmic pattern from Westlake's Antarctica from which the composition 'chord exercise', 'Chord', was developed.
The final composition could be described as 'derivative' (ideas were guided, rather than governed by stylistic conventions) and 'independent' (self-generated and independently worked) rather than 'modelled' (musical decisions governed by modelling a musical style, or applying specific rule-embedded conventions) (Burnard, 1998). Ideas were drawn on butcher paper and the score was fastened to the board. The teacher and composer heard several aspects of the gamelan in the final composition - metallophones and xylophones, interlocking rhythmic patterns, the pentatonic scale, the tone colour of cymbals, sleigh bells and gong at start and finish and the shimmering sound on tuned percussion. The unison rhythm drawn from the Westlake work reminded us of the drum part in the gamelan, and the flute melody over the top reflected the Balinese music for bamboo flute and gamelan played early in the project. The structure/process of 'Snake' became a river of metallophone sound in the middle of the final composition and the overlapping of ideas was heard augmented in the superimposed joins of larger sections within the work.
Where the Musical Ideas came from in the Group Composing Process
While musical ideas initially came from the gamelan and other
Asia-Pacific musics introduced during the project, as each stage
of the composition task was introduced, ideas came from a wider
range of musics including listening to their peers during the
project, suggestions made by the teacher and the composer, and
musical ideas from the children's musical experiences in and
outside the classroom environment. Durrant and Welch remind us
that students '…have already a well-developed awareness of sounds
in their environment' even when they begin school (Durrant and
Welch, 1995, p. 24).
Students overwhelmingly named the gamelan as the source of their ideas in their journal entries, yet individuals also referred specifically to 'rhythms that worked well', 'listening to the instruments play' and the register and timbre of the 'sharp and high tunes', indicating awareness of specific musical aspects of the gamelan experience.
Responses after the 'Snake' lesson showed influences of the previous gamelan workshop, of 'Rainmaker' from the previous term and 'from my head'. From the 'Snake' lesson itself, ideas frequently came 'from everyone around me', but also the Japanese In scale. Several students referred specifically to the 'different ways the instrument could play', drawing their ideas from what Bailey describes as the 'exploitation of the natural resources of the instrument' (Bailey, 1993, p.99). A few students drew on the imagery of the snake, 'other animals with that sort of noise' and the jungle ('I like the beat of the drums'), especially in the untuned version of 'Snake'. Although Paynter warns against using a poem, picture or story as a starting point for composing because of the tendency for children to try and 'translate' poetic and visual images into music rather than 'developing the potential in the sounds themselves for musical reasons', (Paynter, 1982, p.107) our experience was closer to that of Davies who found that for young students a topic provided a strong impetus for the students' creativity (Davies, 1986). We found our students adopted 'indicating' (using musical elements to indicate the mood of the piece, e.g. drums and battles) and 'recreating' (copying sounds rather than abstracting them, e.g. spaceship landing) but were steered away from 'mimicking' (borrowing a melodic idea from another setting) (Hewitt, 2002). In a multi-model task design, we found that ideas drawn from imagery and imitating can add to, rather than dominate, a larger palette of ideas from many other sources in the composing process.
After the 'Chord' and 'Shimmer' lessons, students were introducing ideas from many experiences, including music heard and played before (piano playing, 'my piano and clarinet teachers' compositions'), from the teacher and the group, and specified rhythm (playing 'with the rhythm but different notes'; 'from Mary's rhythm pattern'), harmony (taking ideas from chord and playing 'two notes at a time'); the instruments ('the cool sounds of the instruments and what sounds they could make'); and the pitch set ('the notes we could play'). This reflected Miller's work with fifth grade students composing as individuals, who drew on their current and past musical experiences (Miller, 2004).
How the Musical Ideas Fitted Together in the Composing Process
There was a growing awareness of how musical ideas fitted together in the composing process, and student thinking became more sophisticated as more ideas were added and the piece changed - moving from the pitch set in Gamelan Perang; through dynamic shaping, and rhythmic textures (without a pitch set) in 'Snake'; to the addition of instrumental timbre, listening to others, texture and silence as a structural device after Shimmer. Students' comments moved from the general (a high proportion of 'the ideas fitted together well') to a more specific focus on musical concepts ('putting ideas into sections', silence, 'contrast of tuned and percussion instruments'). 'Snake' was liberating because it drew on some use of image association and idiomatic exploration of instrument. Students engaged with many activities in Hickey's compositional strategy, SCAMPER, an acronym for substitute, combine, adapt or add, minify (diminution) or magnify (augmentation), put to other uses (other instruments), eliminate and reverse or rearrange (Hickey, 1997).
Journal entries after Gamelan named the pentatonic pitch set and the teamwork required to fit the instrumental roles together as the predominant reasons why ideas fitted together, with several identifying different rhythms sounding 'great together' because of the pitch set, and one commenting on register ('close range'). Many students commented on the listening required for 'Snake', noting issues such as register change from one person to the next, cooperation of class members and dynamic shaping as a way of fitting ideas together. The 'untuned' version drew out comments about the placement of instruments and their different timbres making ideas fit together and still sounding good.
