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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Contemplating Motion: a proportional score

On June 9, the Turning Point Ensemble hosted a concert in North Vancouver at which they premiered dozens of new compositions completed by young composers from Seycove Secondary School and Sherwood Park Elementary School. This is part of their "Creating Composers: Nurturing Life-long Musical Expression Through Composition" program, a partnership with Vancouver-area schools that provides opportunities for children to express themselves through composition. Each year, the TPE partners young composers with professional composers to mentor their aspirations and work, and they provide a series of workshops with the musicians of the ensemble to teach effective writing techniques.

This year, they commissioned a short work from me to include on the concert. The professional challenge I faced was to create a work that could be rehearsed and successfully performed with only one short rehearsal. The educational challenge before me was to create a work that displayed new approaches to composition with which the young composers would be less familiar, and to demonstrate how a piece can be conceived of with very simple means and be developed within the constraints of the initial idea. The result was Contemplating Motion for violin, cello, trombone, clarinet, and harp.

I found myself returning to deep-listening-based composition and proportional notation. This manner of scoring music focusses the musicians' attention on the evolving sounds they are making: on the sonic-energy relationship of their own sounds to the sounds that came before and that will come next. In the case of my own score, all of the notes are written out, and there are specific durations that need to be counted, but there is flexibility in the actual timing that each musician chooses in the execution of their notes, except later when a rhythm emerges. You can download the first two pages of the score here.

As you will see from the beginning of the musical score, the music explores the resonance of a low C. Movement is created by "timbral transformation," that is, selective focus on various parts of the spectrum (or overtone series) of the note C. There are only two "chords" in the piece, when the resonance focus shifts to the note D. So there is no traditional harmony or melody in the music, only the exploration of sound. (The music student may notice that a secondary harmonic area is explored in the harp part at the tritone, where the major 3rd and dominant 7th are "common tones" in equal temperament; here the natural and tempered versions of the notes collide. See the second to last bar in the score. Buy the score here.)

When I presented the finished score to the high school class, most were perplexed at what I had created and wondered how to play such music. Many were just putting together their first chord progressions, improvising at their instruments with the familiar materials of music. Some had "sound idea" concepts that were more abstract. But I sensed that proportional notation was entirely new. I did my best to explain how all sound is motion, and that "contemplating motion" could refer not only to rhythm, but to "harmony" – or in my case "resonance" – as well. Certainly a quantum leap for many. To Rob McLeod's credit (their music teacher and leader of the collaboration with TPE), they were already exposed to the concepts through brief encounters of the scores John Cage, and, I sensed, discussions of sound object and musique concrete, though I didn't get a sense that the scores of Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Boulez and Stockhausen had been explored in any depth. But these kids were just getting started!

Working with the Turning Point Ensemble on this music was very rewarding. I found it an interesting exercise to work under the same conditions as the school-aged composers. Most rewarding for me though, was to hear, at the concert, a piece that had clearly been conceived of using my piece as a model. Sure enough, the composer, whom I had not previously met (i.e. she was not one of the students I had tutored), came to me after the dress rehearsal and thanked me for my presentation, saying that, once she saw my score and heard me talk about it, she saw "a way to write down my own piece."

The Turning Point Ensemble and the North Vancouver School District have together created an incredibly rich cultural program for young people in this program, connecting creativity, self-expression, self-confidence, and the thirst for knowledge and new experience in a way that raises a generation of societal leaders. The flexibility of mind and of personality that this kind of program engenders is of great benefit to society, regardless of the final role that any of these young people may play in our society. If we want a society of innovators and high-functioning people, then this sort of program should not only be supported in our public schools, but be considered an essential offering for the high-functioning and/or highly-motivated young person. Instead, the North Vancouver School District has cancelled the program for this coming year, citing lack of funds.

Please consider writing a letter to John Lewis, the "Superintendent of Schools and CEO" for the North Vancouver School District.