The 'Shimmer' responses show a developing interest and understanding of how different ideas fit together in one piece. The teacher commented on how 'the project is making its own pace and making the next step clear as it unfolds'. At primary level, Moore suggested the strategy of individuals inventing short improvisations within larger forms performed by the group (Moore, 1990) and the different composition exercises which were parts of the multi-model task design, especially 'Snake', 'Chord' and 'Shimmer', played this role in our class composition project, building texture blocks which became part of a larger composition. The teacher wrote of how the class 'started putting together some ideas like shimmering, chords and silence … made decisions about timbre, dynamics etc.; then added solo instruments over the shimmering … one by one - oboe, clarinet, flute, violin, cello'. This work with structure at a 'meso' level was reflected in the students' comments about joining ideas, following 'a sort of pattern', placing a solo instrument over the top of a group of instruments. Again, dynamics, pitch set, 'listening to what other people played around us … then join[ing] our ideas and creat[ing] a piece' were identified as ways ideas fit together.
We encouraged students to play the instruments they learn, reflecting the advice of MacGill (1988) and Moore (1990). Journal entries commented on instruments blending, 'sounding nice together', and contrasting with 'different ideas and different instruments', in particular contrasting 'tuned and percussion instruments' and 'orchestral instruments as well as tuned percussion'.
Although the composition was ready for a performance to parents, continual thinking about the composing process appears in the students' final written comments, with many showing little sense of the composition being finished. Several wanted to add new ideas ('a bit of a jazz theme'), take out existing ideas and add new instruments. This ongoing revision of material concurred with Kaschub who found that the group composition experience ensures revision of material occurs (Kaschub, 1997). Some student responses embraced both composition and performance especially in relation to dynamic intensity in sections and for individual instruments. Several 'meso' structural aspects were addressed including silence as a 'join' between sections (too short or too long); beginnings and endings and the gong in this role; and deleting material. One student enjoyed the different sounds 'that we don't usually use in our music lessons', indicating entering a new sound world.
The findings of the study suggest approaches for upper primary class composing - for teachers, students and the composer-in-the-classroom. Engaging students with a composition task involving Asia-Pacific musics through different musical activities can:
- i lead students from pastiche composition through to original composition;
- ii allow prescriptive composition tasks and ideas drawn from imagery and imitating to become part of a wider mix of ideas, rather than dominate;
- iii help students understand that some composing is practice for something further to come (not an endpoint), and this encourages ongoing thinking about musical ideas;
- iv help students acknowledge the ongoing nature of the composing process;
- v encourage a continuation of the Asia-Pacific music aesthetic, through sound and title (titles offered by 6F for their piece included Kailong, Balasia, The Rain Cycle, Through the Mist, Hypnotism, and Tropical Storm).
Everyone brings different knowledge to the composing process. In our project the students brought a knowledge of melodic shapes, rhythms, metre, timbral change, instrument exploration, combining tuned and untuned instruments, combining classroom and their own instruments (including bass guitar, flute and clarinet), flourishes and gestures (what they often called 'sparks'), and register and articulation awareness (including low clarinet and high tremolo violin bowing). The teacher introduced several Asia-Pacific musical sounds and with them different notions of texture (including unison and overlapping melodies), 'shimmering' (tremolos and glissandi), boxed structure, layering ideas, sudden dynamics and more articulation ideas (piano played very low, short and softly). The composer introduced the gamelan, discussed different ways of joining sections to make a cohesive piece - juxtaposing, dovetailing, ragged ending dovetailing, superimposing - offered silence as a 'divider' and an effect, suggested unison chords and introduced extreme dynamics.
- of new musical parameters and new ways of working with known musical parameters;
- to think about how ideas fit together in a musical whole;
- that there is a point in the composing process when new material cannot be introduced but refinement and small adjustments are required;
- that some material really will not fit into the aesthetic of the developing work.
They experienced the richness of classroom and orchestral/popular music instruments playing together and the resulting variety of register and timbral colours. One student wrote that she had taken part in creating a very 'fulfilled and wonderful piece'. The teacher learnt about the importance of recording the developing piece and the value of written student and teacher observations, and found that through these, the girls approached their work in a more serious and committed way. The composer realised that composing and performing are tightly bound together in the class composing experience, rethought the many ways sections of music can be joined, admired the way students could play what became quite complex entries and overlaps, at times pulsed and free together, and discovered the wealth of musical ideas possible from a class of Year 6 students.
1. Terengganu, a sultanate and constitutive state of federal Malaysia, situated in the north eastern corner of peninsular Malaysia, was formerly spelt Trengganu and Tringganu.
3. In 'Rainmaker', individual students sit in a circle and play body percussion (try it with eyes shut). T he leader starts a sound (for example, finger clicking) which is passed around the circle. Then another sound (for example, rubbing palms or stamping on the floor) is passed around.
5. Bonang bass xylophones, metallophone; Gambang xylophone; Saron Peking I glockenspiel; Saron Barong II alto glockenspiel; Gendang double endeddrums; Kenong piano, vibraphone; Gong Kecil small gong; Gong Besar largegong.
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Order your copy of Music of the Spirit: Asian-Pacific
Musical Identity from the AMC Shop at $25/$22.50 (AMC
Diana Blom - AMC Profile (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/blom-diana)
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
Diana Blom is a New Zealand-born composer who has lived in Australia since 1969. She holds a doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Sydney and is a senior lecturer in music at the University of Western Sydney.
Anne Bischoff specialises in teaching music to primary students in the classroom and has had extensive experience working in both primary and secondary education throughout Sydney over the last thirty-five years. She has been the Director of Choral Music at SCEGGS Darlinghurst since 1994.
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